Why do we ignore the evidence in FE?

Evidence based practice has been somewhat of a revelation to me and my practice. I don’t take everything as gospel, but do look at the strategies that time and time again have shown to be effective. If I think they could work for me in my setting, then I will try to adopt them – why wouldn’t I?

Considering-the-Threshold-of-Evidence

The problem is, Further Education and Skills, moreover, external organisations (Ofsted), agencies and training companies promote practice that is not always informed by evidence. In fact, they promote quite the opposite. Let me give some examples:

 

Example 1: Individualised Instruction – On so many occasions have I heard comments like this: “there was not enough personalised learning in the session” or “learners were working at the same level and pace so the lesson did not meet their needs”. I’ve even uttered similar things myself (more to conform with expectations than actually believing it). I regularly hear of top-down expectations in sessions for learning to be differentiated to meet all learner needs through learning outcomes and learning activities, but in terms of opportunity cost, evidence shows that this is largely ineffective (not including special education):

‘Individualising instruction does not tend to be particularly beneficial for learners…the average impact on learning tends overall to be low, and is even negative in some studies, appearing to delay progress by one or two months.

This is not to say that differentiation isn’t important. I have blogged my views previously and agree with a lot of Amjad Ali’s post on differentiation. Both posts show the importance of teaching to the top and supporting all to get there. For this to occur, you need to respond to what is in front of you at that point in time. No amount of planning for individualised learning activities will do this in my opinion.

 

Example 2: Student Control Over Learning – ‘Learner autonomy’, another term bandied around freely without considering the evidence. Do learners really know what they need to know? I suggest not and the evidence supports this, with Hattie finding an effect-size of 0.04 – negligible. This links with the aforementioned really, giving a range of task choices is probably not going to add much value to the session, despite what you may be told.

 

Example 3: Raising Aspirations – If I hear aspirational target one more time!… I get it, I totally do. Those that are disadvantaged should be supported to overcome these dreadful statistics:

‘33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 60.5% of all other pupils. This is a gap of 27.0 percentage points.

36.5% of disadvantaged pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 64.0% of all other pupils, a gap of 27.4 percentage points’

However, trying to raise aspirations isn’t the answer. Though the evidence here is limited, it does show that there is no causal link between aspiration and attainment. I’ve said before that we’ve gone target setting mad. A key comment taken from the report which certainly applies to FE and Skills is:

‘The attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse so generalisations should be avoided.’

I am not saying don’t encourage learners to aspire to be better, but be wary of any cross-school/college interventions or strategies, particularly when there is a new ‘buzzword’ attached.

 

To summarise, the aforementioned information is not fact, but evidence suggests that we need to be wary of these common and encouraged practices that actually have little impact according to evidence. My next post will focus on what we should pay more attention to – the strategies that have demonstrated a positive impact on learner achievement.

 

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7 thoughts on “Why do we ignore the evidence in FE?

  1. More useful material here. Yes, unsettling the confudence of QA managers is necessary and difficult task. They’ve built their careers on sets of beliefs are are now showing not to be effective. Dismiss these beliefs, and destabilise their authority. No wonder, as an example, FE seems far slower than schools in understanding the reasons for and responding to the end of graded assessments.

    This leads me to ask if there is a central hub where ideas are stored and communicated? Was it the ILF magazine? If there’s now no such thing, how can your voice be heard?

    By the way, my thinking now is that observers, and perhaps even coaches, should concern themselves with the principles of cognitive science and ensure they are adhered to whatever strategies the teachers use.

    This means they can legitimately teach anywhere on the traditional-progressive continuum and it’ll be just fine. Just so long as their choice of strategies, and the quality of their execution, is good.

    That’s where a coach comes in. Not in advocating for particular techniques, but supporting the effective execution, and passing the cog sci principles, of that teachers personal choice of teaching “style”.

    This relates to my earlier sports analogy where cog sci are the physical parameters (fitness, strength, flexibility, speed etc) and the techniques the tactics.

    Does this make sense still?

  2. I think Oliver’s point above nails it: the reason lots of things hold on in spite of evidence (or at least an absence thereof) is because of belief and power. Teachers themselves find it hard to let go of preconceptions and change behaviour (they are, after all, only human) but trainers/CPD leaders (I’ll put myself in that group, mea culpa), managers, inspectors and policy makers have more power and therefore more to lose by conceding that they may, in fact, be wrong. However, they too are human, and fallible, and can be wrong.

