The UK is gripped by referendum fever. Experts are being wheeled out left, right and centre. These experts can help us decide what to believe, but – and it’s a big but – they cannot tell us what to believe.
The analogy between the role of experts in this referendum and in education is an interesting one to explore. Experts and experiments are vital to decision making in education. Ben Goldacre’s superb ‘Building Evidence into Education’ concludes as follows:
Now we recognise that being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn’t about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials; nor is it about ignoring the evidence, and following your hunches and personal experiences instead. We do best, by using the right combination of skills to get the best job done.
Evidence and experts are indeed vital to making informed decisions. Depending on the robustness of the evidence available, ignoring evidence is at least naïve and at worst negligent. A case in point is ‘Brain Gym’. Ben Goldacre excoriates the pseudo-scientific neuro-babble that is ‘Brain Gym’ in the opening chapter of his best seller ‘Bad Science’. He is right to do so. There is not a jot of evidence to support the claims made by proponents of this intervention.
At the beginning of this academic year Nick Gibb addressed ResearchEd. Reflecting on the reasons behind the creation for the EEF, he said the following:
We created the EEF due to a belief that high-quality, robust research could empower classroom teachers, and I firmly believe it can. But, such teachers need to strive to make their voices heard.
If anyone here still has to include learning styles in their lesson plans, please direct your senior leaders to Harold Pashler’s comprehensive literature review which lays bare the want of evidence to support learning styles. If you are criticised by colleagues for implementing frequent factual recall tests – so often characterised as ‘mere regurgitation’ – please direct your colleagues towards the work of Robert Bjork, which shows that frequent testing strengthens long-term memory. If your performance management is still based on termly do-or-die lesson observations, direct your senior leaders towards the work of Rob Coe which shows such observations are not just stressful, but provenly imprecise. And if your school still practises Brain Gym, then God help you.
Evidence and expert opinion can liberate and enlighten. It frees us from the epistemological limitations of our immediate surroundings.
As Ben Goldacre correctly notes, there is more to medicine and teaching than ‘robotically following the numerical output’ of RCTs. I am enormously proud of my younger brother who recently became a doctor. My younger sister will soon accomplish the same feat. They both have the compassion, intellect and integrity to make amazing medics and I look forward to watching their careers blossom. Evidence will necessarily play a crucial role in their everyday working lives, but evidence cannot provide them with the answers to the myriad of problems they will face day to day. Whilst sociological research may help inform how to disclose to patients that their condition is terminal, there is no evidence that can tell them exactly what to say. Evidence about survival rates may help inform decisions about when to withdraw treatment to a critically ill patient, but the decision will be theirs and no amount of evidence can tell them the right moment to allow nature to take its course. Whilst vital to good practice, evidence does not hold all of the answers.
Teaching is much the same. Cognitive science has improved our knowledge of the way that our brains learn. We are carrying out more trials into the efficacy of different educational interventions. Tentatively we are able to turn this body of research into more effective classroom practice. However, this evidence cannot tell us what education is for. Just as with medicine, there are questions which are beyond the remit of evidence.
It is vital that we exploit the power of evidence and expertise when appropriate. However, as rich as this evidence becomes, it cannot tell us whether the aim of education is to make pupils cleverer or whether we should instead endow children ‘21st century skills’. We may be able to assess the relative merits of particular pedagogies in achieving whatever we believe to be the aims of education, but evidence cannot tell you what you believe education is for.
There is no amount of expert economic forecasting which can tell you that a post-Brexit downturn would be worth (or not worth) the loss of sovereignty implied by continued membership of the EU. That is an evaluation for every UK voter to make. We would be naïve to ignore the expert opinions of forecasters and their evidence, but they cannot tell us what to believe. Similarly there is no amount of evidence that can tell us what education is for or when is the right time to withdraw treatment to a dying patient.
We should look to make evidence-informed decisions, but we would be naïve to believe that we can abdicate all decisions to ‘following numerical outputs’. We should always seek to make use of relevant evidence, but sometimes – and often at the most crucial moments – we must ultimately rely on our personal (evidence-informed) beliefs.