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Monday, January 9, 2012

Evidence-based Education, Part I

This blog usually addresses ways that elementary mathematics can be used by adults later in life.

Today I am leaving the comfortable ground of solid calculation (2 + 4 = 6) and venturing onto the dangerous, thin ice of opinion (Honey, do these slacks make my bottom look big?)

I want to tackle the current trend of promoting evidence-based decision-making, particularly when it comes to curriculum like ours.

A reasonable desire for repeatable, reliable, rational results seems sensible. Evidence-based materials give us teaching methods and curriculum that really deliver what we want.

But wait! Do they?

The decision to use evidence-based decision-making is NOT necessarily based on evidence.
Evidence is always picked and parsed by our personal prejudices, pre-conceptions and pre-suppositions. Not all evidence is equal. Just watch any detective show on television, you'll see.

For example, here are some steps in evidence-based decision-making.
  1. Formulate a well-stated question 
  2. Apply rigorous data analysis to test the statement of the hypothesis and justify its conclusion 
  3. Identify an adequate set of observation- and experiment-based resources that answer the question
  4. Critically appraise the various solutions, assessing their validity, comprehensiveness, etc.
  5. Verify that your findings are supported by a "critical mass" of scientific research; find valid and consistent data across evaluators, observers, multiple trials and cultures
  6. Confirm that your choice has been accepted in a peer-reviewed journal or a panel of independent experts through rigorous, objective and scientific review
  7. Apply your chosen evidence-based solution in your own trials in your own context
  8. Apply your own professional wisdom and personal experience, while ensuring they are subject to the consensus view of your co-workers
  9. Re-evaluate the application of the solution (if necessary, identify areas for customization and improvement)
  10. Decide, purchase and implement

So to sum it up, a product or program may be considered evidence-based if
  • repeatable research shows that the program produces positive results as expected
  • results are proven to be due to the program, not accidental or due to extraneous factors
  • the evaluation itself has been peer-reviewed by experts in the field
  • the program is endorsed and listed by a federal agency and/or respected research group
I think we rarely (if ever) depend on this degree of research and evidence to make up our minds. Why? It's too complicated!

I will close with an example - each variation in the "well formulated question" mentioned in Step 1 may demand an entirely different curriculum:

How do I teach fractions to a group of 4th graders?

How do I most effectively teach fractions to a 4th grader?

How do I most effectively teach fractions to a small group of 4th graders who are native English speakers?

How do I most effectively teach fractions to a small group of 4th graders who are native English speakers, while they are living in Germany?

How do I teach fractions to a group of six 4th graders, none of whom are native English speakers?

How do I facilitate the interactions of a group of sixteen 4th graders so they can discover the concept of fractions by themselves and master this concept for their lifetimes?