I am unashamedly in favour of using evidence to inform what we do as teachers. This is the reason why I am completing an empirical PhD in an area that I believe to have great potential to guide our practice: Cognitive Load Theory.
However, I also recognise that no matter how good educational research may be, it is never going to tell us how to deal with the boys in the lunch queue. Some commentators will point to this complexity and declare a plague on all educational research. They might even start mentioning ‘critical realism’ or other such verbose and obscure social theories. But there really is no need. My position is a consistent one.
Where there is strong and consistent evidence then we should really be guided by that evidence. Where no such evidence exists then we should use our craft knowledge, underpinned by our humanistic principles. We can do both of these things.
And this is not about Randomised Controlled Trialls (RCTs). These can be incredibly useful but they are generally quite expensive and so there’s not that many to draw upon. They can also be badly designed to the point where they can only deliver a desired result and can tell us little or nothing about the strategies supposedly being tested.
And it is not about effect sizes. I have become less convinced of this as some kind of across-study comparison measure the more that I have read. An effect size of 0.3 from a well-designed RCT may be far more significant than an effect size of 1.2 from a badly designed, poorly controlled trial with a dodgy test at the end of it. It simply does not all come out in the wash in the way that is sometimes supposed.
Instead, we should be looking for a volume of replicated studies where the strategies that are tested are well-designed. An example of such evidence is the evidence supporting systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as an approach to teaching reading. Not all of these studies are RCTs. Yet the findings are so consistent that we now have three national panels from the US, UK and Australia all confirming that the weight of evidence supports SSP.
It really would be perverse to ignore it.