Take no heroes; only inspiration.

Posted: April 20, 2014 in Research
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been reading a lot of Biesta recently, and thinking.

The idea of evidence-based research and linking it to current practice and policy takes its origins from the field of medicine; it has since spread to other professions such as social work, probation, clinical psychology and now, education.

Evidence-based research assumes that any professional action of practitioners is an intervention. Research, sometimes through randomised controlled tests, looks for evidence on the effectiveness of these interventions. In other words, the research finds out ‘what works’.

Using the extensive writing of Biesta and informative conversations with real life educational researchers, I would like to argue that we need to consider very carefully whether the framework that successfully links research to professional practice in medicine, is appropriate for education.

If we look at the causal model of evidence-based research we see that it is based on the idea that a professional does something, intervening in a particular way, in order to achieve certain effects. There is a distinct and transparent connection between the interventions (cause) and the outcomes produced (effects). Although this may be valid in the field of medicine, is it easily transferred into education?

The role of causality in educational research needs to be questioned on the basis that education is not the same as medicine. As Biesta says: “Being a student is not an illness, just as teaching is not a cure.” (2007, p8) We should never assume that education is a “push and pull” process of simply linear causal relationships.

“If teaching is to have any effect on learning, it is because of the fact that students interpret and try to make sense of what they are being taught” Gert Biesta, 2007, p8.

If we only rely solely on research to tell us what is the most effective and efficient ways of achieving pre-determined ends, we turn teaching into a factual and technological judgment rather than a value or ethical judgment.

If we base all our educational judgments from research we assume that the students that are in front of us are merely objects, rather than individual subjects. We must also assume that every decision and idea derived from  ‘research’ will be based on fact, rather than values.

“One important problem with the discourse on evidence is that it tends to focus on facts rather than values, and thus has difficulty capturing the insight that education is always framed by purposes and thus by ideas about what good or desirable education is” Biesta, The Beautiful Risk of Education.

Part of this value judgment and consideration that education is always a moral practice leads us to the idea that we shouldn’t be discussing what is effective teaching or effective practices, without firstly asking the complex question; effective for what? Something I have written about before here and here.

Through a relatively small representation of educational research via twitter, blogs and conferences, the ‘truth’ is often translated into ‘rules for action’, which are unfortunately seen by teachers caught in the headlights, as the only things they need to do to ensure effective teaching in their classroom. It is therefore wrongly seen that change to practice is always synonymous with improvement.

“Take no heroes, only inspiration” Chris Dean, The Redskins.

Teachers should never blindly use educational research as much-needed encouragement to simply apply the ‘agreed’ techniques to achieve pre-determined ends in their classroom. Research, through RCTs can only imply the ‘what’, never the ‘how’ or importantly the ‘why’. All teachers should maintain an open mind and always question the desirability and educational value of these ‘proven’ strategies.

It is important, yet unsurprisingly overlooked, that educational research can only tell us what has worked in a particular situation. The majority of which has been investigated in unnatural environments or laboratory conditions. Educational research will never be able to inform teachers what will work in a future situation.

I am concerned that the current belligerent saturation of a very small, yet somewhat fashionable, section of laboratory based ‘cognitive science’ (which is very different to educational research) may be doing more harm than good. It all seems very well intended but there is a danger that through a partial representation of ‘educational research’ it may limit any opportunities for teachers to exert their professional judgment on what is educationally desirable for their particular situations and their own students in their unique context.

It now seems almost imbecilic practice to question the ‘truth’ and ‘rules’ supported by a very narrow selection of ‘evidence’ promoted by a band of self-proclaimed educational research experts.

Teachers have the right not to act according to evidence about ‘what works’ if they believe it to be educationally undesirable for their classes and their students in their context.

There seems to be, as Biesta describes, an “unwarranted leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’” (2007, p11) of strategies that should be incorporated into day-to-day practice based on educational research. Practitioners must always remember that education is ultimately a value based and ethical judgment and that research should only be used to make their professional problem solving, more intelligent and more knowledgeable.

