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RCTs in education


There’s quite a lot of talk about introducing randomized controlled trials into education. While I don’t disagree with the idea I think it’s a lot harder than some commentators make out.

Medicine is often quoted as the example we in education should follow. This isn’t a good example. The reason is that doctors generally treat people who are unwell. They have some symptoms which get diagnosed and a solution applied. That doesn’t tend to happen in the classroom. For education the situation is much more akin to health. We have a load of people who we want to get “healthier” (learn more in our case). But if you look at the record of medicine as regards general health it’s far shakier. Two main contributors to health are diet and exercise. Just look at how diet advice has changed over the years and continues to change. Exactly the same can be said of exercise. The latest science based exercise regime I read about says you can get fit from just 3 minutes of exercise a few times a week. I hope it’s true; but I wouldn’t put money on that being the advice science promotes in a few months time.

Please understand; I’m not knocking the science, it’s just that dealing with large numbers of people is hard.

The next problem you have is highlighted in Hattie’s book (Visual Learning) – almost anything works. I get to read a lot of education research papers. The number that have, in the last twelve years or so, taken into account teacher enthusiasm I could count on the fingers of one hand. The problem is that any new approach is likely to get teachers more interested. That means you need to have something in place so long that the enthusiasm goes and it just gets presented like anything else – which is more expensive and slow. Or you do smaller scale projects that can rule it out. (A teacher isn’t likely to get worked up over a new question in a test for instance).

An alternative is to look for the negatives. If you try an approach a few times and no-one gets it to work then that’s a result! You showed rote learning wasn’t any good? Great! If twenty people all tried to make something work and none of them succeded despite their enthusiasm then how likely is it that you’ll be any different. The problem there is that some students would get bad teaching – which doesn’t go down well ethically.

The next problem is that ever changing face of teaching. Currently most effects of teaching strategies could easily be swamped by all manner of other changes to education you have no control over. Change of school status, change of specification, change of teacher, change of National Curriculum, change of timetable etc. To run large scale RCTs there would need to be some stability. That would likely mean turning education over to a non-political body so that everything didn’t change every 5 years. That’s a seriously big change for society. Although probably a seriously good one.

So while these problems aren’t insurmountable, I think the introduction of RCTs into education is a lot harder than a lot of people think.


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January 2014
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