Evidence-based practice Is it just a buzzword?

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I like a good buzzword in education: the embodiment of the zeitgeist. In recent months, evidence-based practice has been anointed as the latest buzzword adorning the altar at which teachers must worship.

This is a bit of a tricky opinion to voice. There will be, no doubt, those who will immediately assume I am “anti-evidence”, but I hope to make a more nuanced case about why we should accept every measure of what others hail as evidence with an equal measure of professional judgement.

Given its polysemic nature, it might be useful to frame this discussion by defining what I mean by evidence. Its meaning can range from unarguable fact to mere indication of something. In the context of teaching and learning, I think we would be wise to avoid zealotry in dealing with evidence, therefore I will define evidence as a sign or indication that something has been shown to work.

Take the example of a recent study by Fisher et al. about “the importance of focused attention for encoding and task performance”, titled Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. The authors of the study found that “young children with immature regulation of focused attention are often placed in elementary-school classrooms containing many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction” and that “children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.”

Alfie Kohn, progressive extraordinaire, took issue immediately with the study’s findings and criticised pointedly its research methods and validity. Kohn wrote:

Even if we strip everything off the walls, those pesky kids will still engage in instructionally useless behaviors like interacting with one another or thinking about things that interest them. The researchers referred to the latter (thinking) as being “distracted by themselves.” Mark that phrase as the latest illustration of the principle that, in the field of education, satire has become obsolete.

What Kohn found so astounding about the study was its failure to account for affective factors. In fact, Dan Willingham, cognitive psychologist and Kohn’s sworn archenemy, joined forces with his nemesis in a special performance of the tired, old pantomime that is the traditional vs progressive debate to decry the study’s findings thus:

Even if we accept that classroom decoration brings a cost to learning, we should remember that teachers have other reasons for brightening their rooms; they want the classroom to be inviting, to feel like a social environment. Would it be more difficult to build a sense of classroom community in the sterile environment?

Hooray for common sense then. What both Kohn and Willingham are saying is that what some hail as evidence is just a small chapter in a much larger book. Children may well do better in tests if you remove all decorations from our classrooms. But is that what we should do though? Children have also been shown to do better in tests if you sit them in rows and encourage rote-learning. But is it what we should do?

Some clearly think so. Some schools, such as the newly founded Michaela School in Brent, believe, among other things, that sitting children in rows, rote-learning and strict discipline equate to academic rigour and, therefore, successful educational outcomes. And they are not alone: many traditionalist teachers subscribe vociferously to their values. And they boast to have evidence on their side.

And this is where the unfortunate dichotomies, the inevitable polarisation and the aforementioned zealotry begin. In a recent speech at the Times Educational Festival at Wellington College, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, set up his stall by stating that “good schools ought to strive to get the best out of every pupil” and then derided “tired teaching orthodoxies that are a throw back to the sixties and seventies”. By using this clever rhetorical device, he made it appear as if you didn’t want schools to get “the best out of every pupil” if you disagreed with him about the “tired teaching orthodoxies”.

Shortly after Sir Michael’s speech, at the same event and as if to realign the festival’s karma, Guy Claxton, Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, was scathing of “those who confuse sophistry and point scoring with understanding and intelligence”. Was he referring to the arguments made by Sir Michael? I don’t know, but his comments were certainly apposite and it felt very much like Sir Michael’s yin had met Claxton’s yang.

Sir Michael would clearly approve of Michaela’s vision. Like them, he believes that academic rigour derives from what he would describe as traditional values. Claxton would argue that there are people “who like to put their OR in” and I wonder whether Sir Michael, the founders of the Michaela School and their supporters were firmly in his sights. Either/ors, Claxton argued, don’t have a place in the real world. What children need from a good education is what he calls “results plus”.

Chatting to Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, it soon becomes clear that he agrees at least this much. Children certainly need to do well in exams, but also in sport, arts, drama… To him – as to most of us – it is not a case of either/or, it’s and, and and and. Robinson elaborates:

I do not expect my daughter to leave school knowing everything there is to know, but I would like her to acquire the habit of learning on her own, of having knowledge, processes, and criteria by which to judge what she is yet to learn.

Robinson’s account in his book of a conversation with writer Bryan Appleyard is quite fascinating. Appleyard told him:

Whenever I see a scientific claim that everything is reducible to a single measurement, I know that it is wrong. Anything complex is not reducible to a single measurement. […] They should learn that science is as questionable a discipline as any other. It’s not something where you have to learn all the equations and then everything is true.

And this brings me back to evidence-based practice. Those who make an eloquent and persuasive case for the need to base practice on what is known to work, like Rob Coe, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, are careful to use words such as “currently” or “it appears that” when evaluating what the evidence suggests. In his lack of zealotry, Coe is at his most compelling and I wonder if, like me, he finds the certainty with which evidence is used to justify ideological stances about how we should be educating children so utterly disquieting.

If after all this you think I am “anti-evidence”, then I have not made my case well enough. I believe passionately that knowing what works is the most powerful engine to drive a teacher’s professional development and to improve educational outcomes for children. However, I don’t want evidence to dictate my practice. I want evidence to inform my practice. There’s a better buzzword for you: Evidence-informed practice.

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  1. Many teachers who have taught since 1980 have seen, accepted, dismissed, used and abused every fad thrown at them. From ‘active learning’ in the 80’s to today, the best teachers integrated the useful bits and dismissed what they didn’t. Jumping on a fad without due diligence makes those people look silly over time. There are many, many embarrassed senior leaders right now who have jumped on the ‘evidence-based practice’ bandwagon. A little bit of everything does you good, my mom used to say; a bit of research evidence, a dollop of knowledge and some interesting activities as a conduit seemed to work for many and still does.

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