Some tentative thoughts about evidence in education


The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; through problems and methods pass one another by.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve been thinking hard about the nature of education research and I’m worried that it might be broken. If I develop a theory but have no evidence for it then it is dismissed as ‘mere speculation’. “Show me the evidence!” comes the crowded shout, and currently in the sphere of education evidence is all. But can we really trust the evidence we’re offered?

Clearly, sometimes we can. I don’t want to be cast as dismissing all evidence. My point is that we place too much faith in it, and we might possibly be mistaken to do so. The following is an attempt to make sense of Egan’s objections to the bloated claims of education research made in Getting it Wrong from the Beginning.

Let’s imagine we want conduct some research on the effectiveness of a new teaching strategy (Strategy X.) How would we go about it? Well, we’d probably want to test its effectiveness across a range of different groups pupils and we’d probably consider getting several different teachers to try it out. We’d also want to have a control group who didn’t get the intervention so that we could try to establish what sorts of things happen without the intervention of Strategy X. A particularly reputable research might also want to set up a double-blind to try to avoid such confounds as the Hawthorne Effect, but it’s pretty tricky to keep teachers in the dark about how they’re teaching their pupils so in practice this is something that very rarely happens. We’d then need to decide our success criteria – how will we know if Strategy X works? For that we need something to measure, but what? Test results maybe?

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