evidence-based policy

The problem with using scientific evidence in education (why teachers should stop trying to be more like doctors)

For teachers to be like doctors, and base practice on more “scientific” research, might seem like a good idea. But medical doctors are already questioning the narrow reliance in medicine on randomised controlled trials that Australia seems intent on implementing in education.

In randomised controlled trials of new drugs, researchers get two groups of comparable people with a specific problem and give one group the new drug and the other group the old drug or a placebo.  No one knows who gets what. Not the doctor, not the patient and not the person assessing the outcomes. Then statistical analysis of the results informs guidelines for clinical practice. 

In education, though, students are very different from each other. Unlike those administering placebos and real drugs in a medical trial, teachers know if they are delivering an intervention. Students know they are getting one thing or another. The person assessing the situation knows an intervention has taken place. Constructing a reliable educational randomised controlled trial is highly problematic and open to bias.

As a doctor and teacher thinking, writing and researching together we believe that a more honest understanding of the ambivalences and failures of evidence-based medicine is essential for education.

Before Australia decides teachers need to be like doctors, we want to tell you what is happening and give you some reasons why evidence based medicine itself is said to be in crisis

1. Randomised controlled trials are just one kind of evidence

Medicine now recognises a much broader evidence base than just randomised controlled trials. Other kinds of medical evidence include: practical “on-the-job” expertise; professional knowledge; insights provided by other research such as case studies; intuition; wisdom gained from listening to patient histories and discussions with patients that allow for shared decision-making or negotiation.

Privileging randomised controlled trials allows them to become sticks that beat practitioners into uniformity of practice, no matter what their patients want or need. Such practitioners become “cookbook” doctors or, in education, potentially, “cookbook” teachers. The best and most recent forms of evidence based medicine value a broad range of evidence and do not create hierarchies of evidence. Education policy needs to consider this carefully and treat all forms of evidence equally.

2. Medicine can be used as a bully

Teaching is a feminised profession, with a much lower status than medicine. It is easy for science to exert a masculinist authority over teachers, who are required to be ever more scientific to seem professional.  They are called on to be phallic teachers, using data, tools, tests, rubrics, standards, benchmarks, probes and scientific trials, rather than “soft” skills of listening, empathising, reflecting and sharing.

A Western scientific evidence-base for practice similarly does not value Indigenous knowledges or philosophies of learning. Externally mandated guidelines also negate the concepts of student voice and negotiated curriculum. While confident doctors know the randomised controlled trial-based statistics and effect sizes need to be read with scepticism, this is not so easy for many teachers. If randomised controlled trial-based guidelines are to rule teaching, teachers will also potentially be monitored for compliance with guidelines they may not fully understand or accept, and which may potentially harm their students.

3. Evidence based medicine is about populations, not people

While medical randomised controlled trials save lives by demonstrating the broad effects of interventions, they make individuals and their needs harder to perceive and respect.  Randomised controlled trial-based guidelines can mean that diverse people are forced to conform to simplistic ideals. Rather than starting with the patient, the doctor starts with the rule. Is this what we want for teaching? When medical guidelines are applied in rigid ways, patients can be harmed.

Trials cannot be done on every single kind of person and so inevitably, many individuals are forced to have treatments that will not benefit them at all, or that are at odds with their wishes and beliefs. Educators need to ensure that teachers, not bureaucrats or researchers, remain the authority in their classrooms.

5. Scientific evidence gives rise to gurus

Evidence-based practice can give rise to the cult of the guru. Researchers such as John Hattie, and their trademarked programs like “Visible Learning” based on apparently infallible science, can rapidly colonise and dominate education. Yet their medicalised glamour disguises the reality that there is no universal and enduring formula for “what works”.

In 2009, in his book Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement Hattie advised that, based on evidence, all healthy people should take aspirin to prevent heart attacks. Yet also in 2009, new medical evidence “proved” that the harms in healthy people taking aspirin outweigh the benefits.

In 2009 Hattie said class size does not matter. In 2014, further research found that reducing class size has an important and lasting impact, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While medical-style guidelines may seem to have come from God, such guidelines, even in medicine are often multiple and contradictory. The “cookbook” teacher will always be chasing the latest guideline, disempowered by top-down interference in the classroom.