I’ve been reading a lot of Biesta recently, and thinking. I suggest you do the same.

Gert Biesta’s latest book is an amazing, deep and often complex look at education. The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014)

You can read a fantastic review of Gert Biesta’s The Beautiful Risk of Education, by Phil Wood (@Geogphil) here

Here is an interview with Gert Biesta talking about educational research and the purpose of education, from 2012 I think. Thanks to Mr. D. Chetty for spotting this.

Gert Biesta Asterisk TV from Aarhus Universitet on Vimeo.

Finally, a 2007 paper from Gert Biesta, where the majority of my thinking for this post has come from “Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research”

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  2. I enjoy reading an article that can make people think. Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

  3. unseenflirt says:

    Reblogged this on Unseen Flirtations and commented:
    Compelling thoughts on the potential reduction of scope and erosion of purpose that may come of a research-based approach to education and pedagogic development.

  4. mikercameron says:

    A lot here that’s interesting and I would agree that ideas from medical research do not easily translate across into the educational domain. However, we have much to learn from the way that research into medical efficacy has transformed treatments.

    We can learn from the methodologies – I disagree with what you say about interventions. Whilst it is perhaps easier in a medical context to identify and isolate an intervention, there are, nonetheless, identifiable interventions used in education. The difference is that there are a wider range of parameters that need to be considered which makes the research more complex and the results more nuanced. In medicine the intervention is often “takes the tablet” and the control is “takes the placebo”. In education it might be ‘uses textbook A” and the control is “uses textbook B”. The complexity is that you then have the human layer to deal with. How does the teacher use the textbook? How well does the teacher understand the content of the textbook? How well does the teachers wider subject knowledge interact with the content of the textbook? And so on. These confounds are not impossible to work around, it just makes it harder. And then makes the results more ambiguous. But similar instances exist in medicine, for example when looking at surgical best practices, that have similar layers of complexity. We cannot ignore that and we should look to build on that practice rather than use examples(the tablet) that are not exactly analogous.

    I would also say that there is one word in what you have written that could be changed. You say “Teachers have the right not to act according to evidence about ‘what works’ if they believe it to be educationally undesirable for their classes and their students in their context.” I would agree with this 100% if the word “believe” was replaced with “can show”. This would be exactly what a doctor would do. Use the research-led intervention, but if the patient showed a side-effect, they would use professional judgement to intervene and change the medicine. I blogged on this very point a while back – http://cogitateit.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/tramadol-nights/

  5. Rachel Rossiter says:

    “…the ‘truth’ is often translated into ‘rules for action’, which are unfortunately seen by teachers caught in the headlights, as the only things they need to do to ensure effective teaching in their classroom.”

    I’d go further than this: there is also a genuine fear (especially when in the infancy of a teaching career) that if the ‘rules for action’ aren’t adhered to, demons with cloaks and mortar boards are going to come crawling out of the classroom woodwork dragging their scholarly tomes behind them… (recurring nightmare of mine in which they also carry ice picks that make your ears burn) 🙂


  6. Great post. One reference/thought that might be useful that hasn’t been mentioned yet (I think). I’m hearing more folks refer to Hattie’s “Visible learning” book when they talk about “best practices.” At first glance, Hattie’s meta-analysis seems like the antithesis of Biesta’s thoughtful reflection about why the medical model isn’t useful for learning, but I think there’s more to Hattie than meets the eye. I worry that few folks read his introduction, in which he acknowledges the importance (the primacy!) of context on decisions about pedagogy. Hattie (and other meta-analyses) can be used in quick, thoughtless ways to encourage folks to just choose “what works,” but maybe they might HELP a reflective process about pedagogy, if used carefully? Or maybe I’m just being naive 🙂 http://visible-learning.org/2013/01/visible-learning-for-teachers-book-review/

    • taitcoles says:

      Thanks for your comment. I worry not that people haven’t read Hattie fully but that people gain their ‘understanding’ by listening to ill informed reasoning and playing to the gallery style opinions.

