Many of you will have come across Dr. Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) before, whether through his journalism in the Grauniad or perhaps one of his books. He has a very engaging writing style and successfully makes esoteric academic issues seem not just accessible but actually interesting. In short, he’s the Brian Cox of the research methodology world, though measurably (P<0.001) less annoying.
If his output can be generalised, it would be fair to say that Dr. Goldacre is all about Evidence Based Practice. Someone at the DfE had the inspired idea (I’m guessing they didn’t follow him on twitter) to ask him to write a paper on EBL in education. What resulted was a gloves-off call to arms challenging the rank and file in schools to seize the initiative from policy makers and, without fear of Academic nay-sayers, start playing a more active role in steering the sector’s future by providing evidence of what actually works.
He is ambitious to play a role in helping education make the kind of progress achieved in medicine in recent decades, which saw a shift away from believing the assertions of prominent, charismatic ‘experts’ towards practice purely based on evidence. If you’re reading this, your health has almost certainly been materially effected by this shift. But to paraphrase Bill Shankly, education isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.
Please take the time (30 minutes?) to read it, I promise you that you will come away feeling inspired and empowered. Go on, click here and download the PDF.
On the very first page Dr. Goldacre demurs from the opportunity to ‘tell teachers what to do’ (give him time, he’s new to the sector), and moves on to acknowledge the issue of ‘confounding factors’ in this type of social research, before slaying the paper tiger of Randomised Control Trials being unethical in education. My professors repeatedly cautioned me not to use RCTs in my research and in retrospect seemed to slightly cherish the inherent immeasurability of educational interventions: “The classroom is not a laboratory, and children are not rats: it is not ethical to deny a control group a ‘treatment’ in order to demonstrate an effect”.
Dr. Goldacre simplifies and deflates this position, pointing out “there is arbitrary variation, across the country, across a town, in what strategies and methods are used, and nobody worries that there is an ethical problem with this” (p12) and that “the real challenge is in identifying what works the best, because when people are deprived of the best, they are harmed too”. How is it ‘ethical’ to continue to invest huge resources on things which we only suspect work?
This isn’t to dismiss the ongoing relevance of qualitative approaches, such as the stalwart of educational research, the Case Study. These have their place in explaining how something works. What we’re really struggling with, especially in ed tech, is “showing that something works” (p13) at all. There is some evidence of technology’s impact on learning, but it’s embarrassingly slight and specific and is a miserable shadow of thousands of teachers’ daily experience of the difference it makes for their students.
We can all do more to base our practice on evidence, whether it’s becoming better informed or carrying out research ourselves. The scale of my role affords me the opportunity to make a decent contribution, so here’s what I’m planning to do;
- Ensure every teacher within my organisation has simplified access to summaries of research showing what works (in the field of ed tech)
- Help the various innovation projects we have running in multiple schools to utilise research methods that generate replicable positive findings about technology’s impact on learning. We have the pieces (multiple contexts, large populations, internal statisticians, plenty of Masters degrees) needed to create a research network of some scale
- Foster a culture of critical engagement with research through our online professional community
What could you do in your school?