Robbie Coleman discusses why evidence alone is not enough when schools are making important decisions.
Cards on the table, I like evidence. I think schools that have access to high-quality research, and an understanding of how to use it, will find it easier to make good decisions than those that don’t.
If you’re trying to do something difficult, like raising the attainment of pupils from low-income families, evidence is particularly important.
My main role at the EEF is working with colleagues from Durham University and the Sutton Trust on the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Our hope is that by presenting clear, accessible information about how people have got on when they have tried to narrow the gap in a wide variety of ways in the past, we will make it a little easier for others to achieve that goal in the future.
This means I spend quite a lot of time talking about the advantages of using research. But in this post I want to do a little bit to redress the balance, and focus on something which evidence cannot do.
Evidence cannot act as a substitute for values
Evidence is good at helping us work out how to get where we want to go. It can provide some ideas we may not have thought of, and alert us to areas where others have struggled in the past. In essence, it can serve as a map to help us get to a destination.
But evidence can’t tell us where we want to go in the first place. If we forget this, we end up following whichever road we find first, and only attributing value to the things we can easily measure.
The EEF takes attainment as our core outcome measure because we know that pupils with low attainment find it much harder to lead healthy, happy lives, and because we think the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their peers is both unfair and damaging to society as a whole.
Our enthusiasm about evidence is tied to these values. We like evidence because we think it will help us achieve our aims. But without this anchor I think we’d be in trouble. For most teachers I’ve met, narrowing the gap is a very important aim* and, rightly, evidence is primarily seen as something to help along the way, rather than as an end in itself.
But there are many other valid aims for an education system too; attainment is not the only goal. And in situations where two or more aims conflict evidence is less helpful.
Attainment is not everything
I thought a bit about this when I came across the surprising fact (to me at least) that corporal punishment iscurrently legal in 19 US states.
To be clear, there is no evidence that the cane improves attainment. However, imagine for a moment that there was. Would that mean that we should re-introduce it into English schools?
Well, for me it pretty clearly wouldn’t. While I want to live in a literate and numerate society, I also want to live in one where violence isn’t seen as an acceptable response to talking in class. There is little evidence you could supply me with on the impact of corporal punishment on attainment which would change my mind.
This is an extreme example of a question where evidence alone is insufficient. But the point is that evidence will always be strongest when it is employed within a framework of values.
Mistaking a question which is well-suited to being thought about solely through the lens of evidence (e.g. How should we spend our Pupil Premium?) for one that isn’t (e.g. What type of school do we want to create?) is unhelpful.
When advocates of evidence-use ignore values it can lead to an “evidence overreach” that makes people feel disenfranchised and uncomfortable, appearing to suggest that teachers or parents are unqualified to say what kind of a school they want to send their children to. As important, it can obscure the many areas where evidence can help.
The case for evidence is strongest when we are clear about its limits.
Robbie Coleman is Research and Communications Manager at the EEF.
*Apologies, this statement may lead to a blog on selection bias from our Evaluation Manager.