In medicine, over five years, fifty percent of guideline recommendations are overturned by new evidence. A comparable situation in education would create unimaginable turmoil for teachers.

6. Evidence-based practice risks conflicts of interest

Educational publishers and platforms are very interested in “scientific” evidence.  If a researcher can “prove” an intervention works and should be applied to all, this means big dollars. Randomised controlled trials in medicine routinely produce outcomes that are to the benefit of industry. Only certain trials get funded. Much unfavourable research is never published. Drug and medical companies set agendas rather than responding to patient needs, in what has been described as a guideline “factory”.

Imagine how this will play out in education. Do we want what happens in classrooms to be dictated by profit driven companies, or student-centred teachers?

What needs to happen?

We call for an urgent halt to the imposition of ‘evidence-based’ education on Australian teachers, until there a fuller understanding of the benefits and costs of narrow, statistical evidence-based practice. In particular, education needs protection from the likely exploitation of evidence-based guidelines by industries with vested interests.

Rather than removing teacher agency and enforcing subordination to gurus and data-based cults, education needs to embrace a wide range of evidence and reinstate the teacher as the expert who decides whether or not a guideline applies to each student.

Pretending teachers are doctors, without acknowledging the risks and costs of this, leaves students consigned to boring, standardised and ineffective cookbook teaching. Do we want teachers to start with a recipe, or the person in front of them?

Here is our paper for those who want more: A broken paradigm? What education needs to learn from evidence-based medicine by Lucinda McKnight and Andy Morgan

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a pre-service teacher educator and senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is also a qualified health and fitness professional. She is interested in the use of scientific and medical metaphor in education. Lucinda can be found on Twitter@LucindaMcKnigh8

Dr Andy Morgan is a British Australian medical doctor and senior lecturer in general practice at Monash University, Melbourne. He has an MA in Clinical Education from the Institute of Education, UCL, London. His research interests are in consultation skills and patient-centred care. He is a former fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and current fellow of the Australian Royal College of General Practitioners.



What’s good ‘evidence-based’ practice for classrooms? We asked the teachers, here’s what they said

Calls for Australian schools and teachers to engage in ‘evidence-based practice’ have become increasingly loud over the past decade. Like ‘quality’, it’s hard to argue against evidence or the use of evidence in education, but also like ‘quality’, the devil’s in the detail: much depends on what we mean by ‘evidence’, what counts as ‘evidence’, and who gets to say what constitutes good ‘evidence’ of practice.

In this post we want to tell you about the conversations around what ‘evidence’ means when people talk about evidence-based practice in Australian schools, and importantly we want to tell you about our research into what teachers think good evidence is.

Often when people talk about ‘evidence’ in education they are talking about two different types of evidence. The first is the evidence of teacher professional judgment collected and used at classroom level involving things like student feedback and teacher self-assessment. The second is ‘objective’ or clinical evidence collected by tools like system-wide standardised tests.

Evidence of teacher professional judgment

This type of evidence is represented in the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework. For example, the framework suggests that good evidence of teachers’ practice is rich and complex, requiring that teachers possess and use sharp and well-honed professional judgement. It says: “an important part of effective professional practice is collecting evidence that provides the basis for ongoing feedback, reflection and further development. The complex work of teaching generates a rich and varied range of evidence that can inform meaningful evaluations of practice for both formative and summative purposes” (p.6). It goes on to suggest that sources of this kind of evidence might include observation, student feedback, parent feedback and teacher self-assessment and reflection, among others.

‘Objective’ evidence

The second discussion around evidence promotes good evidence of practice as something that should be ‘objective’ or clinical, something that should be independent of the ‘subjectivity’ of teacher judgement. We see this reflected in, for example, the much lauded “formative assessment tool” announced in the wake of Gonski 2.0 and to be developed by KPMG. The tool will track every child and ‘sound alarms’ if a child is slipping behind. It aims to remedy the purportedly unreliable nature of assessment of student learning that hasn’t been validated by standardising formative assessment practices. Indeed, the Gonski 2.0 report is very strongly imbued with the idea that evidence of learning that relies on teacher professional judgement is in need of being overridden by more objective measures.  

But what do teachers themselves think good evidence is?

