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Looking for an evidence base

17 December 2010

I spent a little while on 7 December keeping up with tweets about the impending release of the PISA international study.  To quote from the OECD website:

Every three years, PISA assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society.

So, although PISA is designed to do this, the different countries that take part regard it as a measure of how well their education system is serving young people.  Different countries have different reactions to PISA – I realised how seriously it is taken in Germany, for example, when I was working on European Projects at the time of release of the previous three year study. This situation prevails, with one German tweet this time declaring that it was “another stick to beat teachers with”.  I don’t feel that teachers are being taken to task about the UK’s slightly reduced position, but it is used as an indication (when convenient) of disappointment in the performance of schools in general.  In the US, some progress up the PISA rankings has been made.

Our friends at NSTA headlined the story: PISA Report Shows U.S. Progress to Average.

And my counterpart, Francis Eberle, wrote in his blog that this slight improvement does not relate to increased funding for science in schools as this unfortunately has not been forthcoming.

So, we have to be very careful in looking at the results of these huge pieces of work and drawing conclusions.  There is no doubt that they are useful, but as with all research, intelligent use has to be the key.  I’d also like to make the point that when looking for evidence of what works in science education and how children learn we have to look across different types of research.  PISA uses the large scale questionnaire based study and we’re all familiar with the small scale action research projects that many teachers are involved with.  I would argue that we need to take account in addition to these, and to conventional educational research projects, of the recent findings in neuroscience and continue to employ strategies suggested by research from psychology.

Evidence-based science education practice therefore needs to be broad based in my view, not relying only on the big statistical exercises, but also taking into account the small scale and the other branches of science and social science.  This is complicated.  Cause and effect are not easily discerned.  It is possible that a huge injection of funding (unlikely though that is in the present climate) would not result in great results for the UK in PISA 2012.  In our particular position as educators with a good grasp on the methods of science I believe that we have a particular mission to challenge the misuse of research of all kinds as applied to education.

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