That’s evidence for you…..

That’s evidence for you …………………



I hear people talking about ‘evidence based’ practice a lot in my work. It’s been creeping up for a while. ‘All our interventions must be evidence based’ I’m told. That seems like a very clear message.

What do we mean by the ‘evidence’ we’re going to use to provided the basis for all of our work? That seems clear too. It’s produced by randomised controlled testing that generates statistically validated results. It’s done by proper researchers in proper universities and written up in academic peer reviewed journals. It’s obvious.  The problem is that this is only one sort of evidence, but it’s got itself the reputation as being the only kind of evidence that’s worth anything, at least in the minds of the non-academic public in general, including politicians. And my managers. It’s the evidence that is produced by what we know loosely as scientific research.

I had to face up to this in writing my PhD thesis. I was working full time with children lumped into the ’emotional and behaviour difficulties’ group. Their greatest apparent learning need, was their learning about themselves as people; emotional and social learning. Here’s a section from my thesis Introduction (see my thesis and references) :

My thesis is intended to progressively refocus my research and my practice towards the improved social and emotional development of my students by pedagogical means. I understand the risks inherent in my developing my entirely qualitative research approach in that my work could be marginalised. Lather [2004] pointed up a division of policy in the USA with reference to the progressive marginalisation of qualitative research in favour of objective, random sampling experimentation [Gable 2004; see also Lincoln and Canella 2002; Shavelson and Towne 2002]. A similar policy pathway is being trodden here in the UK [Atkinson 2004].

Evans, Harden and Thomas [2004] in their systematic review of international research published in the English language into the effectiveness of strategies to support pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties in mainstream primary schools, found that; there was little sign …of a greater focus on social justice and equal opportunities… most studies were framed in terms of trying to reduce social or behavioural deficiencies’. [Evans, Harden and Thomas 2004 p.6]

This review acknowledged the debate around a the possibility of a change from the medical model of deficit to a more context-related theory of interaction [Weare 2000] in theorising the difficulties experienced by children and young people in school and the scientific narrowness of research into this work. The review cited a number of publications aimed at providing advice and support for teachers in maintaining disruptive children in their classes [Chazan 1993; Cooper 1989; Kolvin, Garside, Nichol, Macmillan and Wolstenholme 1976; Laslett 1982; Wheldall, Merrett and

Borg 1985], and stated that ‘these strategies are located within a range of

psychological and pedagogic paradigms.’ [Evans, Harden and Thomas 2004 p.3]

However, the review found no completed studies that had evaluated psychotherapeutically based strategies rather focusing again on studies rooted in behaviourism and there was no detailed description of the specifics of the paradigms mentioned. As a practising teacher working with children and young people experiencing serious emotional and behavioural difficulties in school, I have felt the impact of this lop-sided response. In my experience, in meeting these children and young people as they teeter on the edge of mainstream school or fall out of it, their needs in terms of their emotions are often under-represented. The theory and practice of behaviourist science, existing in a reality that can be investigated by means of hypothesis-testing positivist methods, implies that a ‘need’ can and should be separately identified from the person and the deficit rectified. But I find a much more messy and complicated reality in my day-to-day work with people, those children and young people who express these ‘needs’ within their human context of their peers, teachers, parents, carers and lunchtime supervisors, amongst many others. Carrying out research in this socially constructed reality justifies my adoption of the ethnographical and biographical qualitative methodology that is interested in qualitative description and analysis rather than in generalisation.’ 

So what’s to be done?

My first degree is in Botany and Zoology, and I was well trained in the ‘scientific method’, of hypothesis-testing, controlling variables, ideal states and all the rest. When I brought this understanding to my thinking about children’s learning it was clear that natural science methods weren’t suitable to investigate the ‘messy’ reality of people’s lives – not natural science but social science. That’s where I looked.

Teachers as social scientists.

Teachers aren’t psychologists doing psychology or neuroscientists doing neuroscience. These people use positivist cause-effect sciencitific methods and where they stay within their rules they can produce some useful information to inform teacher’s work. Teachers do pedagogy, it involves other people in the constructing of social realities. Pedagogy is often described as ‘the art and science of teaching’ but may be better it’s termed ‘the art and social science of teaching’.  In my research reading I found an interesting book, ‘Explaining society – critical realism in the social sciences’ by Berth Danermark and others. (see my thesis link for bibliography). These writers explain the reasons for taking a different approach to social science. The objects of study of natural and social sciences are fundamentally different. Natural science excludes everyday knowledge, often referring to it anecdotal. Social science includes the study of ‘everyday knowledge’ itself, ‘science’, ‘common sense’, concepts which constitute the reality under scrutiny.

It means that we can take the evidence that comes out of our practice seriously, understand the difference between intensive and extensive research ( case study is intensive). It gives us the ability to argue for our position as teacher researchers without feeling the need to defer to the positivists. It also means we can look for so-called soft outcomes as well as hard outcomes in assessing and evaluating our work and what it produces.




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