May 17, 2023

Who wants to work hard to enact evidence-free solutions in your organization? I suspect there are not a lot of hands being raised out there in the ether right now!

Of course, most of us want to think that when we introduce a new program, service, or procedure that there is at least some evidence that it has worked somewhere else before.

Herein lies the problem with education.

Educators long for certainty in the world by over-relying on evidence-based practices.

Let me say that again.

Educators long for certainty in the world by over-relying on evidence-based practices.

They look for practices that have the veneer of scientific thought and study. They do this in the hopes that if they implement the practice, program, or service in their context, it will succeed. If it does not succeed, they can at least say, “Oh well, it was supposed to work based on some pseudo-scientific study.”

Let’s just look at some problems with evidence-based practices.

1. In a study published in 2015, over half of the psychology tests failed the reproducibility test. This throws into question the definition of evidence.

2. The evidence is implemented in a specific context with specific controls. That context and those controls may not exist in your setting. For example, a reading program that is “science-based” may have been studied in an urban school, in a context of a lot of ancillary support structures. Does that mean the same intervention will work in a small, rural school that does not have those same ancillary support structures? Probably not. (BTW, does anyone else feel that the new “science of reading” is just the latest marketing campaign for phonics instruction? I’m not saying that is bad, I’m just saying…)

3. Schools are notorious for not “implementing with fidelity…and I say, “Thank God for that.” But, if you are looking for evidence-based practices, you probably need to implement the practice exactly as it was implemented in a study…an impossible task.

4. As Ferb tells Candice in the cartoon Phineas and Ferb, the Quantum Theory states that the mere observation of an experiment changes its outcome. Not reassuring for evidence-based practices!

Maybe we should not look for evidence-based but evidence-informed practices. In a Rick Hess blog, Harvard professor Jal Mehta states something that we all should remember as school leaders.

“One touchstone I find useful here is Dewey’s view that practitioners knowing the science of a particular area expands rather than contracts their range of action. People think that the equation is something like “science determines action” whereas it is more like “science helps you perceive more aspects of the situation, which enables better and more sophisticated contextual judgments.”

Look at the last sentence in the quote. That sentence implies that using research is important to expand the realm of possibilities of actions for practitioners.

School leaders should not look for research to provide certainty and answers. Rather, research is needed to help school leaders see their context from multiple angles and possibilities. There is not more certainty there, but more options for actions.

I am interested to hear what you think. Please reply with your thoughts!

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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