Thoughts on evidence based education

Back in 2013, Ben Goldacre (he of Bad Science and Bad Pharma) started a campaign to make education more evidence-informed. His original talk can be found here.

Many educators (teachers, lecturers etc), most of whom could be described as traditionalists, found Goldacre’s intervention compelling and the ResearchEd movement, now a global phenomenon, was born.

Others were less than impressed and deeply resented a medical doctor trespassing on their field and having the temerity to tell them how they should be advancing the craft of teaching.

More than that, however, many educators who are best described as being “progressive”, were much more strident in their criticism of Goldacre in particular, and the research-based approach in general. The problem was, and still is, that education is driven by ideology and gut-feeling. A person’s views on education are deeply connected with their thoughts around equity, diversity, child-rearing, and frequently, politics. Progressive educators have claimed the moral high ground of “child-centredness” and tend to characterise traditionalists as being right-wing, or even alt-right, and, bizarrely, racist. In their eyes, they’re the compassionate ones. They stress that every child is unique and attempting to research your way into teaching excellence is fundamentally flawed, doomed to failure. Some even say the research-based approach is oppressive.

Anyway, when you have a large group of educators who, at the time of Goldacre’s talk, controlled the narrative, and then suddenly found themselves in a position where their beliefs were about to be put to the test, it’s somewhat understandable that they responded with a certain amount of aggression. When observing education debates on Twitter, especially those occurring in England, I am often struck by the extent to which progressive educators personalise the debate and engage in ad hominem attacks on fellow professionals simply because they do not think the same way. So, frequently, you will see Greg Ashman, a maths teacher based in Australia, and a prolific blogger, being accused of being “alt-right”, a ludicrous accusation.

This reluctance to adopt research-informed approaches is a key feature of education policy-making, especially in Ireland. The Junior Cycle is a case in point. It’s a bizarre thing of a yoke, as the fella said. There seems to be no curriculum and the “Curriculum Specifications” are dull, uninspiring and riddled with education buzzwords and clichés. Here’s the Science document.  The constant emphasis on “process” rather than actual content is typical of current ideology (not evidence) an ideology in which specified knowledge is deemed to be unimportant compared to “skills”. One gets the sense that the designers believe that it’s more important to understand the scientific method than it is to know any science. I don’t know any science colleague who believes this. But somebody in the NCCA clearly does. This is not evidence-informed policy-making. It’s policy-making by opinion.

Which brings me to one of the biggest, most profound changes that occurred in higher education in the last fifty years. I’m talking about Modularisation and Semesterisation (M&S).

M&S was essentially a political project. It was designed to facilitate free movement of students throughout the EU and, in that sense, it worked.

But M&S was also an attempt to quantify learning and when combined with the learning outcomes (LOs) philosophy it helped to promote the concept of education as a transaction. Do this many credits and you will have achieved this many outcomes. To use a physics analogy, education became quantised. If taken seriously, M&S and LOs meant that the number of education “destinations” available was finite and well defined. But everyone knew that was nonsense and, in truth, the number of education destinations is infinite. There are many ways of getting 60% in an exam.

But the key aspect of M&S was that it was never subjected to any rigorous analysis from a pedagogy or cognitive science perspective. Yes, there was some scepticism expressed and many academics making the point that it often takes a long time, a lot longer than twelve weeks, for challenging ideas to sink in. But this was a runaway train and nobody was going to stop it. Sometimes there’s a tide in the affairs of men and to oppose it is a waste of time.

I was broadly in favour of M&S at the time. Like many engineers and scientists, I had a systemising mindset (as Simon Baron Cohen might say) and the tidiness of the new system appealed to me. The systemising mindset is common in academia, particular among academics who move into administrative roles and then proceed to impose additional “processes” on academics.

But years have passed now. I’m more comfortable with untidiness, lack of uniformity and academics having the freedom to improvise and go their own way.

I also know a little bit more about education. And I think we created a problem for ourselves and it’s this: under the M&S system, students’ recall of material they have covered seems to have declined. Despite what many educators might say in this Google age, retaining knowledge is a crucial part of learning. I won’t go off on a tangent about this: instead I recommend to anyone who doubts this to read “Seven Myths about Education” by Daisy Christodoulou.

Let’s think about modern higher education and compare it to the Leaving Cert. For secondary school students, the Leaving Cert is a two-year immersion in their chosen subjects. For university students, a module is a twelve-week immersion in the relevant subject. That seems anomalous to me.

But within that twelve weeks, students tend to be busy with continuous assessment (another intervention that is believed to be a “good thing” without much evidence) and anecdotally it seems that students really only revise their lecture notes once. In cognitive science, there is a thing called the “forgetting curve” and what is clear is that unless you intervene, with regular revision, knowledge acquired is lost very rapidly. We all know this instinctively. If someone asks you to recall the plot of a novel you read some time ago, you are more than likely to have forgotten whole swathes of it.

Sometimes, though, if material is very “memorable”, we might remember it for a little longer. This has been the dominant approach in education for a number of years. The focus, therefore, has been on making material more “engaging” and more “relevant to students’ lives”.

But this approach has obvious limitations. It’s hard to see how you can make thermodynamics engaging.

If you want to solve any problem, you have to admit that it exists. This is why I think the Irish Survey of Student Engagement is a missed opportunity. It tells us literally nothing about how students go about their studies.

M&S is here to stay but we have come up with some way of incentivising students to engage in continuous study (not CA).

1 thought on “Thoughts on evidence based education

  1. I think another factor is the rise of Schools of Education and the number of academics specializing in the field of education. Where this could have been a positive development, a feeling of distrust of the specialists is not uncommon among many academics. From learning outcomes to blended learning, many lecturers feel the advice of such specialists is more trend- than evidence-based. Perhaps the problem is that such studies are by nature social studies; to the traditionalist, it often feels like we are embracing yet another new trend on scant evidence


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