Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Randomised Trials in education?

The big question here is 'why not'?  Ben Goldacre is completely correct in saying that if we want to be treated as professionals, then it may be an idea for teachers to actually partake of some rigorous trials into what interventions really work.  As I tweeted earlier, in my experience of teaching most 'evidence' of working interventions are anecdotal, biased and often totally unrepeatable.  Yes, every child is different and yes, we don't want to have prescriptive methods foisted upon us, but I don't believe either of these arguments should prevent randomised trials from being, well, trialled.

The main reason RTs are so highly regarded in the world of cold empiricism is because they remove bias and  variables and allow us to identify exactly what works and what doesn't.  For drugs testing this is an obvious boon, as it allows researchers to identify the effectiveness of chemical interventions without any other issues muddying the water.  But in medicine, RT go beyond this - it isn't all drug trials.  RTs into the behaviour, style, language and techniques used by doctors and nurses have been carried out, with their effectiveness measured and analysed.  Tests such as doctors converging their language to that of their patients have been measured and the results published (see here).  If these patently non-pharma tests can be run, published and respected, then why can't similar trials be done in schools, on either a local or national level?

Obviously there are concerns that somehow children are a mysterious and vague concept, that no amount of scientific analysis can comprehend.  I view this as utter nonsense, as I see no reason, other than the deliberate mystification of the profession, for it to be the case.  Children are all different, yes; but as Goldacre said in his report: they're not that different.  Anyone who's ever written a class set of reports will know this.  If all children and their behaviour were utterly unique, teaching would be totally impossible, as no-one would have any benchmarks to set things by.  Of course there is variation - as there is in patients - but not enough to stop us from giving RT a go.

As I said, prescription from on high is feared, too.  But this misses the whole point.  Goldacre's entire idea is based on giving us as a profession an arsenal of solid, trustworthy evidence to throw back in the face of bureaucrats trying to tell us our job.  It would give us the intellectual clout required to seriously question the wisdom of policy without sounding like spoilt brats, over-mystifying the whole job by making it sound like only the chosen few can cope with teaching.  Rot.  RTs would enable us to trial techniques and ideas, to see if they actually, objectively work better than not doing them at all.  This harms no one.  For example, trialling mini-plenaries to see if they have an effect on learning would involve analysing book work, classroom participation, questionnaires, and yes, even data.  It would take time, and real focus, but over a set period would provide us with a picture of whether they are useful or not, in general.  This, multiplied all over the place, would give us an invaluable understanding of pedagogy that we currently lack.

The main things to bear in mind is that medicine and education don't have to be that similar.  All they need is to both be about results (whether data, engagement, behaviour, whatever) and RTs will give us some feedback on the efficacy of the techniques and interventions we use.

I would say that RTs done locally, with teachers leading them and analysing them, would be a good place to start.  They certainly shouldn't be top-down (they're not in medicine, after all - one of Goldacre's other big point that has been totally ignored by some) and should empower teachers to do some proper academic research into their own techniques, or new ones they fancy trying.  This would soon build a corpus of evidence for different intervention and teaching styles/techniques that would enable teachers to actually argue their points against the government with actual evidence to back them up! How invaluable that would be!  And what a change it would make, creating a more reasonable, logical profession and hopefully helping to dispel some of the ridiculous dogma that surrounds the profession (a pet hate of mine is teachers who act like there's something inherently 'different' or 'special' about teaching, as if it absolves teachers of any criticism at all.)

Look, I'm not saying that it's the be all and end all, and I obviously can't be sure that it will work, but I just hate the knee-jerk anti-idea culture of teaching sometimes.  Think about these considerations - maybe Goldacre is onto something.

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