Undercover Economist

April 26, 2013 6:19 pm

An evidence revolution

Teachers are better placed than anybody to generate new research questions, based on years of observation of subtleties that would escape any educational statistician
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger of a school building©Raymond Biesinger

A while ago, my daughter’s school explained to parents that they were reorganising literacy classes, moving to mixed-ability groups. My wife asked a simple question: “What is the evidence behind the decision to change?” The result was blank incomprehension. Evidence?

Only a couple of generations ago, most doctors had a similar attitude to evidence-based practice. Fancy statistical procedures were thought to be no match for experience, especially since every case was unique. Randomised trials were all very well in theory, but unethical in practice. That scepticism has now been completely transformed in medicine: evidence trumps seniority, while individual judgment is bolstered by online libraries full of careful analysis.

Teachers have allowed themselves to be left behind in the evidence revolution. I sympathise with the profession which is constantly second-guessed by parents and school inspectors. Teachers have grown used to fad after fad being hurled at them from the Department for Education.

But I agree with Ben Goldacre – epidemiologist and author of an excellent polemic on evidence-based education commissioned by the DfE itself – when he argues that if the teaching profession embraced the evidence-based approach, it would enhance rather than diminish its independence from government. The facts, after all, rarely slot neatly into political ideologies. At a recent dinner organised by the Wellcome Trust, the British educational establishment – with, alas, only one teacher present – discussed the issue. The longstanding tension between teachers and governments was clearly recognised as an obstacle – but it’s one that can be sidestepped if teachers themselves seize the evidence agenda.

This is about much more than simply running randomised trials comparing different approaches to teaching. Consider the situation in clinical practice, as outlined by Professor Jonathan Shepherd, who argues that the secret is a tight plait of research, practice and continuing education. Trainee doctors are taught by practising clinicians. Those clinicians are also researchers, whose research agenda is closely influenced by their clinical experience. Research networks link together qualified researchers with GPs who have patients and research ideas. And once qualified, doctors continue to have the latest evidence pushed under their noses in the likes of the British Medical Journal.

In short, evidence-based practice in medicine isn’t a case of doctors, brainwashed into believing whatever clinical trials tell them, passively awaiting instructions. It’s a two-way street, where some of the best ideas for research are suggested by practitioners, and best practice spreads sideways from clinician to clinician rather than being handed down by diktat. There is nothing fundamental about education that makes this impossible – witness the “journal clubs” in Singapore and Shanghai, where teachers discuss and evaluate the latest research.

One can see why Dr Goldacre calls this a “prize”. Teachers are better placed than anybody to generate new research questions, based on years of observation of subtleties that would escape any educational statistician. There is, at last, some institutional support: the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, for instance; or the Education Endowment Foundation, two years old this month, which is already running 50 randomised trials in schools, with a grant of £125m from the DfE.

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize.

Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’

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