    One way or the other, this creates a lot of inertia: evidence based practice has yet to become an unstoppable force, but accepted “best practice” is definitely an immovable object. The long slow death of learning styles (still slowly dying) is a really good example of this inertia.

    The other force at play is politics. These things are unlikely to fall out favour in anything like the same way learning styles have done, because there is a socio-political influence. Notions of individualised learning, student control and raising aspirations all fit with a modern liberal mindset and are hard to criticise on that level. Again, we can use learning styles as a test case: for a time it was a challenge to be critical of a notion like LS because it sounded like you were criticising some deep and profound reality of human learning, criticising the notion of differentiation and the individual. Moving forward to the ideas you have said above, the same thing occurs: to be critical of these things in an educational setting would appear to suggest that the you are generally critical of individual empowerment, of success, or of personal ambition. Even the terms themselves are semantically loaded, carrying connotations of freedom, social mobility and democracy.

  3. I think Oliver’s point above nails it: the reason lots of things hold on in spite of evidence (or at least an absence thereof) is because of belief and power. Teachers themselves find it hard to let go of preconceptions and change behaviour (they are, after all, only human) but trainers/CPD leaders (I’ll put myself in that group, mea culpa), managers, inspectors and policy makers have more power and therefore more to lose by conceding that they may, in fact, be wrong. However, they too are human, and fallible, and can be wrong.

    One way or the other, this creates a lot of inertia: evidence based practice has yet to become an unstoppable force, but accepted “best practice” is definitely an immovable object. The long slow death of learning styles (still slowly dying) is a really good example of this inertia.

    The other force at play is politics. These things are unlikely to fall out favour in anything like the same way learning styles have done, because there is a socio-political influence. Notions of individualised learning, student control and raising aspirations all fit with a modern liberal mindset and are hard to criticise on that level. Again, we can use learning styles as a test case: for a time it was a challenge to be critical of a notion like LS because it sounded like you were criticising some deep and profound reality of human learning, and indeed criticising the notion of differentiation and the individual. Moving forward to the ideas you have said above, the same thing occurs: to be critical of these things in an educational setting would appear to suggest that the you are generally critical of individual empowerment, of success, or of personal ambition. Even the terms themselves are semantically loaded, carrying connotations of freedom, social mobility and democracy.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Sam. Completely agree. I’m surprised how little resistance the post has met actually. I was expecting more because, like you say, it may come across as criticising FE values in general. There is a real need to explore the commonly held beliefs in the sector and in education generally. This doesn’t mean disproving them always, but may involve adding further weight to the views.

  5. Thanks Sam. I think your views about the implied criticism of individual empowerment are spot on.

    I’ve been musing about the current focus on the principles of cognitive science and how they reinforce the effectiveness of what can be termed traditional teaching approaches. An added dimension is the way in which this evidence has been applied to the question of empowering white the working class, in total opposition to the liberal progressive approach which is now seen as being patronising and limiting. Old Andrew, a Labour supporter, is very strong on this theme.

    What has occupied my mind, is the degree this can be applied to the FE student body. Less academic, I presume, than their university peers, the FE, by Old Andrew’s reckoning would be best served by more traditional teaching.

    But the different status of adult and an adult who can choose to attend or not (does this make them consumers?) is different. Especially if they come with negative experiences of, and failures with, their schooling.

    FE students would not, I guess, be willing to be subjects of the stricter behaviour regimes in schools and their accompanying traditional teaching (however effective it is and can be demonstrated). I have another assumption about FE students that affects my thinking about the appropriateness of adopting the renewed traditional teaching (backed by cognitive science evidence). It is that they have less capacity to be physical and socially passive, alongside a reduced capacity to be mentally active in abstract terms.

    What I mean by this is that instead of working things out in their head, FE students need it the knowledge assimilation process to be externalised and made concrete and public. So, in essence, they do no different intellectual work to those in school traditional teaching situations, other than instead of being conducted individually in the privacy of their heads, the thinking, so to speak, is externalised and socialised.

    With this reasoning, it’s now possible to see that, for example, cooperative group work might be more appropriate in FE contexts than school classrooms. Sure, there are still issues with cognitive load when using group in encountering new content, but with awareness of the cognitive load principles, such problems can be overcome.

    So to recap, teachers need to comply with the principles of cognitive science, but how they do so depends on their context. FE and classrooms are not identical places.

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