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Evidence-based practice: What is it? (updated Aug 2017)

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0


 

It’s hardly a revelation to argue that the adoption of evidence-based practice (EBP) in some other professions is far advanced in comparison to its use in education. That’s not to say that the resistance displayed by some teacher organizations towards the adoption of EBP has not been evident in the early stages of its acceptance by those professions, such as medicine and psychology. However, as these principles have been espoused in medicine and psychology since the early nineties, a new generation of practitioners have been exposed to EBP as the normal standard for practice. This has occurred among young practitioners because their training has emphasized the centrality of evidence in competent practice.

In education, unfortunately, there are few signs of this sequence occurring. Most teachers-in-training are not exposed to either the principles of EBP (unless in a dismissive aside) or to the practices that have been shown to be beneficial to student learning, such as the principles of instructional design and effective teaching, explicit phonological instruction, and student management approaches that might be loosely grouped under the behavioural or cognitive-behavioural banner.

In my view, until educational practice includes EBP as a major determinant of practice, then it will continue to be viewed as an immature profession. It is likely that the low status of teachers in many western countries will continue to be the norm unless and until significant change occurs.

The contribution below is an update on a paper I wrote on the topic of EBP for the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties:

 Hempenstall, K. (2006). What does evidence-based practice in education mean? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11(2), 83-92.


What does evidence-based practice in education mean? 

Teaching has suffered both as a profession in search of community respect and as a force for improving a nation’s social capital, because of its failure to adopt the results of empirical research as the major determinant of its practice. There are a number of reasons why this has occurred, among them a science-aversive culture endemic among education policymakers and teacher education faculties. There are signs that major shifts are occurring. There have been strong moves in Great Britain and the USA towards evidence-based practice in education in recent years. Indeed, the movement is likely to be further advanced by the recent edict from the US government’s Office of Management and Budget (Zient, 2012) that requests the entire Executive Branch to use every available means to promote the use of rigorous evidence in decision-making, program administration, and planning”. Evidence-based practice has influenced many professions in recent years. A simple Google search produces over 73,000,000 hits. Among them, in varying degrees of implementation, are professions as diverse as agriculture, speech pathology, occupational therapy, transport, library and information practice, management, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, and health care.

Several problems do require attention. The generally low quality of much educational research in the past has made the process of evaluating the evidence difficult, particularly for those teachers who have not the training to discriminate sound from unsound research designs. Teacher training itself has not empowered teachers with the capacity and motivation to explore how evidence could enhance their effectiveness. Until teachers become more skilled at doing so, it was hoped that bodies such as the What Works Clearing House could perform the sifting process to simplify judgements on what practices have been demonstrated to be effective. However, the strong criteria usually employed in this process have unearthed very few adequately-designed studies from which to make these judgements. There have also been other issues that have made this resource less helpful as a readily accessible and trustworthy site.

Teachers are coming under increasing media fire lately: Too many students are failing. Current teachers are not sufficiently well trained. Our brightest young people are not entering the teaching profession. What does that imply about those who are teachers? Are current teachers inadequate to the task entrusted to them? A nation’s future is dependent upon the next generation of students. So, how should we respond as a nation?

Education has a history of regularly adopting new ideas, but it has done so without the wide-scale assessment and scientific research that is necessary to distinguish effective from ineffective reforms. “More typically, someone comes across an idea she or he likes and urges its adoption… often the changes proposed are both single and simple – more testing of students, loosening certification requirements for teachers, or a particular school improvement model” (Levin, p.740).

“Most management decisions are not based on the best available evidence. Instead, practitioners often prefer to make decisions rooted solely in their personal experience. However, personal judgment alone is not a very reliable source of evidence because it is highly susceptible to systematic errors – cognitive and information-processing limits make us prone to biases that have negative effects on the quality of the decisions we make.” (Barends, Rousseau, & Briner, 2014, p.8)

This absence of a scientific perspective has precluded systematic improvement in the education system, and it has impeded growth in the teaching profession for a long time (Carnine, 1995a; Hempenstall, 1996; Marshall, 1993; Stone, 1996). Years ago in Australia, Maggs and White (1982) wrote despairingly "Few professionals are more steeped in mythology and less open to empirical findings than are teachers" (p. 131).

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