Evidence: something I’ve learned from being a parent

Having babies is a life changing experience, I can tell you this now with some conviction. The benefits, for most people, balance out the assorted deprivations (sleep, money, sanity). It’s fab, and there is no feeling in the universe like having your son or daughter come up to you with the seriousness and honesty that only a small child can manage, and say “I love you” and “I’ve just snotted in your hair. Hee hee.” And watching them grow and change and do all the brilliant children things which adults have forgotten. Cheesy, yes, but also undeniably wonderful. No disrespect meant, but other people’s children really don’t cut the mustard here.

But why am I getting all sentimental here on my usually cynical and questioning blog, you may ask. It’s about one of the worst things about being a parent. It is not the children, but rather the problem with being a parent is that everyone, and I mean everyone, including people who only had the briefest interactions with babies and children 20 years ago, everyone has an opinion. Everyone thinks they know how to do it, what advice to give, what is best for children, what is worst, what to avoid, and so on. So you will get (I kid you not) dopey statements like:

“ooh, stop rocking her to sleep, you’ll make a rod for your own back”
“make sure you trim that fringe out of her eyes, she’ll go blind”
“don’t you think that she’s getting too attached to you?”
“Don’t let them into your bed, you’ll never get them out”
“Of course he does that, he’s a boy.”
“You’ll just have to get used to the pink stuff, she’s a girl”

All of which, like most children based theories and discussions (cf. the almost violent arguments you hear about breast “vs” bottle), are not based on that individual finding out proper research but rather it is based on personal anecdote, urban myth or “what I read in the paper”. (Or more often: “what the people on TV said when they talked about the headlines in the paper”)

This is not unlike advice you get about teaching (including the point about TV). Very very few people read research into education, including those who should know better, (including me, sometimes, I have to be honest). I have yet to meet someone in FE who can cite much beyond Geoff Petty (for whom, I should add, I have the greatest respect for). And practitioners get sniffy about academic research: “what do they know, they don’t have to do it every day.” So battle lines get needlessly drawn, we ignore research-based evidence, and take on practices placed on us without any supporting evidence offered – sometimes where no evidence exists beyond anecdote and hearsay.

There’s nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence. A lot can be learned from this “it worked for me, why don’t you give it a go?” approach, as long as the practice can be rejected if it doesn’t suit. As long as it doesn’t get dressed up as “best practice” or worse an essential component of practice because it suits a particular ethos or political viewpoint.

The other challenge with evidence is that it takes time to read it. But I would strongly recommend it. Don’t just read “Evidence Based Practice”, as good as it is, and believe everything, but look through the references, and see which apply or are analogous to your own context of teaching. While there are indeed parallels between the learning of 16 year old ICT students and 30 year old ESOL students, and while there may be something to learn from this, these parallels are never absolute nor applicable in every context.

And we need to read the research well. Avoid the “scientists say” lazy thinking applied by newspaper articles. Read it critically. Certainly before you start throwing bricks at established practices, find some good evidence to add weight, particularly if your intention is to smash windows. Anyone can write up an extended anecdote as a case study but it needs to be read as such, in the wider context in which it is written.

Then there is the issue of bias. I’ve always been blasé about bias, especially in education research, assuming always that educators are writing to make a better experience for learners. However, education research is just as dogged by bias, particularly articles in wider, less scholarly texts. I’d want to question anything funded by a government or a government agency which almost certainly will have a bias. Bear in mind that no government quango or department, using their own publication channels, is going to happily publish research which goes against what it has been saying for the last x years, after all. And even if an independent, thorough, critically reviewed piece of research came out which demonstrated that some key element of the Common Inspection Framework was wrong, then it would take years before anything changed. Look how long it took to get learning styles out of the inspection regime. (Note for readers in the 22nd century: learning styles was a bonkers idea cooked up by businessmen in the 1980s which lots of people slavishly followed in a misguided attempt to meet individual needs)

Technology in education is another area where bias might easily be an issue: who paid for, or who is promoting the studies into the effectiveness of interactive whiteboards? If it’s SMART technologies or Promethean, then you have to read very very carefully. It’s very seductive to read something like this http://www.fenews.co.uk/fe-news/the-mobile-e-volution and think “hmm, interesting, authoritative, well written” and yet the writer clearly has an interest in getting us to engage with a product which will enable us to do the very thing he is telling us about. This fact makes any claim or suggestion made therein highly suspect: he’s hardly going to exhort us to abandon the ideas that drive the software he is promoting. In the nicest possible way, because I do love them, an organisation like JISC are unlikely to support research which goes against their main raison d’être. The same line of argument could be applied to published materials: a coursebook publisher is unlikely to argue for materials-light learning (unless, of course, they’ve just published a “how to teach materials light” book…).

Evidence is sometimes sadly lacking when it comes to influencing much of what we do, which is ridiculous, when you think about it. After all, educational progress and achievement is regularly and reasonably thoroughly tested, and a fairly well researched and understood area of education, so to assess the impact of a given measure is not always going to be that hard. You would have to be very careful with things like control groups, and making sure that teacher perceptions are taken into account, for example, but it could be done. But also research, in its basic form, is learning, and really, learning is what we are all about.


For more on evidence and so on, try reading these, http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b/ben%20goldacre%20paper.pdf and http://thesuttontrust.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/evidence-is-just-the-start-of-finding-what-works/ both arguing not just for better evidence, but also discussing what to do with the evidence once you have it.



    1. A wise mother, then! I suspect there is an inverse relationship between sanity of advice and experience of parenting…

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