Evidence-Based Practice: Supporting decisions or a stick to beat us with?

There are days like today where I feel more tired and jaded than usual about the push for evidence based practice in schools, which sometimes seems more a stick to beat educators with than a tool to guide and inform our practice.


Increasingly I speak with teachers who have either lost confidence in their ability to make professional judgments, or don’t have permission. Perhaps the pedagogy they have adopted (or been told to adopt), isn’t  effective. But instead of questioning the pedagogy, they assume, or are told they are failing,  doing it wrong. I suppose it’s a natural conclusion when evidence is treated as proof, and learning is regarded as something that follows a predictable path.

The truth is, no one really knows what will work in education. As much as politicians, consultants, ‘edgurus’ and the publishers of scripted  DI programs might like us to believe  a particular input will produce a predictable outcome, we know that’s not true. There are always students who don’t fit the mould and for whom that approach is ineffective.

No one better positioned than the classroom teacher to judge how to best teach their students. Every classroom has its own dynamics and unique variables. There is no template for practice which can fit each situation perfectly. It is the teacher’s job to work out if it can be applied at all.

Standardising instruction, behaviour management techniques and so forth, whether across a year level, a school or a system may work for those students who fit the mould, but there are always those students who don’t fit, who don’t thrive, and for whom a standardised ‘evidence-based’ approach is setting them up for failure. All too often, students who don’t fit are seen as the problem. They must change to fit the system, rather than reshaping the system to fit the students. Those students who can’t adapt fail, or are marginalised. They quickly learn that they don’t belong.

I’ve taught many marginalised kids. Students who are very difficult to teach because they don’t fit the mould. Some traumatised, some  highly anxious, some with diagnoses such as ODD. Students who are still  learning to regulate their emotions, to form positive relationships with other students, to trust adults and to communicate effectively rather than lashing out physically or verbally. Students who are also learning reading and writing, mathematics, art, science and so forth. They are difficult to teach and learn in different ways.

Some, with a desperate need for control, are best provided with choices and opportunities for self-direction. They will resist, rebel, undermine and refuse to engage if they feel they are being ‘told’. Others, with extreme fear of failure, thrive when provided with clear, explicit instructions, repetitive activities, and only a gradual increase in challenge. Some learn best with and from other students, they are motivated by their peers. Others, need to have their own space, and not be disturbed or interrupted. Some can only sustain activity for a short period of time. Others will have meltdowns if forced to end an activity before it is complete or perfect.

There is no template for children, there is no one model of best practice we can adopt and say ‘This is what works’. Frequently what works on Tuesday will be a complete failure on Wednesday. Yes we refer to research, and we seek out evidence to inform our practice, but we adapt and modify everything we do to suit the children in front of us.

Every child needs an education, but not all children fit the education we provide. It is our obligation to ensure that we don’t marginalise those outliers. We must instead do what we can to provide the education they are entitled to. We must become flexible, let evidence inform judgement but not dictate it. Rather than force our students to fit in or fail, we need to shape our practice around their needs. That is what teacher professional judgement is all about, and why it needs to be privileged in our schools.