Why don’t we aim to run systematic, randomised trials in education?

There have been very few trials of this nature in education. Yes there are myriad complicating factors.  Yes, it’s comparing apples with fridges, let alone oranges.  Surely, though, there must be a way of ensuring a fair comparison of measured outcomes.

To me, this is the real issue – the lack of evidence-based policy making.  From national level to individual schools, teaching methodology is decided on hunches and gut instinct.  This is rarely to the detriment of children’s learning, modulated as it is by trained professionals. Often teachers, with their years of experience, will get it right because they at least know of what they speak and will interpret new policies to fit the needs of their children.

Problems arise mainly when those with no real experience, expertise or insider knowledge insist that one size fits all – as is currently the case with synthetic phonics.  To Boris Johnson’s credit, he suggests a trial of sorts, in the form of a competition.  Now, attempting to discover whether it works or not is a sound idea.

Which is why several people have already completed small-scale studies. Boris skipped neatly over the fact that schools cannot be readily compared, without an in-depth understanding of contextual factors.  As a side note, Problems in interpreting school examination league tables are legion.

The studies were followed by a meta-analysis, which did not show phonics in the best light.  To quote from Ben Goldacre’s well-informed article:

There were 14 trials in total looking at reading accuracy as their outcome, and collectively they found some evidence that phonics are a little better. Then there were 4 trials looking at comprehension, which found only weak evidence of benefit. Finally there were 3 trials on spelling, which collectively found no benefit for phonics. All of these trials were tiny, and when I say tiny, I mean they had between 12 and 121 children, mostly at the lower end of that range. Only one trial was from the UK.

For a comprehensive examination of the topic, read the full article by Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science).  He explains the issues in his usual eloquent and persuasive manner: http://www.badscience.net/2010/07/boris-johnson-and-his-innovative-trial-methodology/


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