The problems with becoming an evidence-based teacher: science and pseudoscience in education

A scientific approach to our teaching methods is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, a healthy skepticism about ones own ideas and those of other people.  It is the ability to see the classroom as a laboratory in which one can observe with an open mind.  One can develop testable questions, gather facts and test predictions but the classroom is a complicated laboratory where there are many issues to consider including cause and effect, validity, replication and generalisability.  Nonetheless, becoming a more evidence-based profession is one of the most important battles we must have in the teaching community but the journey is full of pitfalls and false hopes.

However, this approach is sometimes counter-intuitive and contradicts much received wisdom and ‘best’ practice.  The prevailing voice in school leadership is not usually the one with the most evidence, but those who wear the most pips on their shoulders.  We are all entangled with too much edu-baggage about teaching and learning, that it is sometimes difficult to stand back and be objective.

I qualified into a profession that was obsessed by three-part lessons, learning styles, an evangelical belief in group work and a condemnation and mistrust of chalk and talk.  How quaint some of these ideas seem from my comfy chair of hindsight but at the time I could have recited chapter and verse on why anyone of them were deserved of my time.

But the world turns and it seems we have not stopped learning about learning, and our task now is to arm ourselves with the best evidence for the methods we deploy.  We should be inspired and assured by this growing movement.  For example, I have really enjoyed the Deans for Impact initiatives on the science for learning and their ability to synthesise and breakdown the best ideas from cognitive science.  The EEF toolkit has been revelatory in it’s promotion of metacognition and feedback alongside the seemingly contradictory evidence for things that we once held dear including; teaching assistants, uniform, and the importance of the physical environment.  To be fair, the picture painted by the EEF is a lot more sophisticated and their recommendations come with some pretty robust caveats but it is an epiphany nonetheless.

However, as I gaze into the void of my sixteenth year of teaching I sometimes find myself adrift from my progressive teacher training, questioning my old assumptions and wondering more and more if my beliefs and instincts have been doing more harm than good.  Clearly, my beliefs and instincts need to be put under close scrutiny, kicked around with colleagues, questioned and held up for scrutiny.  So far, so good. This seems like healthy professional spring clean.  Don’t allow a belief about pedagogy or a teaching practice back in until it has paid it’s rent … in evidence.  But what type of evidence am I looking for?

There are many who are more qualified than I am to comment on the nature and quality of research evidence into teaching and learning but even from my lowly standpoint evaluating teaching approaches is a complex one which often requires labyrinthine processes to please the many-faced research gods.  Research methods are not a neutral tool and they are deeply intwined with deeper epistemological concerns.

At least in medieval times, those who objected to a scientific approach could use divine authority to reject the findings.  In late modernity, when people disagree with one lot of evidence they just reject it by claiming a superior type of science.  From a practitioner point of view, this is all very confusing when one study is seemingly trumped by another as being closer to the truth.

Furthermore, not all who make the claims of superior truths are open to question and healthy skepticism.  The rejection is often ideological rather than empirical but how are we to separate out the disparate truths that emerge from this picture.  I struggle enough to keep up with the competing health claims made for and against red wine.   In this dystopian future, education will become a battle-ground of warring sides with claims and counter-claims.

How can we separate out the science from the pseudoscience?

It seems to me that education is full of pseudoscience – fake experts looking to sell us the next big thing.    Snake oil salesman who creep into our thoughts, play with our emotions and plant the seeds of groupthink and which become parroted back and forth.  However, it can be extremely difficult to spot the science from the pseudoscience.

Firstly, the ‘object of study’ in education seems resistant to the kinds of measurement and standardisation found in the ‘normal’ sciences.  How do we measure meaningful progress anyway?  At times like these, I am persuaded by those who argue that all educational data is a social construct.  But then, so what if it is?  Perhaps it does not accurately capture the learning, but the realist in me thinks that we could learn to embrace it’s imperfections.

Secondly, proving cause and effect in education studies is notoriously complex and we should remember that correlation is not causation.  There is a worrying relationship between the number of films that Nicolas Cage has starred in and the number of people who have drowned by falling into a swimming pool.  We should not jump to banning Nicolas Cage movies, although there is a special place in movie hell for his efforts in National Treasure(2004).



Thirdly, sample size and generalisation.  Replication of the studies is an essential but tricky task.  Is evidence from key stage 3 useful for key stage 5 and vice versa.

Fourthly, we should be wary of the illusion of objectivity.  Research is not free of our own values, biases, ideologies, philosophies – it is value-laden.  Values will influence every step of the research process;  choice of topic, methods used, sample chosen and interpretation of the data.  If the idea of value-free research is a myth – how do we recognise and make sense of the values embedded in the process.

As Atul Gawande argue we can have no special authority on the truth but we can become better at seeking and evaluating the truths that are presented to us. We need to hold onto the healthy skepticism in the classroom and keep kicking our ideas around until they earn their keep. We should rebut the bad science and trumpet the facts of the good science.

There is strength in numbers, we all need to approach this aware of the baggage we bring to the table, no one can do this battle alone.  As Alex Quigley puts it we should have strong opinions weakly held and surround ourselves with critical friends who can help unpick our thinking and challenge our biases.

In terms of evaluating the usefulness of educational practice it becomes less important about what you think but how and why you think it?