Thursday 27 April 2017

The school research lead and the case against empathy

In a recent post, I argued that evidence-based practitioners need to display empathy if they are to act with what (Paul and Elder, 2014) describe as intellectual fair-mindedness.  Since I writing that post I have come across Paul Bloom’s recently published book Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, in which Bloom argues that empathy can lead to poor decision-making.  As empathy can lead us to be be biased in favour of people we know or are like us - and biased us against the needs of others who are not like us, or we don’t know.   So with this in mind the rest of this post will examine the following:
  • What do we mean by empathy and are there different types of empathy?
  • How can some types of empathy lead to poor decision-making?
  • What are the implications for school research leads and champions seeking to become conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioners?
What do we mean by empathy and are there different types?

(Bloom, 2017) defines empathy as : … the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does (p16)

Bloom then goes onto cite Adam Smith who - using the term sympathy – describes empathy as the ability to think about another person and ‘place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person as him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something, which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.

However, this form of empathy – known as emotional empathy -  is not the same as cognitive empathy, which is the … capacity to understand what’s going on in other people’s heads, to know what makes them tick, and what gives them joy and pail, what they see as humiliating and ennobling.p36  In other words, with cognitive empathy we are not talking about feeling your pain, but rather the ability to recognise that the other person is in pain.

So for the purpose of our discussion about the relationship between empathy, evidence-based practice and intellectual fair mindedness, we are interested in cognitive empathy and the ability to see someone else’s point of view, rather than trying to feel how they are feeling.  And it is cognitive empathy, which contributes to (Paul & Elder, 2014) and their notion of intellectual fair-mindedness.

How can emotional empathy get in the way of good decision-making?

So what is the case against emotional empathy.  Bloom argues Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now.  This makes use care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts as well as to the suffering to those we do not or cannot empathise with.  Empathy is biased, pushing us in the directions of parochialism and racism.  It is short sighted, motivating actions that might makes things better in the short-term but lead to tragic results in the future.  It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many.  I can spark violence; our empathy for those close to use is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.  It is corrosive in personal relationships, it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the forces of kindness and love (p9)

Bloom backs up his claims with references to appropriate research, which I leave you to check out for yourself, as the purpose of this blog is not to provide the definitive empirical discussion about emotional empathy, but rather consider the implications for the evidence-based practitioner of emotional empathy.  For setting aside whether or not you agree with Bloom’s argument, a core tenant of being an evidence-based practitioner is to make explicit your assumptions and then explores the implications for being a conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioner and school research lead.

What are the implications for school research leads and champions seeking to become conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practitioners?

Given the claims Bloom has made about the downsides of empathy – be it whether empathy be a cause of war and racism – this is probably one of the most difficult ‘discussion’ sections I have written.   That said, I think we can draw out a number of implications which arise from Bloom’s analysis.

First, just because something seems intuitively that it is a good thing – does not necessarily mean that it is.

Second, given the distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy, when discussing research and evidence with colleagues, you need to be in command of your terminology.  Otherwise, discussions may become unfocussed as colleagues have different understandings of the terms being used.

Third, given that emotional empathy shines a ‘spotlight’ on the needs of certain individuals in the here and now. It may be that emotional empathy will steer your attention in the direction of current problems and the individuals who are experiencing them.  On the other hand, given the scarce time and resources available to the school research lead, it may be that there are other activities which may be more beneficial, particularly for pupils who have yet to join the school.

Fourth, in working with colleagues you are more likely to empathise with colleagues who are like you.  You may have been in teaching for say 5- 10 years and have vivid memories of what it is like to be an NQT, so you may cut NQTs or recently qualified colleagues some ‘slack’ in participating in knowledge-building activities.  On the other hand, you just might not ‘get’ the colleague who has been teaching for thirty years, and who has no apparent interest in research.  As a result, you are more willing to spend your time with the NQT rather than the more experienced colleague.

Fifth, there is a potential danger that when looking for problems of practice on which to focus your attention, you focus on groups of pupils who may have had the same problems or issues that you experienced when your age.  That said, there may be other pupils or colleagues for whom you have no ‘emotional’ connection, which means that their issues are potentially ignored.

And finally ....

Next week we will be looking at the evidence as to whether coaching leads to improved teaching and increases in pupil achievement.

Bloom, P. (2017). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. London: Random House.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2014). Critical Thinking : Tool for retaking your professional life (Second Edition). New Jersey: Pearson.

