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)
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.
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”