Evidence is not the problem

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Dr Phil Lambert, national president of the Australian College of Educators, has penned a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in which he cautions us about an apparent ‘obsession’ with evidence in education. In a sense, he doesn’t say very much. Lambert is careful to point out that, ‘it’s essential that policy and practice are based on solid evidence’. Good. And I think all of us would be against, ‘dogma masquerading under the rhetoric of “evidence-based” policy or practice’. Dogma is bad. Nobody is keen on dogma.

However, to mount a case against dogma, a preference for ‘silver bullets’ and so on, Lambert must believe they exist. Where they exist remains unclear although he does caution us to, ‘Steer clear of conferences where there is a striking similarity in the evidence being pitched in keynotes and workshops’. What conferences could he possibly be referring to? Whatever could this all mean? I’m scratching my head here.

What is clear is that he would like us to think more critically about evidence. According to Lambert’s brief summary, evidence was invented by the medical profession in the UK. Since then, it has grown to influence other fields of endeavour. While obviously not being against evidence in any way whatsoever – perish the thought – Lambert asks us to be cautious about ‘those spruiking evidence drawn from within their own echo chamber, such as those who repeatedly quote and promote each others’ work’. The absolute swines.

Next time I’m up at the UNSW I will ensure I hammer home the message that researchers should avoid citing the same old tired papers that are directly relevant to their research and should instead go wider and cite irrelevant papers from those outside their echo chambers. That’ll sort it. No problem.

But I cannot help wondering whether evidence really represents the kind of threat to education that Lambert implies.

Given that he is a senior education academic, I am not entirely clear what Lambert’s role has been in the international conversation about education over the years. Some education academics have done superb work that I cite repeatedly (wait… that’s a bad thing, right?). However, as a group, academics have generally let teachers down. They have not fully equipped teachers to think critically about education because so much knowledge has been held back. It wasn’t until the era of Twitter and blogging, when teachers could talk directly to researchers and other teachers across the world, that they began to point each other to papers debunking some of the sillier ideas they encountered. Why was ‘whole language’ allowed free rein for so long? Why were teachers not taught about Project Follow Through or explicit teaching? Why were teachers made to feel guilty about explaining concepts to our students instead of facilitating them in figuring these concepts out for themselves? Where were the education academics?

And where are they now in the era of Gonski 2.0 with its support for growth mindset theory and a doubling-down on generic thinking skills?

It is worth noting that evidence has something to say about all of these issues. Evidence debunks whole language. Evidence supports explicit teaching. And despite being the new thing we must all get to work on right away, growth mindset theory and generic thinking skills lack any solid evidence base. If someone is using evidence in a partial and invalid way, it should be the easiest thing in the world to point that out by citing, you’ve guessed it, other evidence. This would have the added bonus that we would all learn something from the exchange. By contrast, nonspecific exhortations to be sceptical about evidence seem counterproductive and likely, if widely adopted, to send us into some kind of debate-free dark age.

So evidence is not the problem. Unless, of course, it suits you to keep teachers in the dark.

3 thoughts on “Evidence is not the problem

  1. It happens so often in education–deciding what situations should or should not *look* like (e.g., not too silver-bullety, no overwhelming consensus on tough issues) based on little to no evidence at all before considering actual evidence. Applying this notion to something like evolutionary biology, we should reject–for no other reason than that it “looks bad”–any convergence of reasoning toward a small set of possible solutions to longstanding problems about, say, adaptation. No cheering allowed for moving closer to better ideas because it “looks bad” to reject ideas in general.

  2. God article. Academe (and departments of education) has let teachers down by not thinking critically, by not filtering the research, by not disseminating the best, evidence based practices

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