Weaponised Evidence: Using Research in Education

Hands up if you’ve ever quoted research that you haven’t read. Keep them up if you’ve used the phrase ‘the research shows’ (or words to that effect) without actually knowing of any specific examples. I am certainly guilty of both of these and I suspect that many other teachers are too.

Why do we say this? It comes from a good place; it’s a desire to express a professional opinion, while at the same time recognising that these opinions should be backed up with evidence. In the absence of having examples to hand, we often just gesture towards some plausible-sounding study or concept, drawing on phrases or ideas that seem to hold currency. Clearly this isn’t particularly useful and teachers should base their ideas on evidence. The question is how do you connect education research to teaching practice and how do you prevent research evidence being distorted and misused?

When I started teaching I was shocked by the general lack of evidence used to inform teaching practice. However, there is a huge opportunity, through the use of good quality education research, to improve the learning of pupils directly but also to raise the status of the whole teaching profession. Having a grip on good, recent research should give teachers the confidence to make changes and also to challenge government policy when necessary. The teaching profession should unite behind strong research evidence in the face poor policy – just think of the current grammar school debate.

There does seem to be a growing trend of linking research more directly with teachers. School Research Leads are increasingly common while resources such as researchED and the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit are designed to make research accessible to, already busy, teachers. In some cases, PhD students are being recruited directly into the classroom.

It is essential that teaching and learning is informed by research. Whether this means direct teacher engagement with papers or through intermediaries such as School Research Leads. However, research is often misused as a weapon, either to drive through ideologically driven change or to shut down debate. There are four key points that we should consider:

1 – Sharing the Knowledge.

Research papers are often extremely dense and it is unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up to date with all new findings in all fields of education. We therefore need better systems for disseminating research evidence. We should remove barriers to accessing research as subscription fees to journals prohibit teachers from accessing new evidence (have a look at the Open Access Button website). However we also need to be sure that in the act of summarising, we don’t cherrypick just what we want to hear or what others want to tell us.

We can also provide research summaries to teachers and, as mentioned above, create dedicated roles in schools for research leads. Crucially, instead of spending time delivering CPD on new research, we should spend time training teachers on how to find, critique and apply academic research. For example, going over the basics of qualitative and quantitative data and randomised controlled trials (RCTs). This would then equip teachers to become critical consumers of new research.

2 – Limitations.

There are important limitations to research evidence. As Ben Goldacre explains, once an intervention has been proven to be effective in one trial it is tempting to say that it always works. However, we need to think about who the intervention targets and in what context it works; do the findings support what we are going on to use the evidence for?

Moreover, there is a huge lack of research in key areas. Take the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The Toolkit summarises existing education research on teaching 5-16 year olds and assesses the cost, evidence quality and impact of different education interventions. It’s a useful resource but I have seen it being used badly. For example it has been used to show the limited impact of teaching assistants. The Toolkit does find a low impact but based on limited research. Therefore we cannot conclude with certainty that teaching assistants have a low impact, only that there is not enough research to prove they do.

The danger here is that people either overstate the efficacy of a given intervention, or rule it out completely, based on limited research.

3 – Bias and Distortion.

Firstly we need to ask serious questions about who is in control of education research, both in terms of who commissions it and who then uses it. Rachel Bull’s paper on the role of Policy Exchange in UK education and its lack of transparency raises some good points here. If teachers had a confident grip on current research it would empower them to challenge policy decisions that were politically or ideologically skewed.

Secondly, we need to be careful about our own biases. The table below highlights some common cognitive biases and I would suggest that before getting annoyed at someone suggesting something different, or before swallowing an idea whole, it is important to think about our own bias. In particular, confirmation bias is a significant problem in education debates. Polarised discussions often turn up references to obscure papers that are searched for in order to support pre-held views rather than as genuine inquiry. This may also be a danger for schools that are set up according to certain pedagogical principles or ideologies; what happens if the principle is proved wrong?

cognitive_biases

4 – Weaponised Evidence.

Finally, there are some who use evidence to legitimise abuse or beat down dissenters (the ‘I know more, you need to shut up’ line of argument). We should absolutely not tolerate the pedalling of false ideas (think homeopathy); however, we shouldn’t overstate the strength of research evidence in order to prove a point, or shut down teachers’ views. Heated, aggressive discussions amongst teachers generally lead to poor critical argument and close-mindedness. Teacher experience, intuition and trial and error shouldn’t be ignored, instead, it should be treated as the start of the scientific process.

As professionals, teachers need to engage with research and then, empowered, challenge education policy and each other.

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