Philosophy Teaching

Evidence-based Practice and Education

It’s a notion that’s been popular in medicine for perhaps a decade, maybe a bit longer: doing what the best available research evidence suggests is the best possible treatment for a particular condition. Sackett and colleagues (1996) wrote that evidence-based practice consists of “integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.”

This is actually a fairly sophisticated definition, in that it incorporates the clinical expertise of the individual practitioner with the external evidence: less-sophisticated approaches tend to make it seem as though the clinical evidence will provide a single best answer in each situation.

The notion is a compelling one, and helps to bridge the ‘research-practice gap’ by bringing the best fruits of research into the work of practitioners. I think it has largely been successful in medicine.

It’s now tending to come up in conversations about educational research and practice, and in that context it does worry me a bit. Part of the reason is that I’ve argued before in some detail that educational activities don’t come under the necessary conditions for conducting the kind of tightly controlled research that is used in medicine and science, because people’s attitudes and actions are too complex and there are too many variables to control.

The other part is the concern about the quality of the evidence. It does occur in medicine sometimes too, where for example a pharmaceutical company will suppress evidence of adverse reactions in clinical trials. But in general, if the research is published, the quality of the evidence is pretty reliable in medical science. In the social and human sciences that form the basis of education, it’s much easier for the evidence to be controversial, because often what you go looking for is what you will find.

So using the notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ in education begs questions about ‘whose evidence?’ Who created the particular evidence that is being used, and what were their purposes? How do we decide whether one piece of evidence is more valid or important than another, if their findings are different. And so on…

This could be seen as simply a short-coming in the quality of educational research – if it’s not good enough to allow us to make good prescriptions for practice, why not, and how can we improve it? I think there’s space there for some interesting self-reflection on our part.

But I do also think that the difficulties may be inherent ones in a set of social practices as complex as education.

Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. M. C., Gray, J. A. M., Haynes, R. B., & Richardson, W. S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71-72.

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