Evidence informed practice

"Without authoritive & informed insights the education community remains susceptible to glib truths" @alatelitea

I was recently asked why I put so much stock in "evidence informed practice" - why didn't I just accept observation from my teaching as evidence of what "works". My response was that we are all susceptible to "see the world as we want to see it, not necessarily as it is". Therefore, reading and reflecting on research and what it means within our own context enables us to move beyond our bias and confirmation tendencies - unfortunately, in the recent chat I didn't receive an engagement with that idea. However, not long after the question on the same day I saw the above quote from Alistair Smith in my feed. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes. Prompted by the quote from Smith, I decided to read a bit more about beliefs, bias and confirmation tendencies in education this week.

Moss and Brookhart (2012) have written about teachers and those with the tendency to stick firmly to beliefs, ignore evidence to the contrary, and never question actions as operating in "single loop thinking". In other words, thinking that always circles back on itself and so therefore never changes. Beliefs can become deeply ingrained, often invisible and therefore the bias that comes with them not acknowledged by the individual, and therefore the beliefs become highly resistant to change. Moss & Brookhart suggested "that's why so many "tried-but-not-true" methods remain alive and well in our classrooms despite clear evidence of their ineffectiveness".

We all have a mental map providing a theory of action that directs our behaviour. Some people operate on a loop that when confronted with something that challenges a belief look to fix the problem with a strategy that enables them to maintain the existing belief. Fewer people have the "natural" tendency when confronted with something that challenges a belief to look for information to call the belief into question and hold the belief up to critical scrutiny, which may result in the belief being altered. That is why it is common for people in single loop thinking to "bunker down" and defend a belief, or try to dismantle or challenge an alternative, than to truly engage in a debate of ideas.

In addition to confirmation bias, bias can come in a few other forms. For example, primacy bias favours information given earlier rather than new information. This might explain an older teacher saying to a beginning teacher something like, "don't do it that new way they taught you at uni, that's not how I was taught to do it".

In a recent blog, education consultant Tom Sherrington suggested teachers that don't work at generating alignment to evidence-informed ideas drift onto the path of experience influenced ideas and values. Should we be worried about that? It is if the outcome is teacher adherence to what Smith called "glib truths" - ideas spoken with confidence but with a shallowness of argument or lacking evidence. Ken Green (2014) has written a provocative argument about the implicit, speculative and discursive assumptions of the "PE Effect" on sport and lifelong physical activity participation.

Stephen Lockyer however, suggested biases can be useful, as they can make us feel comfortable and secure. However, he also questioned if "comfortable and secure" are adequate for a profession grounded on precepts of learning.

It has never been so easy to seek alignment to evidence-informed ideas as we no longer have to make the trip to the library to borrow the journal, or get locked out of reading research by high purchase fees from publishers for articles in journals we don't subscribe to or have institutional subscription access. Researchers posting their work in depositories like Research Gate and Academia.edu, and search engines like Google Scholar, make it remarkably easy to get access to research: and yet, a study I did a few years ago Exploring secondary physical education teachers reading suggested many PE teachers tendency towards secondary sources of information like blogs and magazine articles rather than seeking out primary sources.

I have been watching with interest the development of ResearchEd, an international movement supporting research informed teaching practice. The aim of ResearchEd is to raise the research literacy of teachers so they become aware of significant obstacles, such as their own biases, in order to help further their understanding of learning and education. One of the aspects of the biennial
ACHPER International Conference that I have appreciated since attending my first one in 2004, is that it brings teachers and academics together, whereas most of the other conferences on offer seem to be for one or the other. However, I believe a ResearchEd:PE movement could be an initiative that connects more PE/HPE teachers to research, and researchers to teachers so that teachers are more involved in the posing of questions that PE/HPE educational researchers answer. 


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