Sunday 13 December 2015

All I want for Christmas is to find out 'what works?'

There's an old, old  joke.  A son asks his father if he would buy him an Action Man for Christmas.  Christmas morning arrives, and the son goes to the Christmas Tree and finds a beautifully wrapped present, which he hopes is his long-wished for Action Man.  The boy quickly rips off the wrapping paper and to his horror finds that his present is just an empty shoe-box.  The boy turns to his father and says : 'Dad, what's this?  And the father replies, " It's an Action Man deserter."

So what's this got to do with finding out 'what works' in education and applying within your school or classroom.  Well for me, so much of the discussion around 'what works' in education, is missing any meaningful discussion of methodology.     So if we want to try and fill this methodological gap then a useful place to start is 'scientific realism', as it provides us with a framework for moving beyond 'what works?'.

The 'scientific realism' approach has its' origins in the work of Pawson and Tilley and their 1997 book 'Realistic Evaluation' and which articulates a number of assumptions about the nature of reality, how cause and effect works and the implications for carrying out evaluations.  Westhrop (2014) provides a very useful summary of five key ideas underpinning realist evaluation.

1.  Realism asserts that both the material and the social worlds are 'real' at least in the sense that anything that can have real effects is itself real.
2.  Realism acknowledges that all enquiry and observation are shaped filtered through the human brain and that there is, therefore, no such thing as 'final' truth or knowledge
3.  Realism argues that all social systems are open systems
4.  Realism offer a particular understanding about how causation works i.e. causal outcomes follow from mechanisms acting in context.
5.  Realism provides a provides a specific way of thinking about 'context' - whether a mechanism 'fires' depends upon the context (Westhrop, 2014 p 4-6)

 Now,  by adopting 'scientific realism'  then the question is now no longer 'what works?'  but instead becomes ' how and why does this work and/or not work, for whom, to what extent, in what respects, in what contexts and over what period?'.  And by asking these questions, we are more likely to get answers to the questions that matters i.e what's likely to work in my school, in my classes and with which students.

This short blogpost cannot hope to cover in any depth the arguments for and against realist evaluation. So instead of asking for a present and getting the metaphorical 'well-wrapped empty-shoe box' - which looks good on the outside but with noting on the inside  - instead ask for a copy Pawson and Tilley's 'Realistic Evaluation'.  It won't disappoint.


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