  7. Becca Leech says:

    I would be interested to know whether doctors who teach future doctors in the field of medical education base their classroom and practical pedagogy on RCT and whether they prioritize evidence based practice in the field of medical education. Do you know? It seems this would be relevant – whether experts in the field of medicine feel that the structures that apply to medicine apply in their own classrooms.

    • taitcoles says:

      In Biesta’s brilliant “Why”What Works” Wont Work” he includes this quote:

      “Good doctors use both individual clinical expertise and the best available evidence, and neither alone is enough. Without clinical expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannised by evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicable to or inappropriate for an individual patient.” Sackett et al., ‘‘Evidence Based Medicine: What It Is and What It Isn’t,’’ 72–73.

      I think Education Research should only be used to make our professional problem solving more intelligent rather than being a set of ‘agreed’ rules of action.

  8. pgthinking says:

    Fascinating stuff. I think the school improvement task for schools ( in their context) is to look rigorously at the specific action, however large or small the intervention may be, through the eyes of the school’s agreed values. I don’t think enough school’s have done this; staff inset needs to focus on this incessantly. The ‘why’ is the key to every what and how and leaders need to return to it without apology. I think this is the key to what ‘values driven’ means educationally. Totally agree that medical discourse translates badly into education.

    Many thanks

    Peter Gaul

  9. Vicky Smith says:

    Really interesting Tait, love the direction of thinking. It made me reflect on our current structures in school. Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is great – thanks so much for articulating this. You might want to watch the video of Frank Furedi talking about the instrumentalism of RCTs in Education – he articulates very similar points.

    He’s written this short article too.

    It’s great to know there are others who are feeling skeptical about the implications of the current fad for cognitive science as a universal panacea.

    Thank goodness for you.


  11. mmiweb says:

    Hi. A lot of the thinking from the centre has been focused from a paper by Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net/2013/03/heres-my-paper-on-evidence-and-teaching-for-the-education-minister/) which posits this idea of “evidence based practice” and as you say this comes from the change in practice in medicine (though this is also contested by some inside the medical research arena). I agree with you that there is a difference in education and that this positivist approach, whilst there is some merit, has limits in the more interpretive paradigm of educational (esp. as this is constructed by the learners – we still have much to learn from the idea of a constructavist approach – your Biesta quote (p8) above). I have written a critique of the Goldacre paper which you can find at – 3/03/evidence-based-practice.html?view=classic

  12. bt0558 says:

    I think I agree with you almost 100%, and I thank you for taking the time to put this together.

    I read a fair bit and as I understand it, even a good part of the medical profession (perhaps those with vision) are asking the question “is this a suitable model for medicine”. (http://hippocrates-poetry.org/news/press-releases-2/harvard-poet-and-physician.html).

    RCTs seem a wholly reasonable way to determine which of all the available options are likely to create the most profits for drug companies within the current legal framework.

    I visited my GP fairly recently with my son and he prescribed some treament that we had to collect from the chemist. I asked him how the treatment worked and why he thought it was the best option and he told me “i dont know how it works, but the research shows that it does …. and he uses this treatment as the research shows it to be the best”. I found myself working in a foreign country in whic my insurance covered access to a doctor who informed me “if your son takes this treatment it will clear the problem completely and it is unlikely to recur”. I explained to the doctor that my GP had explained to me that th eresearch showed his current treatment to be the best.

    “I can only tell you what I find works the best with people like your son”, said the doctor, “research is not a doctor, I am”.

    I took his advice and surelt the problem (of several years) cleared up quickly and did not return.

    Since then, I have tried to do my best for each student I teach, based upon my understanding of them and of me and of the world in general.

    Maybe it won’t be long treatments can be developed that will respond to the needs of the patient rather than the evidence from a study of the population. Until then maybe the medical profession will increasingly look to the teaching profession and model itself accordingly.

    Medicine is something that should be done in cooperation with individual people, that is what makes a doctor special. Education should be done “with” individual people, not “to” individual people based upon what is best for the population as a whole. Might not be the most economically efficient, but will centainly produced the best and most cost effective outcomes.

    Great post.

    I will certainly read some Biesta, second half of the Easter break.

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