It's all about the evidence

18th October 2013 at 01:00

As a doctor, married to a teacher, I would like to offer some comments on Frank Furedi's article on the role of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in educational research ("Teaching is not some kind of clinical cure", Comment, 4 October).

Professor Furedi describes the RCT as if it is a method peculiar to medicine. It is actually an example of one of the oldest and most powerful techniques to advance knowledge - the experiment. An experiment takes two subjects and applies an intervention to half of them while striving to keep all other variables the same. If the outcome in one group is different, it is a reasonable assumption that the difference was caused by the intervention. I am surprised to see this marvellous inheritance of Enlightenment thinking called "a fad". The article says that "a school is not a hospital". In my opinion they are remarkably similar. Both institutions are trying to achieve results, complicated by multiple variables including socio-economic situation, psychological issues and the differing abilities of the practitioners delivering the service. The beauty of the RCT is that these variables are likely to be distributed evenly between the two groups so that the effectiveness of the superior intervention is probably a result of the method employed.

In the absence of this form of evidence, it is not possible to argue that a particular approach achieves results. I could claim that having a child immerse their right foot in a bucket of water improves literacy and you would not be able to challenge me, because my opinion is as good as yours.

The mortality rate of childhood leukaemia used to be 100 per cent. After a series of RCTs conducted over five decades, the rate is now less than 10 per cent. I wish teachers could point to similar evidence about the effectiveness of their methods.

Dominic Cochran, Doctor.

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