Evidence of what? Current Limits of Positivism in Education

In his recent paper for the Secretary of State for Education, Building Evidence into Education (2013), scientist Ben Goldacre lays out a series of proposals for improving the evidence base of schooling based on successes in the field of health.

  • 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, by identifying questions that need to be answered.

Dr. Goldacre is right to draw parallels between education and medicine, and few would disagree that teaching practice should be increasingly evidence-based. But he fails to adequately address the central difference between the two: medical success is measured in physical health, on which there is broad consensus, whereas interpretations of educational success are as varied as theories of human meaning. As we continue to strengthen the evidence-base of educational practice, we will increasingly have to confront the question of what education is for, and what it therefore means to be successful.

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