Ideology and evidence in educational research

Ideology and evidence in educational research

It is well known that there are different educational ideologies within the school area. There are thus different ideas about basic things such as what education should aim for, how the teaching should be carried out and what should be counted as knowledge.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the question of evidence, that is, what should be counted as proof of which policy and practice is the best, depends on the ideological position from which it is asked.

In medicine, the question of evidence is less complicated. There it is a consensus that the purpose of health care is to promote health and cure diseases. It is unfortunate if the difference between medicine and education is not taken in account in the discussion of evidence.

There are different ways to distinguish educational ideologies. Here I will distinguish between five different educational ideologies that express different views on the aims of education and on how it should be shaped: 1) efficiency orientation 2) progressivism 3) “bildung” 4) democracy orientation and 5) character formation.

In the following a very brief account of the central aspects of the ideologies will be given and it will be pointed out how the different ideologies calls for different kinds of evidence.

Let us start with the efficiency-oriented ideology because it is the ideology that to a large extent seems to dominate policy today and also to some extent the work of schools. It is the ideology that is most closely associated with the idea of ​​evidence and it is also closely linked to New Public Management.

Evidence for efficiency

Within the framework of this ideology, it becomes central to convey useful knowledge in the most efficient way possible. The main purpose of the education system is to qualify pupils/students for the labor market. When searching evidence for effectiveness, one leans, for example, on John Hattie, who has compiled the effect of a number of factors in terms of their effect on educational performance. Ideally, a cost-benefit analysis should also be made where the cost of various measures in relation to their effect is calculated.

According to this logic, schools should invest in working methods and teaching methods that, for as low a cost as possible, give the most possible effect in terms of educational achievement.

Behind this thinking lies an economical metaphor. Just like for any product, the best possible product should be produced at the lowest possible cost. Evidence is thus needed for how pupils in the cheapest possible way can learn as much as possible.

In the efficiency-oriented ideology achievements in international knowledge tests are often taken as evidence that an education system is successful, while the systems ability to prepare students to participate in a democratic society (see below) is not analyzed. Surprisingly, this means that sometimes no distinction is made between educational systems in dictatorships on the one hand, and in democracies on the other.

Nor do surveys and reports which show that students' interest in the content of knowledge taught in school seem to decline, sometimes significantly, with an increased number of years in school rarely leadi to any alarming reports from those who advocate the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Evidence for meaningfulness

Within the framework of student-centered teaching, what is sometimes called progressive education, the student's activity and development are seen as important. A central theme is that the teaching should be meaningful to the students. It is the knowledge that is perceived as meaningful that students will carry with them in life.

Thus, we need evidence for which teaching that lead to active students and that is perceived as meaningful by the students. In the production of evidence, it is therefore important to assess methods and ways of working based on whether they are perceived as meaningful and whether they take advantage of students' initiative and activity. Obviously, the student's own opinions and perceptions become important in terms of evidence of which working methods are successful.

Within the framework of the efficiency-oriented ideology, it is the effect on educational achievement that is in focus but whether the students perceive the teaching as meaningful or not is infrequently explored.

Evidence for “bildung”

The idea of ​​evidence rhymes badly with the idea of ​​“bildung” because “bildung” means that the learning subject to a large extent forms her/himself. It is therefore difficult to know in advance what is a fruitful outcome of the educational process.

It is illustrative to compare this approach with intervention studies where the goals of the knowledge process have already been determined in advance and are operationalized in the dependent variables.

There are, of course, very different opinions about what knowledge content “bildung” should encompass. The ideal originates from a time when the accumulated human knowledge was still in some sense manageable and the ideal was also formed before the age of mass education.

Without going further into this discussion, it can be stated that "educational achievement" is an expression that rhymes very poorly with the idea of ​​“bildung” which is mainly about the subject's self-driven exploration of knowledge. It is, of course, possible to systematically examine which educational environments that promote such a development, but probably nothing that is prioritized by those who embrace this ideal.

Evidence for the democracy orientation

When the school's most important task is seen as providing conditions for students to develop into responsible citizens who can recreate and develop a democratic society, we seek evidence of how such a goal is best achieved.

This means that we analyze what it means to develop into a responsible citizen (what virtues, skills and knowledge this requires) in order to be able to systematically analyze whether an education system prepares students for democracy.

For example, it is important to master basic skills such as reading and writing and to have extensive knowledge to be prepared to sustain and develop democracy.

Also important are experiences of democratic processes and being able to exercise influence as well as a willingness to get involved in democratic processes.

Evidence for character formation

Within the framework of this ideology, it is central to educate individuals who act morally and in a broader sense develop into "good" people. This ideology undertakes similarities with several of the above and, like these, requires other scientific evidence than that required of the efficiency-oriented ideology.

Three important aspects

Finally, I would like to discuss three important aspects of the reasoning above. The first has to do with the question of relativism, is it not risky to relativize what counts as scientific evidence in this way? The second is about different ways of hiding ideological aspects of educationalresearch and the third concerns what evidence that is needed to develop Swedish schools.

It is very important to be able to distinguish between different forms of relativism. What I am advocating here is of course not that we should disregard established facts regarding school systems, for example students' results in international knowledge comparisons or outcomes of controlled studies. On the other hand, there is always an ideological element in identifying the facts considered most significant and also in how we interpret the meaning of facts.

It is thus not a question of the world being interpreted in an arbitrary way, but rather a question about us being clear about the starting points from which we make our interpretations. In fact, it implies a higher degree of scientific rigor than if we try to hide our ideological starting points, which brings us to the next point.

There are different ways to, so to speak hide ideological starting points. If, for example, we look for evidence of how schools should be run based on the assumption that schooling is only about knowledge achievement without acknowledging that this is an ideological stance, we hide the ideological points of departure for the analysis.

Sometimes such "fact" -oriented analysis is opposed to ideological approaches to the school. "Let's put ideology aside and see what works." Works with regard to which ideology is then the right question to ask.

My personal point of departure is that it is important to show with scientific rigor that what one advocates can be made to work in practice. This also applies to those who advocate a “bildung” approach. There is always the risk that the advocacy of an ideology can give rise to a number of unintended effects in practice and therefore, regardless of which ideology is advocated, it is important to study the consequences of ideologies when implemented in practice.

I think that an important contribution from the evidence movement is the clear requirement to use scientific research to show that something works or can be made to work as intended. Regardless of our ideological starting points, it is thus important to show that what we advocate can be made to work. An illustrative example here is the research on inclusive education where there is no shortage of articles that advocate this ideology but where there is a astonishing lack of knowledge about how inclusive schools should develop and, not least, become sustainable (see link below).

Finally, the third point above: What scientific evidence does the Swedish school need? A reasonable answer to that question is that research evidence is needed that helps the school to achieve the democratically decided purpose of Swedish education. The laws and regulations governing the Swedish school reflects all the ideologies above and thus evidence of a number of different kinds is needed in order to improve schooling in Sweden.


Link to analysis of research on inclusion:


Lägg till kommentar