Evidence from research – can we avoid confirmation bias?

It always amuses me if ever I go on to the school websites of schools which advocate project based learning, 21st century skills, learning how to learn and other ideas which have been comprehensively demolished in Daisy Christodoulou’s “7 myths about education”, as well as in other research publications. Time and time again, I read that these schools encourage their staff to engage with and carry out research about pedagogy. I cannot help but wonder how their head teachers would react to a teacher on their staff who pointed out the evidence against their particular philosophy of teaching and learning. Do they not realise that encouraging staff to engage with research could endanger a lot of their progressive ideas?

Despite all the evidence against project based learning, head teachers that have adapted it as a model have not, to my knowledge, had a damascene conversion and abolished it in their schools. The most recent piece of evidence comes from a government funded study by the Education Endowment Foundation, which has found that project based learning has a significant negative impact on the literacy of secondary pupils entitled to free school meals and has no positive impact on the rest. In response, the head teacher of Stanley Park High School in Surrey is quoted in the TES as saying, “I fundamentally believe that project based learning is the right thing to do, whether you’re a lower attaining or a higher attaining school.”

Well, he could hardly ditch something he has spent a huge amount of time and effort on. No doubt at this very minute he is looking for a) evidence that supports project based learning and b) flaws in any evidence against it.

This is one of the problems with research and it has been summarised by @AnnMroz in this week’s TES here. Basically, she talks of a situation where the brand is far more powerful than the evidence. Her editorial makes specific reference to the controversy over new grammar schools, but her point can apply to any particular philosophy of education we care to name. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, a person is likely to say, “well that is obviously the case overall, but in my particular circumstance….”. Alternatively, we fall into the trap of confirmation bias and I am as guilty of this as anyone. I admit to having some views on education which were originally based on my own particular experience and on gut instinct. I have a folder where I have stored copies of, and links to, various pieces of research which support my views. I have found it very useful to be able to quote research if I am “encouraged” to engage in a pedagogical practice which runs counter to my basic philosophy.

Equally, I admit to looking for flaws in any research evidence which runs counter to my views. For example, the EEF did some research on school systems where pupils could be required to repeat the year, which concluded that the practice had a negative impact. I looked closely at it, as my experience in teaching in countries which operated such systems was quite the opposite. I soon spotted the obvious flaw, namely that the research had only looked at the impact on the very small numbers of pupils who do actually end up repeating the year, rather than the effect on the whole cohort of pupils, including the vast majority who do get promoted. No one, it seemed, had done any significant research on that (if you know otherwise please let me know).

Therefore, much as it pains me to say so, I find myself agreeing with Ann Mroz’s statement that “we will never improve our education system if we ignore the merits in our opponents’ arguments or the shortcomings in our own”. This is not to say that we should not use research evidence to promote certain practices. I fully support teaching synthetic phonics, for example. But we should always be prepared to listen and attempt to understand people who argue a contrary view, as no doubt they will usually have some evidence (however flawed) in support of their view. I always cringe when a presenter at a conference or CPD event says: “of course we would all agree with X”, or “I don’t think anyone would argue against Y.” This is often not the case and I see no harm in acknowledging that.

 

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3 Responses to Evidence from research – can we avoid confirmation bias?

    • Kelly L says:

      We were advocates of PBL. Our HT being a big fan of Ken Robinson in particular. However, after an 18 month journey of research and reading we find our school in a totally different place to where it was two years previous. We now favour knowledge centred curricula and are adopters of the Trivium so a leopard can change its spots and we find our children are better for the different approach to teaching and learning. I think the issue comes from people not wanting to accept that they were following the wrong line of enquiry but if you know that you have been tasked with doing the best for the children in your care then it is your duty to do what is best even if it means a slight dint to your ego.

      Liked by 1 person

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