Evidence, Anecdotes and bike helmets again.

Last week, Chris Boardman, Olympic cycling champion, and general ambassador for cycling in the UK went on public British TV to talk about the benefits of cycling, reducing the barriers to it and the rest. The piece showed him and the presenter riding sedately round London, with the BBC presenter wearing the full cycling monty: helmet, hi vis, lycra, the works. Chris Boardman, who has made his career on two wheels, was wearing not only normal clothes, but no hi vis stuff and crucially, no helmet. Naturally various social media went off on one, complaints were made to the BBC for Mr Boardman setting a bad example, and with gloomy predictability the calls for helmet wearing to become a legal requirement followed. Sensing a nice bit of pent up outrage the BBC followed this up with an online poll about cycling with headphones on, where a majority said cyclists shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Well, ok. I talked about helmets before, and there is an excellent site devoted to the statistics for and against helmet wearing. And by and large, statistics would suggest that a) the public health benefits of cycling far outweigh the impact of wearing a helmet; and b) where helmet wearing has been made a legal requirement this has led to a decrease in cycling uptake. The cycling fraternity is usually quick to point out as well that in enlightened countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, helmet use is unusual and the number of cycling head injuries are lower because the infrastructure in those countries is far better for a more sustainable transport economy.

The pro-helmet lobby is a bit rubbish with its statistics and prone to a nice bit of cherry picking – especially when one considers that far more head injuries in the UK occur when people are driving or walking and yet nobody is suggesting that pedestrians or motorists wear a helmet or not listen to music. (Statistically, especially in the case of pedestrians, helmets might not be a bad idea…). The most pervasive and engaging pro helmet lobby, of course, is the personal anecdotes: genuine sad stories along the lines of “if my son had been wearing a helmet….” My possibly slightly callous answer to that is to say “yes, but if your son had been riding in an environment where the culture and road infrastructure was less aggressively pro-motorist he might not have had an accident at all.” Unfortunately you can’t fit that sort of thing into a neat headline or Facebook meme.

All well and good. I still wear a helmet, if I remember. I encourage my children to wear one. Sometimes I forget and cycle a few miles without one, but when I do I get it in the neck. For some people to is tantamount to just walking out in the street and lying down under the nearest bus.

This is all about evidence and the use of evidence. When it suits a particular social or political viewpoint, evidence is triumphantly pulled out and waved under the noses of everyone who cares to listen. When it doesn’t, however, it gets quietly ignored in favour of emotional anecdotes.

We can see a parallel here with teaching. When a piece of evidence exists in favour of a particular viewpoint it gets quickly trumpeted across various media. This happened with the Sutton Trust report “what makes great teaching” last week. Here we have a fairly big study which is generally pretty careful in its claims and suggestions. It is pretty measured stuff, but the only bit that made it into the media was the big claim that evidence suggests that discovery learning is less effective than direct instruction. It’s worth noting that this claim is made carefully in the report. First up, the direct instruction it describes is telling people stuff, yes, but also questioning them, finding out what they remember, and generally involving them in being talked at. What it isn’t is the two hour lecture that comes to mind, and which suits a nostalgic conservative view of education in the Good Old Days. And actually, discovery learning done well can be effective, but which needs lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher. Done badly, all educational interventions are rubbish.

Much the same happened with the FELTAG report. This made all sorts of good suggestions, but the only one which appears to have made any inroads into education is the suggestion that 10% of all courses become online. It’s been almost amusing to watch the handwringing that has happened by various commentators in social media about this. “But FELTAG is about more than the 10% thing! It’s about teacher development and sharing and all sorts of good things!” And they are absolutely right, but I’m not sure in which naïve universe the hand wringers are living when they think that a sector under increasing financial pressure is not going to focus on this as an opportunity to cut costs. The only time anyone ever hears of FELTAG is when it gets cited for the reason behind the 10% of courses going online. Pretty much all the good ideas about supporting and training teachers have been forgotten, because they are expensive ideas. Because the FELTAG report has an evidence base, or at least claimed to, then it gets used as a stick with which to beat staff into getting on board. I’m lucky: we have regular training days at work where we have the whole day to explore these things, and some serious time has been given over to preparing and supporting staff. I’m also pretty technologically confident, so my learning curve hasn’t been that steep. But that’s not true for every teacher in the land, not by a long shot.

The other challenge with the 10% rule is that on reading the report there appears to be no evidence to suggest that it works. The whole of FE is basically taking part in a massive experiment. It’s not been sold that way, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence nationally or internationally that this is going to work. For me, when viewed that way, this becomes actually more exciting, because UK FE can be the big study cited in the rest of the world about how this worked really well on a massive scale. I hope.

One way or the other, it does fit a particular need at a particular time, it fits trends and fashions and what people are interested in. Ditto the cherry picking of the Sutton Trust Report, and much of the discussion around helmet use for cyclists. Evidence is there, yes, but it’s usually filtered through the censors of fashion and policy, and so needs to be viewed as sceptically as the rest.


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