Lia Fluit
Lia Fluit

Column Lia Fluit: Evidence-based education does not exist!

This headline in ScienceGuide at the start of April immediately grabbed my attention. For years, I've struggled with the terms evidence-based and evidence-informed education. It creates the illusion that there is a perfect way of providing education, and that it is only a matter of proving that.

I frequently get the question where the evidence is: 'Without hard evidence, we can not adjust a curriculum.' As if evidence-based is the quality mark in which we can place our trust, so that we no longer have to think for ourselves.

Such a quality mark is deadly if you want to get started on renewing your education. Personally, I kept getting entangled in some sort of chicken and egg situation. In the past, I wanted to deliver the evidence through implementation and researching the effects. But bit by bit, I came to the realisation that evidence-based does is not about whether something works, but rather why it works in a specific context, and then also for whom.

Jeroen van Merrienboer emphasised the danger of simplifying educational design in his valedictory speech on 30 March in Maastricht. He concluded that educational research is enormously complex. Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere. He stressed that the danger of the term evidence-based education is that you might get the idea that designing education simply comes down to selecting the 'right' methods. But there are no teaching methods that always work or don't work.

Take giving feedback, for example. We have developed all sorts of methods to give feedback effectively, but even if you apply all the rules properly, your feedback does not always lead to the desired effect with the receiver. It may even turn out quite differently. And even feedback given in non-effective ways can sometimes still work. The term 'evidence' can be useful for mathematicians or other scientists. In educational science, it is a useless term, says Van Merriënboer.  

But what, then, is that evidence still worth? Within educational research, we see a shift of place - research is increasingly taking place in practice itself -, of researcher - it is increasingly the educational professionals themselves who scrutinise their own actions - and of focus - the questions are increasingly about how something works. Biesta takes this even further and argues that we should always ask ourselves what education is for.

By the way, it took Van Merriënboer 10 years to come up with his insight, so we can continue for the time being! But what can we do with this now? Continue with what we are already doing from the TLC. That is: encourage lecturers to take that very same inquisitive attitude towards their own teaching, offer them different perspectives through which they look at their own actions  and through which their teaching can improve because they have they can better focus on understanding what is happening.

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