Evidence without purpose means nothing

13th November 2015 at 00:00

In 1929, flying in a plane was a hugely risky business. That year, when commercial aviation was in its infancy, there were 51 fatal crashes in the US alone – the equivalent of several thousand today.

The safety of air travel has improved steadily ever since. In 2013 there were nine fatal accidents in the whole world and 90 accidents in total – 2.8 per million departures. Per mile travelled, you’re far more likely to meet your demise in a bus, car, train or boat, or on foot. Flying in a plane has become remarkably safe.

But how? Well, aviation is a clear-sighted industry, continually trying to improve; it has a culture of reporting safety glitches and errors without fear of reprisal. Everyone involved buys into the industry’s ultimate aim, which is a very simple one, distillable to two words: no deaths.

Competitive British cycling is another paragon of constant improvement. The likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins are just some of the household names at the vanguard of an astonishing success story that has rapidly turned cycling from a niche pursuit to a national craze.

The success was masterminded by Sir Dave Brailsford (the surfeit of knights on two wheels underscores the sport’s incredible achievements), with his mantra of “the aggregation of marginal gains”. This is the idea that putting together many tiny, scarcely perceptible improvements to performance leads to stunning results.

There is, however, another less heralded factor in cycling’s success. All the athletes, coaches, technicians, nutritionists, administrators and funders involved in the sport are spurred on by two simple aims: more gold medals and more world records. Once again, clarity of purpose is key.

Sir Dave’s methods have been cited at several Scottish education conferences in recent years. But how useful to education are the British cycling and aviation models? Both are underpinned by very clear goals, but the same cannot be said of education.

November is Scottish education conference season, and there has been much talk of “evidence-based practice” and “teachers as researchers”. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has been trying to reassure doubters that standardised national assessment is all about accruing better evidence on what works (see Feedback, page 15).

The drive for better evidence intuitively sounds like a good thing. But to what end? What is the aim of education?

There are many answers, depending on who you ask: better grades, resilience, happy children, amassing skills to ply a trade, indoctrination, adaptability, spiritual enlightenment and so on and so on. Education is far more nebulous in intent than aviation or cycling, which makes improvement infinitely harder.

In 2012, University of St Andrews researchers published a “provocation paper” titled What Counts as Good Evidence? (bit.ly/AndrewsEvidence). They made a crucial point: that evidence is only one of many potential influences on policymakers and practitioners (and a highly contested one at that). “Research data…only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain,” the researchers warned.

Education is becoming increasingly politicised in Scotland, so educators cannot afford to rack up evidence willy-nilly. They need to be clear about what purpose they wish education to serve – and make damn sure they let those in power know about it.


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