Book Review: The Trials of Evidence-based Education

2 October 2017

The Trials of Evidence-based Education: The Promises, Opportunities and Problems of Trials in Education by Gorard, S., Haut See, B., & Siddiqui, N. (2017)

This book is a crunching read, delving into the mechanics of undertaking successful educational trials in schools and the pitfalls associated with interpreting the data from these trials. It is an objective view from a researcher’s perspective, packed full of technical details and a plethora of summative evaluations. It is not a light read, but it is a valuable one.

Upon reading this book, it’s easy for me to surmise that we can, if we dig deep enough, all find fault with most classroom based trials, if we have not only the time, but the expertise to do this. So we have to be cautious not to dismiss everything we research without careful thought, because in terms of the evidence base for education this is currently the most robust information we have available. Inevitably, as the book proceeds, the writer does recognise this point.

This book skillfully walks through the protocols with which to evaluate the outcomes from any classroom-based interventions. It provides an understandable framework to support these conclusions (using effect sizes as one recognisable measure that you are probably more familiar with).

For me the most important elements of this book come to the forefront in Part III What do the trials show? And Part IV Conclusions, whereby the book begins to unpick a number of interesting findings and conclusions based on the gathered evidence. Getting into the real nitty-gritty of what works, or not, in the classroom.

Some of the best bits…

Interestingly one of the core messages of the book, mentioned on several occasions, discusses the most appropriate and effective class size for any intervention. The evidence seems to show the following:

“The successful interventions of the kind being discussed here involve groups of only one to four pupils” and again here “There is a clear message that small is good – for at least some part of the teaching day”  

These conclusions lead us to believe that small-scale interventions seem to offer the most promise and the best student gains. Conclusions like this are drawn from detailed evaluations of the evidence base. This level of detail is maintained throughout the book and this allows the text to make substantive statements that: “phonics works for young children who are not readers from an early age.”

Cherry-picking the best bits of this book gives the reader confidence that the conclusions made throughout are safe and secure. It even gives the reader examples of what the evidence does or doesn’t show, and that at times we need to dig a little deeper and interrogate the evidence further. The following example demonstrates this point, perfectly.

“The evidence so far had been that just having TA’s or using them as substitute teachers is rather costly and largely ineffective (Blatchford et al. 2012). Switch-on reading is an example of one way in which TA’s might be deployed in schools to follow a set protocol and make a useful difference to the reading of pupils in transition from primary to secondary.”

It is easy for us all to jump on a headline “rather costly and largely ineffective” however, we need to be more discerning in our use of the evidence. I know that drinking red wine is really good for me; I read it in the paper! Teaching, as we are all well aware, is much more nuanced than this.

What next…

“Our studies suggest that, although teachers can engage with research evidence, the process is complex and not necessarily successful in practice”  

Teachers need to be presented with high quality, robust evidence that is distilled into an easy, accessible form, enabling them to be able to see a direct impact on their practice and which, ultimately improves their students’ outcomes.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit does this well. The EEF guidance reports are particularly interesting and certainly provide a thorough and detailed overview of different aspects of teaching and learning. The guidance for these reports is drawn predominately from studies that feed into the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. For me, the most important aspect of these reports is that they signpost teachers to several recommendations that can be implemented to maximise the impact of any of the interventions.

As the book shows well, we have a long way to go as a profession, with more trials and missteps. Reading this book might just offer us the ballast to fend off the next fad.


Final thought…

Reading this book makes teachers more mindful of focusing on the good stuff. When looking at the evidence, the aim isn’t to do more and more stuff. It’s about you looking objectively at your practice and your pedagogy, stripping away the layers of stuff that doesn’t work. It’s about better decision making and if this means that you don’t embark on some new initiative because the evidence shows little, or even worse negative impact, all the better.

Remember knowledge is power! And this book offers school teachers and leaders some powerful knowledge.


Stephen Foreman, Research-lead at Huntington Research School @StephenJForeman

Posted on 2 October 2017
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