Where’s the Evidence?
Christine Shannon

People who teach have two major responsibilities: maintenance of the current system and changing it. We’re both change agents and resisters of change, responsible for keeping things going, as well as finding better ways of learning. So how do we determine which practices we should continue and which ones need to be changed? What evidence can we look for to guide us in our decision making?

Way back in the 17th century, scientific method gave us a more objective way of knowing the world. Yet we remain unsure about the best way to educate young people, and uncertain about how to answer questions about learning, such as those posed by Ken Robinson in his latest book Creative Schools.

Maybe part of the reason for our lack of certainty is related to differences between social and physical science. In the physical sciences, controlled experimentation can establish a causal relationship between two or more factors. We’re aware of this process in, for example, the development of drugs to treat disease, the building of engines to power spacecraft, and the construction of bridges to carry traffic.

But in the social sciences, such as education, we can’t randomly assign children to programs and then test them to see which ones were successful! What happens in one school is based on the shared experiences of the people involved, and these experiences are governed by social factors, not pre-determined, laboratory-controlled conditions. Each classroom we examine is unique, and we can’t assume identical settings, even in the same school, and therefore always need to qualify our explanations about what is happening.

Sometimes we just have to try new things if we really believe that a new approach is necessary, because unlike the physical world, the social world doesn’t have time to wait until the universe is revealed! But this doesn’t mean abandoning valid and reliable evaluations of our practice.

Dylan Wiliam recently proposed that teaching would never be a research-based profession, and that this is a good thing. Unfortunately such views encourage an unproductive divide between University and School personnel, and reinforce the belief that teachers are incapable of investigating the learning of their students in a logical, rational and reasoned way. In response to Wiliam’s assertion that research should remain in the hands of trained academics, David James offers an alternative that keeps research relevant to teachers and schools. According to James “School-based educational research poses some of the most fundamental questions that can be asked of a teacher: how do we know that what we are teaching is actually having a beneficial effect on our students? Where is the evidence? And, if there is evidence, how transferable and testable is it?”

The Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation is committed to advancing the professional learning of teachers at The Geelong College, especially their very active engagement with investigations of learning that not only inform what they teach, but how and why they teach it.