The Doctor & The Leech
Long ago a travelling physician diagnosed fevers as due to an over-supply of blood, and prescribed leeches as a cure to reduce the excess. ‘Blood-letting’, he said, ‘clears the mind, strengthens the memory, dispels torpor, reduces anxiety and lengthens life.’ He treated many poorly people in this way as he travelled from town to town. Whenever the patients recovered he would boast about the great remedy of the leech. But strangely enough, when they died of their fever, he was never seen at the funerals, for he had already left town.
‘Cryptic, remote, irrelevant and unusable’, writes Tom Bennett on the Times Educational Supplement website: ‘why is so much research in education purest snake oil?’
In March, Ben Goldacre published a treatise on building evidence into education, a long-term aim I share. Dr Goldacre has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, his book Bad Science has sold over 500,000 copies, his TED talk has had over 1 million views, and now the Department for Education have asked him to share his ideas on how to make teaching an evidence-based profession. Headteacher Mark Keary of Bethnal Green Academy, the London school that hosted him this week, said that digitisation should put us on the cusp of a golden age of educational research.
The reaction from the educational blogosphere was cautious. Andrew Old questioned which problems randomised trials would solve, given that the problem is disagreement over educational aims. Tom Bennett thought it directionally right, but was sceptical of its practicality. David Didau said many thought it impractical. Dr Becky Allen welcomed it, but urged us to ask not just what works, but what works under which conditions?
One of the books I read on teaching before I trained was Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In it, he argued that the aim of education should be to develop in all pupils ‘a built-in shockproof bullshit detector’. This sort of education would help pupils recognise when they are being lied to and spot the hypocrisies and duplicities in the society they were to become a part of.
The peculiar thing is, the English education system as a whole is remarkably susceptible to faddish and unproven innovations. A new book by Tom Bennett, Teacher Proof, lists a whole raft of unevidenced ideas, from NLP, braingym and learning styles through multiple intelligences, learning2learn, gamification, the flipped classroom and 21st century skills. In Bad Science, Ben Goldacre utterly exposed the psychobabble used to justify Brain Gym. And in a 2012 study, Dekker et al found that teachers who are enthusiastic about the potential of using neuroscience in their practice, find it difficult to distinguish between scientific findings and ‘neuro myths’. Andrew Old exposes three of the most prevalent: brain gym, learning styles and one particular snake oil salesman. The foremost Multiple Intelligences theorist, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner has admitted to being ‘uneasy’ at the way his ideas have been adapted for use in the classroom. On a visit to Australia, he learnt that:
‘an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on Multiple Intelligence theory…The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices – left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity’.
Education is peculiarly susceptible to the equivalent of bloodletting leech doctors. How can teachers tell the difference between snake oil and useful evidence-based research?
There may yet be hope on the horizon. The question that Ben Goldacre and Tom Bennett are tackling is, how can we tell good educational research from bad? Similarly, the goal of Professor Daniel Willingham’s book ‘When Can You Trust The Experts?’, summarised here, in a field ‘awash with conflicting goals, research wars, and profiteers,’ is to help us evaluate evidence that proponents claim is scientific. He suggests a shortcut: strip it then flip it. To do this, you need to be very clear on three points: (1) precisely what change is being suggested, (2) precisely what outcome is promised as a consequence of that change, and (3) the probability that the promised outcome will actually happen if you undertake the change. Strip any educational advice down to the formula of ‘if you do X, then there’s Y percent chance of Z.’ Then flip the outcome (Z): for instance, 75% fat-free means 25% fat!
What Ben Goldacre is suggesting is a culture and system change where teachers use evidence-based research to improve education. He recommends that:
- research on what works best should be a routine part of life in education
- teachers should be empowered to participate in research
- myths about randomised trials in education should be addressed, removing barriers to research
- the results of research should be disseminated more efficiently
- resources on research should be available to teachers, enabling them to be critical and thoughtful consumers of evidence
- barriers between teachers and researchers should be removed
- teachers should be driving the research agenda, identifying questions that need to be answered.
He realises that ‘different research methods are useful for different questions’: randomised control trials are most useful for evaluating whether an intervention has worked, and to what extent; qualitative research is useful for why and how it worked, but less useful for measuring whether it has. ‘The trick is to ensure that the right method is used for the right question.’
But currently, ‘the basic structures for evidence-based teaching practice are lacking … creating an information architecture might take decades … we are talking about the creation of a whole ecosystem.’ Goldacre calls his idea ‘a first sketch –– I hope others will pull it apart and add to it’. It’s also a call to arms, because ‘good evidence on what works best is worth fighting for’.
Who in teaching is up for answering Ben Goldacre’s call to arms? After exposing Braingym, and demonstrating how much medicine has benefited from evidence-based research, he’s now put the onus on us teachers to create our own evidence-based profession.
Alea iactis est. Ludi incipiant!