Monday 1 December 2014

What Works? Evidence for decision-makers - it's not quite that simple.

This week saw the publication of the What Works Network's What Works? Evidence for Decision-Makers report which in the context of education identified a number of practices, for example, peer tutoring and small-group tutoring which appear to work.  On the other hand, the report also identified a number of practices which appeared not to work, for example, giving pupils financial incentives to pass GCSE or pupils repeating a year.  However, whenever such  reports come out which identify supposedly what works there can be tendency to confuse 'evidence' with evidence-based practice.  In particular, there is a danger that published research evidence is used to reduce the exercise of professional judgment by practitioners.  Indeed, one of the great myths associated with evidence-based practice is that it is the same as research determined or driven practice.  As such, it is potentially useful for educationalists interested in evidence-based education to gain a far greater understanding of what is meant by evidence-based practice.
      Barends, Rousseau, & Briner's (2014) recent pamphlet on the basic principles of evidence-based management  define evidence based practice as the making of decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources by:
  • Asking: translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question
  • Acquiring: systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence
  • Appraising: critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence
  • Aggregating: weighing and pulling together the evidence
  • Applying: incorporating the evidence into the decision-making process
  • Assessing: evaluating the outcome of the decision taken
to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome (p2)*.
In undertaking this task information and evidence is sought from four sources
  1. Scientific evidence Findings from published scientific research.
  2. Organisational evidence Data, facts and figures gathered from the organisation.
  3. Experiential evidence The professional experience and judgment of practitioners.
  4. Stakeholder evidence The values and concerns of people who may be affected by the decision.
In other words, evidence based practice involves multiple sources of evidence and the exercise of sound judgement.
     Furthermore, drawing upon Dewey's practical epistemology Biesta argues that the role of research is to provide us with insight as to what worked in the past, rather than what intervention will work in the future.  As such, all that evidence can do is provide with us a framework for more intelligent problem-solving.  In other words, evidence cannot give you the answer on how to proceed in any particular situation, rather it can enhance the processes associated with deliberative problem-solving and decision-making.
     So what are the key messages which emerge from this discussion.  For me at least there would be appear to be four key points

  • Research evidence is not the only fruit - in other words when engaging in evidence based-practice research evidence is just one of multiple sources of evidence.
  • Even where there is good research evidence, that does not replace the role of judgment in making decisions about how to proceed.
  • All that research evidence can do is tell you what worked in the past, it can't tell you what will work in your setting or in the same setting at some time in the future.
  • Research evidence provides a starting point for intelligent problem-solving
Barends, E., Rousseau, D. M., & Briner, R. B. 2014. Evidence-Based Management : The Basic Principles. Centre for Evidence Based Management (Ed.). Amsterdam.
Biesta, G. 2007 Why 'What Works' Won't Work : Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Educational Theory, 57 (1) 21-22


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