Thursday 20 April 2017

The school research lead and the case for intellectual humility

In a recent post for the Chartered College of Teaching blog I argued that intellectual humility was a fundamental component of being a ‘conscientious, explicit and judicious’ evidence-based practitioner.    This is particularly important as for, as (Leary et al., 2016) note, much of what we believe to be true is either inaccurate, subject to bias or completely wrong.    So the rest of this post will draw upon the work of (Leary et al., 2016) to:  

  • explain what is meant by ‘intellectual humility’; 
  • report on research in which people recognised that their beliefs might be wrong; 
  • identify questions for further research
  • discuss the implications ‘intellectual humility’ for you in your role as school-research champion or research lead

Intellectual humility – what is it?

(Leary et al., 2016) define intellectual humility as recognizing that a particular personal belief may be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that belief and to one’s own limitation in obtaining and evaluating relevant information (p1)

As such, although intellectual humility is fundamentally about private assessments by an individual of the accuracy of their beliefs, intellectual humility is also manifested in how individuals respond to others, and which may or may lead to conflict.

Research on intellectual humility

(Leary et al., 2016) report on four research studies which have looked into the nature of intellectual humility.  One of the studies showed that intellectual humility was associated to variables related to openness, curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and low dogmatism.  In the other three studies, higher levels of intellectual humility were linked with people being: less certain about their religious beliefs; less inclined to see changes of opinions as flip-flopping; more attuned to the strength of persuasive arguments.

Questions for further research

(Leary et al., 2016) identify a number of questions which call for our attention.
  • In what ways in individuals who possess high levels of intellectual humility compared to low levels of intellectual humility different in the way they process information?
  • Do intellectual humble people possess more accurate and nuanced knowledge than those individuals who are less intellectually humble?
  • How do different levels of intellectual humility influence individuals in how they handle differences of opinions or conflict with others.
Implications for you as a school research lead

There are a number of ways in which this discussion about ‘intellectual humility’ can inform your role as a school research champion.

First, there should be a degree of intellectual humility about the role of research and evidence in helping teachers bring about improvements in pupil outcomes.  We just don’t know whether providing teachers with access to research makes them better teachers, leading to improved outcomes for pupils

Second, given the diverse range of views within education about the pros and cons of different types of research and research methods, an appropriate stance to take would be that all methods have their uses, and may shed some light onto a problem of practice.  We probably don’t know enough to say we should prefer any one type of evidence or another.

Third, it’s important that as a school research lead, you demonstrate and role model intellectual humility, by displaying genuine curiosity and openness about the views of others.   In particular, it is important that you are not dogmatic and do not treat with disdain the views of colleagues who do not share your views about the value of research and other sources of evidence.

And finally ...

In my next post, I'll be looking at the relationship between empathy and being a 'conscientious, explicit and judicious' evidence-based practitioner.  The answer may well be surprising.


LEARY, M. R., DIEBELS, K. J., DAVISSON, E. K., JONGMAN-SERENO, K. P., ISHERWOOD, J. C., RAIMI, K. T., DEFFLER, S. A. & HOYLE, R. H. 2016. Cognitive and interpersonal features of intellectual humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167217697695.

Thursday 13 April 2017

The school research leads need 'mindlines' not 'guidelines

It has long been an article of faith amongst many educational researchers that education has little to learn from evidence-based medicine.  There are noble exceptions such as Professor Rob Coe and Professor Steve Higgins, but on the whole the educational research establishment perceive evidence –based medicine as being dominated by randomised control trials, the production of clinical guidelines which devalue clinical expertise and results in limited clinician’s discretion.  And as such, there is a view that there is little value in educationalists consulting the vast range of knowledge and experience about evidence-based medicine which has been developed over the last twenty years to see whether there are any lessons or insights for school-leaders, teachers, school governing bodies, trustees of multi-academy trust trustees and educational researchers.   

However, I believe there is much to learn from medicine about; the use of evidence; how knowledge is both mobilised and brokered; and, how tensions between different sources of knowledge is managed.   To support this argument I'll turn to the work (Gabbay and Le May, 2004) who undertook an ethnographic study to see how primary care clinicians went about making their individual and collective health-care decisions.    In doing so, we will see that health clinicians rarely accessed and used explicit evidence from research or other sources directly, but relied on “mindlines”—collectively reinforced, internalised, tacit guidelines. These were informed by brief reading but mainly by their own and their colleagues’ experience, their interactions with each other and with opinion leaders, patients, and pharmaceutical representatives, and other sources of largely tacit knowledge that built on their early training and their own and their colleagues' experience.    

