Telling teachers what to do

Last updated: 04-28-2021

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Telling teachers what to do

In perhaps most of the decisions we make as teachers, we cannot draw on evidence. That’s what makes teaching a craft and that’s why an apprenticeship model has always formed part of teacher training.

Even though I know enough to know that I know nothing, I guess I blog about evidence in education so frequently that people contact me and ask my opinion. Typically, some new initiative is being introduced in their school and they want to know if there is evidence for or against it. Typically, there is neither and so I turn out to be less helpful than they perhaps imagined.

The motivation for my writing comes from past experiences of being told to do things - mandated even - that lacked evidence. If it had not been for the element of compulsion, the ideas would have been nowhere near as harmful because I could have taken or left them, adapting as I saw fit as any good craftsman does. And if there was, in fact, strong supporting evidence for an initiative that I was being asked to implement, then I think I would have shrugged my shoulders and got on with it. It is the two combined - lack of evidence plus compulsion - that is damaging.

When I question the evidence for something, it is with this in mind. For instance, systematic reviews have found little evidence to support growth mindset interventions, even if there is correlational evidence that students who do well tend to have a growth mindset. This may be because we have the chain of cause-and-effect wrong and that effort and success cause growth mindset beliefs than the other way around. Or it may be that mindset beliefs do directly influence learning but such beliefs are immutable and we cannot change them by a school programme.

And yet, with my own students, and even my own children, I use the language that Carol Dweck advises. I don’t praise them for being clever but for effort. I correct them by adding a ‘yet’ when they claim not to be able to do something. Why? Because it makes sense to me, I cannot conceive of a downside and it aligns with my ethical viewpoint. They key issue, I guess, is that I would be appropriately circumspect when discussing this approach with others and I certainly would not claim that research shows that everyone should do what I do.

There are areas of education where evidence is strong. It is so clear that systematic phonics teaching should form part of early literacy instruction that I would argue that’s it’s negligent to do otherwise. Explicit teaching more generally does not have quite such a strong evidence base, but I would be pretty confident in advising an approach like Rosenshine’s to anyone who wants to improve outcomes in an academic subject.

And there are areas that, despite being around for a long time, lack evidence. There is a point at which absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence. If Bigfoot exists, then we really should have found the remains of one by now.

So, it’s complicated, but helpfully, the bad guys are easy to spot. They are the ones telling you what to do but who are unable to support their assertions with evidence.


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