Author: Holloway, Jessica, Hedegaard, Maria
Type of paper: Symposium
Recent events—such as the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, far-right extremism and racially-motivated violence—have prompted us to consider a number of questions about democracy in modern society (see also Howell & Moe, 2020; Mounk, 2018). Institutions once granted the authority to give us truth (e.g., government officials, media, schools) have become sites of deep mistrust and, according to former US President Trump, ‘the enemy of the people’ (see also Rosenblum & Muirhead, 2020). Across the globe, political strategies are effectively sowing discord and delegitimising oppositional viewpoints, while criticism is framed as immoral, and expertise is denied the authority it once occupied (Rosenblum & Muirhead, 2020). This shift in political discourse presents urgent questions about the principles of democracy and the extent to which democratic institutions can persevere during these tumultuous times (Levitsky & Ziblatt 2018). As one of these democratic institutions, schools—often a site of contestation over societal values—are expected to teach about and operate within the democratic ideals that define free societies. However, scholars have pointed to marketisation, standardisation and datafication as some of the many factors (re)shaping schools in ways that undermine the democratic potential of education (see, for example, Riddle & Apple, 2019). In doing so, they argue, schools have become sites for prioritising market ideals that (1) exacerbate problems of inequality related to matters like race and class, (2) create channels through which external actors can insert themselves into the notionally ‘public’ institution of education, and (3) create conditions where teacher expertise and authority are reconstituted in terms of technical and evidence-based practice and compliance (see also Holloway, 2021). With a focus on this latter issue, we use this paper to problematise the ‘evidence’ discourse that has become a key priority of most educational systems worldwide (Krejsler, 2013; Wiseman 2010). Specifically, we are interested in how the logics of ‘evidence-based practice’ structures what teachers can say, do and be. We draw on policy sociology and democratic theory (Connolly 2005; Foucault 1977) to illustrate how ‘evidence-based practice’ not only limits teachers’ capacities to exercise professional discretion, but also jeopardises the democratic project of schooling more broadly. In doing so, teachers are limited in their capacity to respond to the evolving and emergent needs of their students. Borrowing from Connolly, we see this as detrimental for democratic institutions, as it cripples the institution from evolving as circumstances inevitably require.