I recently heard a thought-provoking speech by Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State for Education in England. She was talking about the spheres of activity in which evidence is most and least likely to make a difference in education policy. Her argument was that in questions of values, such as school governance, standards, and curriculum, it is appropriate for the political process to argue alternative visions of the future, and come to decisions that are inherently political. Evidence may be taken into account, but many issues are just not questions of “what works,” they are questions of “what kind of society do we want.”
In contrast, she argued, questions of pedagogy are “what works” questions, and should be based on evidence, not just values. In medicine, politicians certainly have and should have strong opinions about funding of health care, access to care, and so on, but they yield to evidence on optimal treatments for heart disease. So it should be in education, where politicians should yield to evidence on programs and practices used to improve student outcomes. Yet in fact, politicians feel free to weigh in on methods of teaching, but fund far too little research on what works in pedagogy.
Baroness Morris noted that everyone involved in education wants the best for children, and that it’s appropriate to argue about values and desired outcomes. But when we want to improve children’s learning (on whatever outcomes we’ve agreed to be important), we should look to the evidence, not to the political process.
Note: Baroness Morris is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the Executive Board of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, where I am a part-time professor.