Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance – Bertrand Russell
There are no references at the bottom of this blog. No bibliography. It’s just a reflection concocted after a rather average Chinese takeaway and an exceptionally good glass of white Rioja. If you’re looking for something a little bit more academic and rigorous, then you probably ought to stop reading now.
You’re still here. Brilliant. Thanks for the vote of confidence. So, what is the problem with evidence? After all, evidence is proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, authentication, attestation, documentation; support for, backing for, reinforcement for, grounds for. Nothing wrong with that.
Or is there? Actually, in education, there is. Evidence based practice is all well and good if the evidence – both quantitative and qualitative – is sound, comprehensive and substantive. However, unlike other fields of science, evidence of what works in education remains patchy – the best and most comprehensive bodies of educational research and evidence have come from attempts to synthesise the myriad of small scale research studies. To makes matters worse, some of the most convincing evidence in education is qualitative, and it is promptly rejected by the those who focus, shortsightedly in my view, merely on quantitative data. In education there is no equivalent of the laws of thermodynamics, nor will there ever be.
Why not? Because, in practice, there is an infinite number of variables involved in researching any aspect teaching and learning. I have a personality. So have you. So have your pupils. I have a set of biases. So have you. So have your pupils. And their parents. All of these factors and others ranging from class size to ability profile, from social background to time of day, ensure that what works for me might not work for you and vice versa.
So, is it the case that evidence in education cannot prove, confirm, substantiate or support teaching and learning? The answer has to be an ambiguous yes and no. Yes because it can certainly shed light on the wider practice of teaching and the larger-scale processes involved in learning. But also a cautious no. Because of the innumerable factors at play, the analysis of evidence in education lends itself to a great deal of subjectivity. Hence all the I’m right/you’re wrong arguments.
Hang on, are you saying evidence isn’t valuable? No, of course not. Evidence is really valuable. But is it always relevant? I would suggest that teachers handle the evidence thrown at them with care and that they would be well served by exercising their professional judgment and their right to doubt, which they have earned through their own practice.
I do worry that the recent proliferation in evidence-based practice proponents, whist clearly well-intentioned, are simply reducing teaching to a set of rules to follow, a miracle cure to the disease they perceive us to be suffering from. Do it this way and you’ll be alright, they promise. However, as I hope to have established, teaching and learning are much more nuanced and sophisticated than that.
So, should we be mixing second-hand evidence into a miracle formula for teachers to consume? Or should we be encouraging and empowering teachers to turn the concept on its head and pursue practice-based research instead of research-based practice?
I also worry about the notion of teachers as consumers of evidence. I’d much rather belong to a profession that is evaluative and flexible, rather than dogmatic and intransigent about what works or doesn’t and for whom.
In my mind evidence ought to plant the seed of doubt. Evidence should always be the beginning of a journey, not its completion. If you find the concept challenging, then forget you ever read this and go back to the comfort and safety of your certainties.