This article is the first of a five-part series about how evidence can inform classroom practice.
The movement toward “evidence-based practice” in the classroom has been growing, to the point where this phrase is prominent in the pronouncements of politicians, media commentators, policymakers, researchers, and teachers.
My concern is that the consequence of these assumptions is an education system in which limited instructional approaches are prescribed. The prescription of these approaches would restrict opportunities for teachers to make judgments that are sensitive to and relevant for their own students and settings, undermining their capacity to fulfil the demands of the profession. I fear that regardless of the goals of the movement, the outcome will be undemocratic, in that open, intelligent, and above all, democratic debate about the purposes, contexts, and practices of education will be silenced. (Before you cry “slippery slope!” please know that I will be ever so pleased if the movement achieves an elevation of the position of research and evidence in education practice and policy, without prescribing practice and restricting the professional activity of teachers.)
I am in support of teachers using robust evidence to make rational judgments about educational practices. I am not arguing against the use of evidence to inform practice. The question at this level is not whether or not to use evidence, but about what role evidence should play in teacher decision-making.
Assumptions problematic for classroom practice
Claims that classroom practice must be “evidence-based” are often underpinned by the problematic assumptions that:
- Education, evidence, and research are (or can be) value-free.
- Evidence can tell us causal rules for action in education.
- What is evidenced as effective is desirable, and desirable outcomes are measurable using standardised, quantitative measures.
These assumptions touch on issues of the quality of teacher’s decisions about their professional practice, and the quality of education research. In this series of posts, I will explore, and attempt to refute, some of the assumptions that underpin evidence-based practice claims. I will argue that these propositions are at best superficial, and at worst fallacious. Claims that classroom practice must be “evidence-based” ignore or deny that:
- A teacher’s role is to make informed and intelligent decisions about practice to achieve various outcomes with and for students in their classes.
- Academic achievement, though central, is not the only intended purpose of education.
- Research has both a cultural and an instrumental role to play in informing educational practice.
- Education, unlike science, involves interactions between related factors that are not tangible or concrete.
- What is “effective” may not be desirable or appropriate.
- Educational practice is highly contextualised.
- Evidence from RCTs describe patterns in populations, but may not be relevant to particular individuals.
- Evidence is one of several pieces of information that can inform a teacher to make decisions.
I would also like to see more actual evidence and reasoning made to support claims about practice than simply that practices are “evidence-based”.
A few others have considered this issue in their own blogs, notably José Picardo in his post The problem with evidence based practice, and Corinne Campbell in her post Evidence-Based Practice: Supporting decisions or a stick to beat us with?. Both José and Corinne are practising classroom teachers; José in the UK, and Corinne in Sydney, Australia. José worries about the inflexibility of prescribing practice on the basis of data, usually quantitative, and highly contextualised, which may or may not be valid for any other context. Corinne worries that this evidence will be used to prescribe standardised instruction, which would be a disservice to both teachers and students. Both José and Corinne’s posts have informed my thoughts for this one, and I strongly encourage you to go and read their posts, too.
A version of this piece has appeared on Charlotte's blog, Hypothetical Thinking.