Evidence based research provides reliable information to power scientific progress in medicine and engineering. Education, however, has been slow to catch up. In this post I want to talk about what evidence based teaching is and whether democratic schools should welcome it or not.
What it is and what it isn’t…
First, we need to define our terms. The evidence in EBT is not any old evidence. After all, there has always been a wealth of evidence to support whatever hokey form of good practice individual teachers have chosen to employ. “I do it this way because it has always worked for me,” they have said.
Pointing to your own experience is not reliable evidence. You may have strong opinions about the way children learn and should be taught, but your strongly-held opinion has no more validity than someone else’s. That includes the stories you tell, your memories of individual students and the haphazard record of your successes and failures.
Reliable evidence will:
- be tight in focus
- run in blind trials
- have a control
- a large sample size
- measurable outcome
- be repeatable
It will work much better with smaller components of learning. It will not tell us what philosophy our school should have.
You may buck at the word “measurable” because you think that children are already tested and measured too much in school. You may also feel that there is something inherently mysterious about teaching and that clear thinking will only succeed in replacing the broader aims of education with the narrower aim of following a defined curriculum. Neither of these points are bad, but they miss the point.
Evidence based teaching does not tell us what to teach. It merely provides us with the means to test methods we use as teachers. Here is the top ten list from Mike Bell:
- similes and analogies
- note-making and summarizing
- reinforcing effort
- homework and practice
- graphical methods
- cooperative learning
- goals and feedback
- hypothesis testing
- activating prior knowledge
- advance organizers
The list may seem blindingly obvious to an experienced teacher, but you are probably forgetting some of the other strategies that research has shown do not work. These include learning styles, VAK, brain gym, team work (not the same as cooperative learning), drinking water, investing in expensive technologies, class size and whether children wear uniform or not.
The aim is for teachers not to waste their own or their students’ time with superstitious or irrelevant hokum. And, when teaching achieves this, it will perhaps be better able to protect itself from incessant political intereference.
Making the Leap
Education has not made this leap. It still relies on a number of clearly erroneous fallacies:
- values personal experience above evidence: “I don’t care what the research says, I know this works because I have seen it with my own eyes.”
- suffers from confirmation bias: “I really want this to be true, so I am collecting evidence to bolster my claims.”
- overestimates its own influence on the outcomes it measures: “the children are reading- our reading strategy is working.”
- pushes responsibility for failed outcomes onto other agents: “the children are not reading- their parents are terrible.”
Isn’t it time for Some Evidence?
Teachers and academics in the education world have resisted evidence-based work. They feel their independence is under threat. There are also powerful vested interests from publishers to examination boards and the main political parties.
Demed teachers, meanwhile are distrustful, as there is a history of interest groups manipulating statistics. “You can’t trust them,” the argument goes, “they have always lied and distorted.” It is easy to fall into the error of thinking that evidence is subjective: it is my evidence against your evidence, my story against your story.
I think that is a mistake. If, for example, evidence shows that using two colors of pen on the whiteboard will help people learn better, I will do that. There is nothing that contradicts the spirit of democratic education in following an evidence-based model and there is a lot to recommend it. It is better for democratic schools to make their lessons as good and efficient as they possibly can be. That will free up more time for other stuff.
Evidence must be better than superstition as a way of designing schools. It must be better to use good solid information and modify our practice in the light of what does and does not work.
The UK government started investigating the possibilities of evidence-based teaching in 2014. Here is what Ben Goldacre wrote back in 2013 to put this into perspective- EBT
It is slowly making progress. In July 2017 they issued a Research Report which uses the acronym EBT to stand for Evidence Based Teaching. This is what they have to say:
“The EBT policy approach assumes that EBT ultimately has a positive impact on pupil outcomes.
- …assumes that EBT helps and supports school and teacher autonomy.
- …is not predicated on centralist command and control.
- …will be an important tool for helping the profession become increasingly ‘self-improving’.
- …the teaching profession will look less to the department and Ofsted for advice, and more towards the evidence and itself.”
These are all goals that we have sighed for, aren’t they? We should stand behind Evidence-Based Education. Democratic schools should be open with their own evidence, which sometimes does not even enter into consideration in more traditional and hierarchical schools. Humility and common sense demand we modify our practice if it turns out that it does not stand up to the evidence.
What Can Be Gained?
Free schools stand to gain at all levels from a focus on evidence. We are less rigid and hidebound than conventional schools. We open ourselves to the broadest possible application of data and information to good practice. When we do this I am confident that what democratic schools do will emerge as the sanest and most rational alternative to our crippling authoritarian schools.
- Teachers focus on what works- not on supporting hierarchical structures of authority. They are flexible in the way they organize their time and spaces.
- Evidence-based medicine has changed prescription practices. Evidence-based education will not prescribe the same educational experience for all children. If a child can reach targets without going to classes, she should not have to.
- We insist that evidence includes indicators of mental health. We demand that schools accept their part of the responsibility for mental health problems in adolescents and modify their procedures.
- Respecting evidence will allow democratic schools to be professional in a way they have not been in the past.
If democratic schools accept the challenge they will take a huge step forward. My feeling is that the next generation will be unforgiving of fantasists who continue to peddle myths of privileged understanding. “Where is the evidence for that?” they will say.
Democratic schools can make sure they are part of the future- and not just a nice story from the past- by paying close attention to the evidence. They can also be a part of the change by submitting their own unique practices to investigation and scientific trial.