We’ve been talking to teachers about their understanding and use of evidence, as part of our Teachers, Educational Data and Evidence-informed Practice project. We began with 21 interviews with teachers and school leaders in mid-2018, and have recently run an online questionnaire that gained over 500 responses from primary and secondary teachers around Australia.

Our research shows that teachers clearly think deeply about what constitutes good evidence of their practice. For many of them, the fact that students are engaged in their learning provides the best evidence of good teaching. Teachers were very expansive and articulate about what the indicators of such engagement are:

I know I’m teaching well based on how well my students synthesise their knowledge and readily apply it in different contexts. Also by the quality of their questions they ask me and each other in class. They come prepared to debate. Also when they help each other and are not afraid to take risks. When they send me essays and ideas they might be thinking about. Essentially I know I’m teaching well because the relationship is positive and students can articulate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and can also show they understand, by teaching their peers. (Secondary teacher, NSW)

Furthermore, teachers know that ‘assessment’ is not something that stands independent of them – that the very act of using evidence to inform practice involves judgement. Their role in knowing their students, knowing about learning, and assessing and supporting their students to increase their knowledge and understanding is crucial. Balanced and thoughtful assessment of student learning relies on knowledge of how to assess, and of what constitutes good evidence.

Good evidence is gathering a range of pieces of student work to use to arrive at a balanced assessment. I believe I am teaching well when the student data shows learning and good outcomes. (Primary teacher, SA)

Gathering good evidence of teaching and learning is an iterative process, that is it is a process of evaluating and adjusting that teachers constantly repeat and build on. It is part of the very fabric of teaching, and something that good teachers do every day in order to make decisions about what needs to happen next.

I use strategies like exit cards sometimes to find out about content knowledge and also to hear questions from students about what they still need to know/understand. I use questioning strategies in class and make judgements based on the answers or further questions of my students. (Secondary teacher, Vic)

I get immediate feedback each class from my students.  I know them well and can see when they are engaged and learning and when I’m having very little effect. (Secondary teacher, Qld)

Where does NAPLAN sit as ‘evidence’ for teachers?

Teachers are not afraid to reflect on and gather evidence of their practice, but too often, calls for ‘evidence-based practice’ in education ignore the evidence that really counts. Narrow definitions of evidence where it is linked to external testing are highly problematic. While external testing is part of the puzzle, it can be harmful to use that evidence for purposes beyond what it can really tell us – as one of us has argued before. And the teachers in our study well understood this. For them, NAPLAN data, for instance, was bottom of the list when it comes to evidence of their practice, as seen in the chart below.

This doesn’t mean they discount the potentially, perhaps partially, informative value in such testing (after all, about 72% think it’s at least a ‘somewhat’ valid and reliable form of evidence), but it does mean that, in their view, the best evidence is that which is tied to the day to day work that goes on in their classrooms.

Evidence rated from not useful to extremely useful by teachers in our survey

Teachers value a range of sources of evidence of their practice, placing particular emphasis on that which has a front row seat to their work, their own reflections and observations, and those of the students they teach. Perhaps this is because they need this constant stream of information to enable them to make the thousands of decisions they make about their practice in the course of a day – or an hour, or a minute. The ‘complex work of teaching’ does not need a formalised, ‘objective’ tool to help it along. Instead, we need to properly recognise the complexity of teaching, and the inherent, interwoven necessity of teacher judgement that makes it what it is.

What do teachers want?

Teachers were very clear about what they didn’t want.

Teachers are time poor. We are tired. It sounds good to do all this extra stuff but unless we are given more time it will just be another layer of pressure. (Secondary teacher, NSW)

Teachers believe in and want to rely on useful data but they don’t have the time to do it well. (Primary teacher, NSW)

It must be practical, helpful and not EXTRA. (Primary teacher, Vic)

They don’t want “extra stuff” to do.

They want relevant, high quality and localised professional learning. They want to better understand and work with a range of forms of useful data and research. They particularly find in-school teacher research with support useful, along with access to curated readings with classroom value. Social media also features as a useful tool for teachers.

Our research is ongoing. Our next task is to work further with teachers to develop and refine resources to support them in these endeavours.

