Sunday 10 April 2016

Fads, faddism and the evidence-based practitioner

If you are an evidence-based practitioner, school research lead or headteacher and interested in evidence-based educational change, then this post is for you.  This post, drawing upon the work of Robert Slavin, will consider explore the fashionable nature of educational reform and the various pendulum like stages - both upswing and downswing -  which educational innovations invariably undergo.  Finally, we will consider the actions necessary to ensure your own practice is based on substance rather than the whims of fashion.

The pendulum of educational innovation

Everyone involved in schools and colleges  can no doubt draw up their own list of 'fads' and a few are listed:
  • Brain-based teaching
  • Character education
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Learning styles
  • Multiple intelligences
  • Self-esteem movement
  • Portfolio-based assessment
Indeed, every period has its own fads - for example - Growth Mindsets, Flipped Learning, Bring Your Own Device, Grit and dare I say it Multi-Academy Trusts.  Indeed in this week's TES Dan Williams - @furtheredagogy - identifies a number of current teaching practices which appear not to have much in the way of research evidence to support claims for their effectiveness.  These include
  • Teaching generic skills over subject knowledge
  • Teaching in blocks
  • Individualised/personalised learning
  • Student control over learning
  • Raising aspiration
Now to help us understand the processes associated with the life-cycles of educational innovations it is worth turning to the work of Slavin (1989).  Slavin  argues that educational innovation is famous for its cycle of early enthusiasm, widespread dissemination, subsequent disappointment, and eventual decline - the classic swing of the pendulum. (p752).  Slavin then goes onto describe the 12 phases of the swing of the pendulum which educational innovations inevitably move through.  

The upswing
  • The programme is proposed
  • The programme is piloted
  • The programme is introduced into innovative schools or MATs
  • The programme becomes a hot-topic amongst staff-developers
  • The programme expands rapidly
  • Controlled evaluations begin
The downswing
  • Innovative schools move to other programmes
  • Complaints surface in professional publications
  • Preliminary evaluations are disappointing
  • Developer claims that disappointing results are due to poor implementation.
  • Interest in the programme flags
  • Controlled evaluation studies are published - invariably with disappointing results
Implications for you and your role

In seeking to improve your effectiveness as an evidence-based practitioner - be it as a teacher, school research lead, head of department or senior leader,  there would appear to be a number of implication of Slavin's analysis.
  1. You may want to take a moment to reflect on innovations recently introduced into your school, and where you would place the innovation on the pendulum.  In doing so, I'm not asking to judge where the innovation might be within your own school's 'pendulum of change' but rather where the innovation could be located within the system.   Let's take Lesson Study as an example.  It could be argued that Lesson Study is at the mid-point of swing of the pendulum - there has been rapid expansion in the use of Lesson Study - even though we don't know whether it works and benefits pupil outcomes -  and the EEF evaluations have just begun and we are now waiting for the results.
  2. Having located where an innovation is located on the swing of the pendulum, it is probably worth reflecting on the decision-making process which led to the innovation being adopted.  Were colleagues swept up in a colleague's enthusiasm post a CPD event.  Does the school have a culture of having to be seen to be innovative and adopting the latest new programme or intervention?  Was it because the school has a specific problem and needed to be seen to taking action to address the issues
  3. For any new innovations or programmes you are thinking of adopting - consideration should be given as to their current position on the pendulum, as this will given you some insight into the evidence available to support the decision where to adopt the innovation.  Slavin argues that before a programme or intervention is adopted a critical analysis of available evaluations should be undertaken where the following questions are asked:  Has the group using the program been compared to a comparable control group? Did the post-test assess objectives that were being pursued equally by the experimental and control group? Was the programme evaluated under realistic conditions and over realistic time periods?
  4. For any long-standing educational practices which may have been adopted within your school or college, it may be worth taking a moment to reflect on what research evidence is currently available to support claims for the practices effectiveness.  For as Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) evidence can often become stale and no longer current
And a few final words

Given the significant challenges in trying to establish 'what works, for whom, to what extent, for how long, and why' there is an obligation to try and participate in high quality evaluations of programmes and innovations.  If everyone waits for the evidence to be produced then there will be no evidence to evaluate.  Indeed, by participating in high quality evaluations this should increase the school's ability to discriminate between fashionable programmes and interventions with real substance.


Hargreaves, A and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming, teaching in every school. Routledge, Abingdon

Slavin, R.E., 1989. PET and the pendulum: Faddism in education and how to stop it. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(10), pp.752-58.

1 comment:

  1. A good friend of mine is an elementary school teacher and wants to learn more about innovations in her field. Before reading this I hadn't thought a lot about the upswing versus the downswing and its effects on the outcome. Knowing where a technique lies on this scale can be useful to help it work! These are great tips on educational innovation that I will definitely share with my friend!