Evidence Informed or Evidence Based? Why the distinction?

Following on from my previous post I will start with a few givens:

  • Firstly I strongly believe in teachers and ‘trainee’ or ‘novice’ teachers engaging in research.
  • Secondly I think the current ‘grassroots’ movement of teachers engaging in research through social media is good to see although I have some concerns about the direction it may be going – particularly the ‘positivist’ nature of some of the thinking. To be clear on this I am not anti positivist but I believe an informed ‘paradigm dialogue’ is needed. As such the classroom and school environment, to me lends itself to a postpositive interpretive paradigm (which sounds complex but isn’t) but equally this varies by context.
  • Thirdly education research isn’t something new – there is a lot of it about and sometimes you have to do the legwork over many years to really get to realize how little you know!

Now to make a distinction between evidence informed and evidence based teaching. Listening to some of the recent research discussion that is surrounding the social media led increased interest in research is the belief that evidence [of a certain type collected in a certain way] provides all the answers. That somehow there is an unequivocal right answer to every education question. Well sometimes there may be but often there won’t be.

However I fully remember occupying a similar state of mind as a teacher when working on my Masters degree (many years ago). For my Masters I was looking at boys ‘underachievement’ and thought that by researching it I would get all the answers that I needed to address the problems and ‘stop this nonsense of underachievement! ‘ I genuinely did think I was going to deal with it – there and then. Many months later I realized that firstly I didn’t really have a grip on the question and that I had less of a grip on the issue than I had when I started (a common experience for any researcher). Cutting a very long headache short my eventual understanding and decision making came from being informed as to how little I knew – I found that I couldn’t ‘solve’ the issue just on the basis of evidence and to confirm this I had calculated over 4 billion (yes 4 billion) combinations of factors influencing boys performance in the classroom. Therefore I might try to address one of these ‘combination of issues’ and it may simply have no impact or no noticeable impact or worse still negative impact. Equally many of the factors were simply out of my control therefore whilst I couldn’t necessarily or directly act on those issues I was at least informed and if nothing else I learned both about the complexity of educational research and that straightforward answers don’t always come from research.

So whilst in many discussions I won’t really make a distinction about evidence based or evidence informed – as I will treating them as one – in reality there may well be issues with an evidenced based belief. In relation to this Rubin has identified four disadvantages of evidenced based practice that perhaps can act as a caution whilst still embracing an evidence informed approach – these are:

  • It is too mechanistic and ignores the unique characteristics of both clients and practitioners
  • It is not clear enough, ignores research flaws and makes exaggerated claims about the evidence at hand
  • It is hard to implement due to resource limitations such as time, training and supervision
  • Empirical findings can often be out-dated by the time they are disseminated

But let me throw in one (of many) further issue and that is if all (or at least the significant ones) issues related to teaching, the classroom, education can be answered by algorithms which churn out evidence then this also removes the professional and ethical responsibility that teachers have for decision making.   Now this might sound alarmist (and reiterating my point in that I believe in an evidenced informed profession) however I am aware of teachers attempting to make very mundane decisions on the basis of ‘research’ evidence in what almost appears a dereliction of responsibility. So whilst promoting an evidence informed profession there needs to be some understanding of the ethical responsibility of both engaging with and not engaging with research evidence.

So how do I square this circle in that I may appear to be holding two contradictory positions simultaneously?

I suppose my response is that ultimately I believe in teachers developing their own evidence informed position – a position which they constantly revisit, are open to scrutiny and constantly seek further development in their understanding. Making evidence based decisions in a ‘clinical’ way – depending on the context – is one way of working but hugely complex and may not provide what a teacher needs at the moment they need it. However having a clear set of testable values to guide you as a teacher may be more appropriate. Therefore an achievable aim is that of teachers accessing, engaging with, participating in and evaluating research on a regular basis.

Finally an evidenced based profession wouldn’t appear to be ultimately unachievable but we are a long way from it happening. A clear starting point however, which is rarely discussed, is considering ‘what is education for’ which is far from a straightforward question than it may appear and if nothing else it would be good to see teachers debating this as a starting point?