We believe teachers should be heard more clearly in the conversations about evidence; policy makers and other decision-makers need to listen to teachers. The type of evidence that teachers want and can use should be basic to any plan around ‘evidence-based’ or ‘evidence-informed’ teaching in Australian schools.

Dr Nicole Mockler is Associate Professor of Education, at the Sydney School of  Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She is a former teacher and  school leader, and her research and writing primarily focuses on education policy and  politics and teacher professional identity and learning. Her recent scholarly books  include Questioning the Language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming  meaning (Routledge, 2018) and Engaging with student voice in research, education and  community: Beyond legitimation and guardianship (Springer 2015), both co-authored  with Susan Groundwater-Smith. Nicole is currently Editor in Chief of The Australian  Educational Researcher.Nicole is on Twitter @nicolemockler

Dr Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the sociology of education and education policy in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. Meghan completed her PhD with the University of Sydney in 2018. Meghan is on Twitter@meghanrstacey

Here’s what is going wrong with ‘evidence-based’ policies and practices in schools in Australia

An academic‘s job is, quite often, to name what others might not see. Scholars of school reform in particular are used to seeing paradoxes and ironies. The contradictions we come across are a source of intellectual intrigue, theoretical development and at times, humour. But the point of naming them in our work is often a fairly simple attempt to get policy actors and teachers to see what they might not see when they are in the midst of their daily work. After all, one of the advantages of being in ‘the Ivory Tower’ is having the opportunity to see larger, longer-term patterns of human behaviour.

This blog is an attempt to continue this line of endeavour. Here I would like to point out some contradictions in current public rhetoric about the relationship between educational research and schooling – focusing on teaching practices and curriculum for the moment.

The call for ‘evidenced-based’ practice in schools

By now we have all seen repeated calls for policy and practice to be ‘evidence-based’. On the one hand, this is common sense – a call to restrain the well-known tendency of educational reforms to fervently push one fad after another, based mostly on beliefs and normative appeals (that is messages that indicate what one should or should not do in a certain situation). And let’s be honest, these often get tangled in party political debates – between ostensible conservatives and supposed progressives. The reality is that both sides are guilty of pushing reforms with either no serious empirical bases or half-baked re-interpretation of research – and both claiming authority based on that ‘research.’ Of course, not all high quality research is empirical – nor should it all be – but the appeal to evidence as a way of moving beyond stalemate is not without merit. Calling for empirical adjudication or verification does provide a pathway to establish more secure bases for justifying what reforms and practices ought to be implemented.

There are a number of ways in which we already know empirical analysis can now move educational reform further, because we can name very common educational practices for which we have ample evidence that the effects of those practices are not what advocates intended. For example, there is ample evidence that NAPLAN has been implemented in a manner that directly contradicts what some of its advocates intended; but the empirical experience has been that NAPLAN has become far more high-stakes than intended and has carried the consequences of narrowing curriculum, a consequence its early advocates said would not happen. (Never mind that many of us predicted this. That’s another story.) This is an example of where empirical research can serve the vital role of assessing the difference between intended and experienced results.

Good research can turn into zealous advocacy

So on a general level, the case for evidence-based practice has a definite value. But let’s not over-extend this general appeal, because we also have plenty of experience of seeing good research turn into zealous advocacy with dubious intent and consequence. The current over-extensions of the empirical appeal have led paradigmatic warriors to push the authority of their work well beyond its actual capacity to inform educational practice. Here, let me name two forms of this over-extension.

Synthetic reviews

Take the contemporary appeal to summarise studies of specific practices as a means of deciphering which practices offer the most promise in practice. (This is called a ‘synthetic review’. John Hattie’s well-known work would be an example). There are, of course, many ways to conduct synthetic reviews of previous research – but we all know the statistical appeal of meta-analyses, based on one form or another of aggregating effect sizes reported in research, has come to dominate the minds of many Australian educators (without a lot of reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of reviews).

So if we take the stock standard effect size compilation exercise as authoritative, let us also note the obvious constraints implied in that exercise. First, to do that work, all included previous studies have to have measured an outcome that is seen to be the same outcome. This implies that outcome is a) actually valuable and b) sufficiently consistent to be consistently measured. Since most research that fits this bill has already bought the ideology behind standardised measures of educational achievement, that’s its strongest footing. And it is good for that. These forms of analysis are also often not only about teaching, since the practices summarised often are much more than just teaching, but include pre-packaged curriculum as well (e.g. direct instruction research assumes previously set, given curriculum is being implemented).