These 'mindlines' are illustrated in Figure 1 - which has been taken from Gabbay and Le May.

The implications for teachers and school research leads

For me there are a number of implications of  (Gabbay and Le May, 2004) work for those educationalist looking to promote the use of research evidence in schools and other educational settings.   First, just like clinicians, teachers do not work with explicit codified knowledge but with ‘knowledge in practice'. Teachers and clinicians compare their own explicit and tacit knowledge with others as they developed their ‘mindlines’.  Teachers, if they are like clinicians, are unlikely to go back to research to check-out or validate of their evidence-based and will rely on others’ knowledge and experience

Second, as Gabbay and Le May note 'mindlines' are more sophisticated than ‘heuristics and rules of thumb’ as they are reliant on professional dialogue with colleagues.   However, as Gabbay and Le May note ‘mindlines’ are a form of short-cut and may appear to be more risky than other more structured approaches to evidence-based practice.   Gabbay and Le May argue that given clinicians – and in our case teachers - do not have the time or the skills to rigorously review and combine research evidence and other sources of evidence.  As such, knowledge and research literacy for teachers may be about how they can identify trusted sources of information and evidence either individually or in professional learning communities.

Third, if like clinicians, teachers are going on trusted sources of knowledge within schools and other settings, then school leaders and others have a responsibility to ensure that local opinion leaders within schools have access and time to critically evaluate research and other sources of evidence.   With that in mind, it may well be that school leaders have to ‘up-their-game’ in their knowledge of research evidence.  Furthermore, it may also suggest that a wide range of diverse colleagues – I’m trying to avoid terms like ‘old-lags’ and ‘staffroom lawyers’ - should be drawn into the ongoing development of ‘mindlines’.  Indeed, as (Gabbay and Le May, 2004) note given how ‘mindlines’ are constructed then everyone within a school community has a responsibility to engage in some form of professional learning and engagement with evidence, to support the on-going development of effective ‘knowledge in practice’.

Finally, if we accept that ‘social media’ has an increasing role in influencing educational debate both inside and outside of schools, then tweeters, such as myself need to ensure we ‘tweet responsibly’ – and make sure our argument, underlying claim and supporting evidence are explicit, so that they can be challenged and scrutinised.


GABBAY, J. & LE MAY, A. 2004. Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329, 1013.

(Gabbay and Le May, 2004)
·      Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care?
·      2004
·      British Medical Journal, 329 1013
·      Two general practices, one in the south of England and the other in the north of England
Who was involved
·      Nine doctors, three nurses, one phlebotomist, and associated medical staff in one practice provided the initial data; the emerging model was checked for transferability with general practitioners in the second practice

·      To explore in depth how primary care clinicians (general practitioners and practice nurses) derive their individual and collective healthcare decisions.

·      Design Ethnographic study using standard methods (non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and documentary review) over two years to collect data, which were analysed thematically

·      Clinicians rarely accessed and used explicit evidence from research or other sources directly, but relied on “mindlines”—collectively reinforced, internalised, tacit guidelines. These were informed by brief reading but mainly by their own and their colleagues’ experience, their interactions with each other and with opinion leaders, patients, and pharmaceutical representatives, and other sources of largely tacit knowledge. Mediated by organisational demands and constraints, mindlines were iteratively negotiated with a variety of key actors, often through a range of informal interactions in fluid “communities of practice,” resulting in socially constructed “knowledge in practice.” 
·      The construction of these ‘mindlines’ is illustrated in the following figure.


·      Primary care clinicians work in “communities of practice,” combining information from a wide range of sources into “mindlines” (internalised, collectively reinforced tacit guidelines), which they use to inform their practice
·      This has important implications for the dissemination and use of clinical research findings

Weight of evidence
·      Weight of evidence A – is the research of high quality and can it be trusted Yes – ethnographic study published in peer-reviewed journal.  However, only 15 practitioners and 2 sites involved in the study – so poses issues of generalizability.

·      Weight of evidence B – is the evidence fit for purpose in answering your problem of practice Yes – evidence drawn from multiple sources – not just surveys.

·      Weight of evidence C – is the evidence relevant to your context and setting – Medium – although research looks at evidence-based decision-making – as the context is a primary health-case setting, not directly relevant.

·      Weight of evidence D – is the extent to which the evidence provides and answer to your problem of practice – Medium – although the research suggests a number of useful ways forward, the nature of problem of the lack of evidence use in schools, will require a number of strategies.

Date and author
Dr Gary Jones  8 April, 2017