Evidence is not a substitute for our values?

A couple of weeks ago I contributed to a blog http://dominiccummings.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/open-policy-experiment-1-school-direct-and-initial-teacher-training/

For some reason one author followed up my entry by reading this blog (which is appreciated) but picked out a line from below ‘evidence is not a substitute for our values’ which related to a presentation I had given in Singapore on evidenced based teaching.

The comment was ‘That rings alarm bells for me, confirming precisely my criticism of much of educational academia, that it sees its job as defining the ends of education (often in terms e.g. of “powerful hegemonic discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion”), rather than defining the means of achieving the ends that the rest of society wants from an education system for which it pays and at which its children are required by law to attend.”

Wow! I am not quite sure how such a response could be drawn from my one line but my one line also appeared in the summary of the blog with the following from Dominic Cummings: The commenter David Spendlove … gives a presentation in which he says: ‘Evidence is not a substitute for our values’. Nobody would say this at a conference for physical scientists – they would be more likely to say ‘evidence is our value’. If he means ‘we need values as well as evidence’, of course all would agree – but the implication of the statement is ‘we shouldn’t let evidence be used to justify things we don’t like’, which is not encouraging.

So just to clarify – the presentation I gave was on evidence based teaching and the point I was making related to evidence and values was as follows:

• Evidence often only tells you part of the story.
• It doesn’t necessarily tell you what is ethically sound.
• It doesn’t tell you what is educationally justifiable.
• It is a measure of something but that measure won’t always apply to you in your context (e.g. your class, your school, your subject).
• Evidence doesn’t tell us where we are wanting to go?
• We all interpret evidence and meaning differently.
• Correlation does not equal causation.

So this one slide was trying to provide some balance to the overwhelming majority of slides I presented identifying how we should use evidence and where that evidence might come from. Therefore should we let our values justify not following the lead of evidence – yes but this would be dependent on the evidence presented and the values we have; bad evidence shouldn’t override robust values! Therefore as Dominic has said we need evidence and values.

One of the dangers of the increased and welcome interest in evidenced based approaches to teaching is that it is perceived as the panacea to the problems of education. The reality is it will often only give you a better idea of the colour, size and number of worms in the can of worms you are opening – not what to do with them. It very much feels that much of the evidence base discussion at present is lacking the criticality and discernment needed and as a consequence becomes over reliant on evidence from a limited number of sources in a limited number of forms.

Therefore I would make a subtle distinction between evidence based and evidence informed education as teachers will often be taking evidence from multiple forms and then using their professional values to decide upon the most appropriate action – that is the nature of being a professional and using research to INFORM your practice.

A further distinction is that values shouldn’t be confused with whims, prejudice, emotion and intuition. Values should equally be open to scrutiny and examination so I stand by my point that evidence shouldn’t be a substitute for our values as long as those values are robust and informed.

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