Now just think about how many times you have seen someone say this or that practice has this or that effect size without also mentioning the very restricted nature of the studied ‘cause’ and measured outcome.

Simply ask ‘effect on what?’ and you have a clear idea of just how limited such meta-analyses actually are.

Randomised Control Trials

Also keep in mind what this form of research can actually tell us about new innovations: nothing directly. This last point applies doubly to the now ubiquitous calls for Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). By definition, RCTs cannot tell us what the effect of an innovation will be simply because that innovation has to already be in place to do an RCT at all. And to be firm on the methodology, we don’t need just one RCT per innovation, but several – so that meta-analyses can be conducted based on replication studies.

This isn’t an argument against meta-analyses and RCTs, but an appeal to be sensible about what we think we can learn from such necessary research endeavours.

Both of these forms of analysis are fundamentally committed to rigorously studying single cause-effect relationships, of the X leads to Y form, since the most rigorous empirical assessment of causality in this tradition is based on isolating the effects of everything other than the designed cause – the X of interest. This is how you specify just what needs to be randomised. Although RCTs in education are built from the tradition of educational psychology that sought to examine generalised claims about all of humanity where randomisation was needed at the individual student level, most reform applications of RCTs will randomise whatever unit of analysis best fits the intended reform. Common contemporary forms of this application will randomise teachers or schools in this or that innovation. The point of that randomisation is to find effects that are independent of the differences between whatever is randomised.

Research shows what has happened, not what will happen

The point of replications is to mitigate against known human flaws (biases, mistakes, etc) and to examine the effect of contexts. This is where our language about what research ‘says’ needs to be much more precise than what we typically see in news editorials and twitter. For example, when phonics advocates say ‘rigorous empirical research has shown phonics program X leads to effect Y’, don’t forget the background presumptions. What that research may have shown is that when phonics program X was implemented in a systemic study, the outcomes measured were Y. What this means is that the claims which can reasonably be drawn from such research are far more limited than zealous advocates hope. That research studied what happened, not what will happen.

Such research does NOT say anything about whether or not that program, when transplanted into a new context, will have the same effect. You have to be pretty sure the contexts are sufficiently similar to make that presumption. (Personally I am quite sceptical about crossing national boundaries with reforms, especially into Australia.)

Fidelity of implementation studies and instruments

More importantly, such studies cannot say anything about whether or not reform X can actually be implemented with sufficient ‘fidelity’ to expect the intended outcome. This reality is precisely why researchers seeking the ‘gold standard’ of research are now producing voluminous ‘fidelity of implementation’ studies and instruments. The Gates Foundation has funded many of these in the US, and I see intended publications from them all the time in my editorial role. Essentially fidelity of implementation measures attempt to estimate the degree to which the new program has been implemented as intended, often by analysing direct evidence of the implementation.

Each time I see one of these studies, it begs the question: ‘If the intent of the reform is to produce the qualities identified in the fidelity of implementation instruments, doesn’t the need of the fidelity of information suggest the reform isn’t readily implemented?’ And why not use the fidelity of implementation instrument itself if that’s what you really think has the effect? For a nice critique and re-framing of this issue see Tony Bryk’s Fidelity of Implementation: Is It the Right Concept?

The reality of ‘evidence-based’ policy

This is where the overall structure of the current push for evidence-based practices becomes most obvious. The fundamental paradox of current educational policy is that most of it is intended to centrally pre-determine what practices occur in local sites, what teachers do (and don’t do) – and yet the policy claims this will lead to the most advanced, innovative curriculum and teaching. It won’t. It can’t.

What it can do is provide a solid basis of knowledge for teachers to know and use in their own professional judgements about what is the best thing to do with their students on any given day. It might help convince schools and teachers to give up on historical practices and debates we are pretty confident won’t work. But what will work depends entirely on the innovation, professional judgement and, as Paul Brock once put it, nous of all educators.

 

James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform. 

Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science, in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in press).

James is on Twitter @jgladwig