Only research will provide true clarity of vision

18th October 2013 at 01:00

In 2011, grant-making charity the Education Endowment Foundation funded a series of "fair tests" in education research. Those of us concerned about evidence in education were pleased. In spring 2013, doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre joined forces with England's Department for Education to launch another programme of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). By this time, we were beginning to think the dark days of selecting interventions based on personal preference or pseudo-research were over.

Sadly, the education research community is still riddled with dissenting voices, such as that of Frank Furedi ("Teaching is not some kind of clinical cure", Comment, 4 October). Teachers are the people most qualified to decide which interventions to use, and they should be provided with reliable evidence in order to make informed decisions. The present drive for more rigorous evidence may lead to real improvements if teachers understand its philosophy and make use of the information it provides. Professor Furedi's article contains some misunderstandings that make it very damaging to this goal.

The article highlights the complexity of the variables influencing teaching and learning, and claims that this renders RCTs pointless. In fact, this is precisely why they are necessary. The human body is hugely complex, as is the way it interacts with its environment. This has necessitated RCTs to ensure fair testing in medicine. Interactions between students and teachers are at least as complicated and also require randomisation to ensure that fair comparisons are made. Experiments show whether classroom practices work by ensuring that all these complex interactions are evened out.

If you are a teacher who would like to spend your budget on the basis of how effective programmes are rather than how heavily they are marketed, now is a great time to get involved.

Ben Styles, Research director at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

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