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16 October 2018
Frédéric RAMEL ©Thomas Arrive / Sciences Po
27 November 2018

Evidence-Based Education: Definition and Issues

© mojo cp/Shutterstock

© mojo cp/Shutterstock

Increasingly used in educational institutions, the concept of evidence-based education came up several times during the recent workshop entitled “Putting Research Into Action: Bridging Research and Teaching,” held at Science Po on June 18 and 19, 2018.  How is this concept defined, and which research methods does it cover? How does this approach promote effective and innovative pedagogy? After a brief overview of the history of the concept, this article will describe how evidence-based education can be supported by certain research methods, how it can contribute to resolving educational issues, as well as its potential limits.

An approach inspired by the world of medicine

The evidence-based approach originated in the medical sphere.  In 1747, when many medical techniques, such as bleeding, were still based on ancient traditions, a young doctor named James Lind led the first clinical trial aboard a frigate.  Scurvy, a common sickness on ships, was wreaking havoc on sailors. To cure them, James Lind had the ingenious idea of giving different sailors different treatments. By observing the way their health improved or worsened, he was able to distinguish between the treatments that worked and those that didn’t, and notably, to discover that it was the sailors who ate oranges and lemons who were most successfully cured. If the link between scurvy and vitamin C deficiency was not made until 1914, James Lind’s work nonetheless helped expand the practice of random clinical testing, which became a source of inspiration in many fields of research.

A scientific method

The concept of evidence-based education holds that instead of relying on old traditions and institutions, pedagogy should be guided by scientific principles and rigorous research methods (Pasquineli, 2011).  This is why this approach relies heavily on methods that are statistically verifiable, such as:

longitudinal studies (i.e., repeated observation of the same variable over a specified duration, allowing the researcher to follow a particular population);

randomized control trials (i.e., a random spread of participants between a control group and a treated group, followed by a comparison of the results of the two groups);

meta-analysis (i.e., statistical analyses that combine the results of several independent scientific studies).  It is important to note that the reliability of this method can be diminished according to the quality of the studies that it is based upon.

For example, John Hattie (2008) led more than 800 meta-analyses based on 50,000 studies, covering almost 80 million students.  The scope of this effort allowed him to calculate the effect size (i.e., the statistical parameter that measures a variable’s strength in comparison to its effect on a control group and a test group) of 150 teaching strategies in order to evaluate and identify which ones functioned the best.

Finally, brain imaging techniques paired with experimental psychology can also help us understand the mechanics of learning.  The work of Olivier Houdé (2014), for example, has allowed us to identify the essential role of executive function in all learning processes.  Executive function permits people to inhibit their first intuition, which might lead to faulty learning, and instead activates a slower, more thoughtful learning system.  Thanks to the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researcher discovered that this cognitive inhibition process mobilises the prefrontal cortex regions.

Towards stronger collaboration between research and education?  

If public policy design relies increasingly on the results of behavioural science research, this type of collaboration is also going on in the field of education.  For example, in the United Kingdom, the Behavioural Insight Team, which advises the government, has also published a pedagogical guide, Behavioural Insights for Education – a practical guide for parents, teachers and school leaders.  The guide offers parents, teachers and school directors both exercises and practical advice drawn from scientific research.  In the same vein, the British government has given the Education Endowment Foundation the job of testing and disseminating best practices in education to teachers, offering them resources drawn from randomized control trials, cost-benefit analyses and reviews of scientific literature.

In France, the Fond d’Expérimentation pour la Jeunesse (Youth Testing Fund), created in 2008, guides numerous educational public policies, using randomized control trials to evaluate the impact of a particular measure before applying it on a wide scale.  The goal of the recently created Scientific Advisory Council of the National Education ministry, presided over by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, is also to promote collaboration between research and education, with a mission of advancing the educational policy decision making process through the use of scientific data.  After having launched a survey of current research on how we learn to read and write, the National Education ministry published a guide for teachers entitled “Pour enseigner la lecture et l’écriture au C.P”  (“Teaching Reading and Writing in Year Two,” 2018).  Drawing on the work of Stanislas Dehaene (2007), among others, this guide highlights the importance of the “systematic teaching of the correlation between graphemes and phonemes” (“l’enseignement systématique des correspondances graphèmes-phonèmes”), in other words, the association between a letter or a group of letters and a sound.  In fact, a few years ago, Stanislas Dehaene and his colleagues (2011) published a book called Learn to Read: From Cognitive Science to the Classroom, to make their results more accessible and easier for the professors to use in their daily work.           

Evidence-based education and effectiveness: nuances to be considered   

For Agnès van Zanten (2006), the existing relationship between proven scientific facts and public educational policy is complex and raises several questions:  whose evidence?  Why? For who and under whose control?  She thus recommends promoting knowledge sharing and dialogue between researchers, regulators and teachers (van Zanten, in Schuller, 2006). 

If the role of science is to be descriptive instead of prescriptive, it must be said that science still allows for a better understanding of society and human behaviour and can thus clarify public policy decisions (Pasquinelli, 2011). To promote the application of pedagogical innovations and the achievement of real progress, it is thus essential to foster collaboration between research and education.

This is why it could be useful to move from evidenced-based practice to practice-based evidence.  If this chiasmus underlines the importance of mixing theories and practices, it also reveals the danger of becoming stuck in a vicious circle, or at least it emphasises how slow the process could be—moving from A towards B then from B towards A—before effective innovations can be put in place.  The study conducted by the research team at Abdul Latif Jameel, Poverty Action Lab (2017) showed just how difficult it can be to intervene effectively at a school.  It was only after having conducted five randomized control trials between 2001 and 2014 that the team managed to move from a successful experiment to a large-scale deployment.  However, this deployment time-frame is not necessarily in sync with that of policy-making, which shows us that improvements in teaching are less a question of technique than one of political will (Duflot 2018).

Manon BERRICHE is a student at the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po specialising in Digital, New Technology & Public Policy, and at the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI). Manon is currently doing a research internship with Science Po’s Active Pedagogy Lab.


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Dehaene, S. (2007). Les Neurones de la lecture : La nouvelle science de la lecture et de son apprentissage. Paris : Odile jacob.

Dehaene, S. (2011). Apprendre à lire: des sciences cognitives à la salle de classe. Paris : Odile Jacob.

Duflot, E. (2018). Le rôle de l’expérimentation dans le domaine éducatif. Collège de France.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London : routledge.

Houdé, O. (2014). Apprendre à résister (Collection Manifestes). Paris: Le Pommier (96 p.). – Grand Prix de l’Académie française 2015.

O’Reilly, F., Chande, R., Groot, B., Sanders, M. and Soon, Z. (2017). Behavioural Insights for Education: A practical guide for parents, teachers and school leaders. London: Pearson.

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Schuller, T., Jochems, W., Moos, L., & van Zanten, A. (2006). Evidence and Policy Research. European Educational Research Journal, 5(1), 57–70.