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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What Constitutes as ‘Evidence’ in Evidence-Based Educational Practice?


In light of Hattie’s paradigm shift, ‘evidence-based research’ has gained a lot of traction in educational discourse and research. Visible Learning is an exemplary indication of the power of evidence-based research. Like any theoretical justification in educational research, ‘evidence-based research’ has become the modern standard from which to justify decisions and actions made in all facets of the educative process. It stems from the paradigmatic shift towards a ‘professionalization of the workforce’ and the attitude that anecdote is not enough to justify educational decisions from the classroom right through to educational policy. Like all trends in education, this has kick-started a global movement with a multiplicity of ‘research’ and interest groups invested in translating and marketing their products under the banner of evidence: Evidence-based practice has become commercialised. Quite disconcerting is the fact that educators seem to accept that good educational products need only be considered evidence-based, irrespective of whether the ‘evidence-based practice’ provides any evidence at all that it is conducive to meeting its claims or providing any substantial evidence.
We have to proceed with caution and must remain vigilant with our scepticism for a very good reason: what constitutes as evidence really boils down to whom and what we consider to be an expert. In the world of amateur-experts, myself considered, where opinion is marketed freely on the web with little to no credentials in being able to discern fact from fiction, how are we to really come to grips with the scientific truths inherent to the educative process? What is true, above and beyond all contextual features that influence the educative process, is that all learners are biologically the same and even the manifestly differing phenomena they present with can be reduced to the same principles and drives. And this is important – we intuitively work within a world of difference and are so focussed on producing individualistic ideologies that we remain blind to the processes that unite each and every one of us. For what is true must be true for all time and for all learners. Of course, this runs against out intuition for we see a world of differences – the narrative of education is fuelled by this principle.
The role of scientific research for education is conflictual as it contradicts many long standing ideals and frameworks of understanding in education and educational research. Not only does ‘evidence’ often contradict our intuitive understandings, but the systemic methodology of scientific research does not bide well when it comes to finding resolutions between the truth and economic, political, or any other interest groups who are heavily invested in education. It lucks out, at the outset, by its intrinsic counter-intuitive nature – and truths need to be marketed to interest groups in ways that make the counter-intuitive sensible and comprehensible. This process, often referred to as translation, more often than not violates the original research. Thus we have a process from which ‘evidence-based practice’ becomes counter-factual, intuitively appealing, and profit making. Just look at the predominance of ‘brain training’ that is marketed on an industry of neuromyths – all justified as ‘evidence-based’.
In addition, proper evidence-based research (that is scientifically validated research) that is epistemically interested in truth is often ignored, defamed or trivialised by those whose ideological agendas are threatened. Even at the teacher level scientific research is not taken very seriously. Most teachers remain ignorant to the truths by which educational research is based on – most are readily to accept the ‘evidence’ from evidence-based practice as a justification of educational decisions. Very few are given the tools to both take scientific research seriously and discern fact from fiction. In another blog I hinted at the exploitation rife in the industry and a framework that all teachers should use as a means of utilising scepticism in order to better understand claims of evidence. Perhaps this could be something I could improve on if the interest if there.
One thing going against the scientific research is the ensuing and often acrimonious debates about conflicts in scientific educational research. Scientific research is not exempt from the ideological forces (as noted above) that impede on claims of truth, and is openly exploited for production and marketing purposes. Importantly, however, this amounts to little when all things considered. Despite what I have presented, resolution is not decided by those who are concerned with the evidence. Experts are often concerned with meeting the ideological demands of their industry – we trust these experts to rely on evidence, yet they often fail to. What it comes down to is not scientific resolution, but simply people making decisions about what they value. And what we value most is what is most intuitively appealing. The paradigm shift that is gaining traction in academic circles is taken very seriously, but it has a long way to go in the educational sector that is interested in what sounds good and not necessarily what is true.
Jesse Stephens