Research and pedagogy: what is evidence-based education?

The introduction of the neutral packet to combat smoking, or the development of the NutriScore nutritional logo to help consumers find their way around food products, are measures that have been devised on the basis of evidence-based public health research programs. This methodology - or "evidence-based practice" - has been developed in the medical field for over three decades.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier and Sihame Chkair, University of Montpellier

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The World Health Organization has defined it as a major tool for developing new knowledge, evaluating the effects of new practices and making decisions in the field of public health and healthcare.

Built on so-called evidence-based data, this rigorous, experimental scientific research produces proof, creating a pyramid, a hierarchy in which quantitative research is deemed more statistically reliable than qualitative and collaborative research.

Is this type of work, based on comparative assessments using quantitative and observable criteria, relevant to the educational field?

Measuring the effectiveness of educational systems

Evidence-based education is nothing new. The very idea of quantitative tests has been around since the early 20th century, with the psychologist Alfred Binet, inventor of intelligence tests and precursor of the notion of intelligence quotient, and the Belgian pedagogue Ovide Decroly, a figure of the Education nouvelle movement, who developed mental tests for pupils.

For the past ten years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been advocating evidence-based international standards. In France, the Conseil Scientifique de l'Education Nationale, created in 2018, like other institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands, recommends the development of evidence-based quantitative scientific research. The stated aim of what is known as translational research is to enable research to have an immediate impact on teaching practices. By claiming to be scientific and indisputable, evidence-based research underpins the possibility of a direct transition from research to the classroom.

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Can a methodology suffice to define an effective practice or even a precise teaching method? One of the risks is to turn evidence into dogma, to create a hierarchy between scientific research and even to discredit research that does not use evidence, such as applied or collaborative research. The very definition of evidence in education is linked to its use: it's about transforming teaching and, in particular, learning methods.

Evidence-based methodology aims to highlight "what works", what is effective. Some researchers ask: is effectiveness a worthy goal of education? Indeed, what is meant by effective? Is it to train future citizens of a democratic society, or future workers, and if so, which? Is it a question of developing individual fulfillment and well-being?

By integrating the question of effectiveness, evidence-based methodology also raises the issue of transforming teaching practices. But is it enough to have conclusive data on the effectiveness of an educational device for it to produce positive effects in the classroom? If we compare the act of education to the preparation of a dish, it seems obvious that a recipe is needed, which evidence promises to provide. However, the role of the cook is crucial: his or her intuition, testimony, experience, choice of ingredients, context and time are just as important to the success of the dish as the recipe!

Varying research frameworks to grasp the complexity of situations

Nevertheless, evidence-based methodology offers the possibility of rigorous, scientific research, based on relevant and significant panels. The transition from research to practice, from the laboratory to the classroom, is a key to the successful integration of new pedagogical practices in a changing world. In France, evidence-based research is multiplying on the possible integration of new practices such as outdoor education, yoga, meditation or the development of psychosocial skills.

For evidence-based data to be enlightening, we can't limit ourselves to analyzing measurable and quantifiable data. Education is a complex phenomenon, and requires us to take into account the multiple parameters of context, environment, organization of time and students, spaces, and the mentalities of the various players - students, teachers, non-teaching adults, parents.

The influence of evidence in public education policy is growing. It is one method among others that can provide decision-making tools. Providing easier access to scientific knowledge, and enabling teachers - the key players in the success of such a transfer - to appropriate and integrate the knowledge gained from research and studies, is a prerequisite for the successful transformation of education systems.

To evolve, our education system needs reliable scientific research, whatever the chosen methodology. The transition from research to classroom practice is never self-evident. Making teachers the key players in research, and giving them the opportunity to influence it through their own experience, opens up new prospects for gaining a better understanding of the educational act, and for resolving the many challenges facing education.

Sylvain Wagnon, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier and Sihame Chkair, Doctor in Health Economics and PhD student in Educational Sciences, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.