Government ideal 'kills off' scholarly ethos

January 21, 2010

The government-promoted ideal of "evidence-based education" has been rejected as an incoherent "political slogan" that distorts research in university education departments.

Martyn Hammersley, professor of education and social research at The Open University, told a conference on 16 January that the word "scholarship" is now often used sneeringly.

As in medicine and then other disciplines, such as criminology and social work, educational policymakers have argued that researchers need to examine "what works", ideally through randomised trials, and that teachers must draw on their recommendations.

He told the conference at Middlesex University, "Evidence-based education: Is the age of the scholar over?", that this was akin to killing off the independent scholarly ethos.

For Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, the phrase "evidence-based education" was "a political slogan that has nothing to do with education" and "an expression of a profound loss of meaning".

Since society ought to value education, like liberty, in itself, rather than as a means to an end, there should be no need to seek evidence for it, he said.

Professor Hayes added that, in his opinion, education was best seen as "an authoritative tradition whereby we discover what works".

The notion of evidence-based education, he said, represented "an attack on both theory and personal experience that kills off independent thought and education as we know it".

Viv Ellis, lecturer in educational studies at the University of Oxford, worried that calls for evidence-based education affect research priorities, as academics build careers by packaging "simple ideas which seem to have a hard edge" as policy tools.

Professor Hayes described a history teacher from his own school days whose early afternoon lessons were particularly inspiring because he had had a few drinks over lunch.

Delegates were left to consider whether public money would ever be spent on a research project looking at the possible policy implications of such behaviour.

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