11, February, 2015

Evidence informed judgments; not research based instructions – that’s professional teaching

Professor Angela McFarlane, Chief Executive of the College of Teachers, a lead organisation for the establishment of a College of Teaching.

In recent debates over the what, where, who and how concerning the founding of a new chartered College of Teaching I was surprised to come up against an interpretation of evidence based practice that assumed this meant the promotion of one right way to do things.

On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have been. In recent decades so-called ‘evidence based’ education policy has more often than not been exactly that – a diktat on how precisely to teach. Arguably the most extreme example was the literacy strategy with pretty much a script for the teacher and a massive uniform roll out across the land.

And so another useful phrase has changed its implied meaning. In its place we seem to be adopting ‘evidence informed’, but what does that mean? Does an evidence informed practitioner read all the latest journals and know the ‘best’ and ‘latest’ way to teach? I would argue it is more subtle and complex than that.

First, there is unlikely to be one right way to teach that works for all learners under all circumstances. If there were we’d have found it by now and all be using it. The art and science of teaching lies in being able to recognise how well learners are making progress and where this is not as it should be, and to be able to call on a base of professional knowledge to inform what you do to intervene.

That does not mean you never try anything new or only apply standardised recipes. It does mean you know enough about learning and teaching to make professional decisions about what is likely to be successful given the context in front of you. That for me is the heart of professionalism.

Teaching is frequently offered the example of medical practice as the gold standard for evidence informed practice. Randomised control trials produce a shared ‘truth’ that all can then act on. If only. The reality is much closer to teaching than we might realise. An RCT might tell you the treatment that the majority of patients respond well to, it will not tell you if the person in front of you is likely to be in that majority or will need a different approach.

That is where professional judgment comes in. It’s  all about knowing enough about the subtleties of the research findings and the comparisons of different studies then having the confidence to make your professional judgment accordingly. As in medicine so in teaching.

We need practitioners who understand the nature of evidence and how to use it to inform their practice. We also need a shared infrastructure that carries out robust meta-analyses and interprets the outcomes in terms of their implications for practice. Then we need a community in which there is an active and robust debate amongst practitioners.

Which brings me back to a College of Teaching-shaped gap in the professional teaching landscape.

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