Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Evidence-based Education

A year ago, Ben Goldacre, epidemiologist and campaigner for good science, turned his attention to education research. In a report entitled “Building Evidence into Education”, Goldacre described how increased evidence in education would improve child outcomes and allow greater professional independence. Likening education to medicine, Goldacre explained that by conducting randomised trials, we will be able to gather important information on what works best. Randomised trials allow us to compare the outcomes of children in different intervention groups, by minimising any effects of other factors involved, such as social background. For example, we might give one group of children a new bullying prevention programme, and another group no intervention. The crucial point is that the two groups do not differ significantly from each other, so that we can be confident any differences arise from the programme. Before and after the intervention, we would measure children’s bullying behaviour. We can then compare the two groups, and find out if the programme has led to any improvements in behaviour. Some people are concerned that it’s unfair to give the programme to one group of students and not another. As Goldacre explains, we have to be careful here, because we can’t assume that the programme works before we have the evidence for it. Further, many studies use a design whereby the ‘control’ group, i.e. those who do not receive the intervention, receive it later on. This eases the ethical concerns of not allowing a group of children to use the programme, but may only be possible for larger studies with more funding. Goldacre goes on to explain that randomised trials are not the be-all and end-all of education research. Qualitative research is also very useful in education, to help our understanding of individual experiences. Further, one well-run trial will not provide all the evidence that is needed in selecting an appropriate course of action in a school. All schools are different, and teachers are encouraged to be “a thoughtful consumer of evidence”.

This post was first published on the Leadership, School Improvement & Effectiveness Research Centre blog, for the Southampton Education School.

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