All have to be critical and creative consumers of research

10 July 2018

In “Critical context: Research can guide teachers, but it cannot determine what will work in their classrooms“, published in the RSA Journal, Dylan Wiliam outlines all we need to know about the role of evidence in policy (and practice).

In answering the question,”What is research for?”, he suggests:

  1. It can tell policymakers what is unlikely to work. Hence, if policymakers still want to do something that research suggests won’t work  they would have to come up with “strong evidence that their context is significantly different”.
  2. It can answer “‘How much does it work?’ and ‘At what cost?'” rather than the more common ‘What works?’ The former questions, and not the latter, can help decide if to go ahead with a policy. I would add that research can help us to determine ‘Who will bear the cost?’and this can help policymakers decide if a policy is fair or not.
  3. Research can help develop theories to clarify the circumstances under which a policy may or may not work. This allows us to “move from ‘It works sometimes, and it doesn’t work other times’, to ‘It works when the following conditions are in place’.”
  4. Research can support policymakers’ own professional development by addressing the changes that are most likely to have an effect on policymaking and on their sectors or expertise.

Wiliam concludes that those who argue that research has nothing to contribute to policymaking (I am paraphrasing, here), “are likely to waste a considerable amount of time innovating in ways that do not benefit” policymakers nor the ultimate beneficiaries of their policies (you know them; their office walls are covered in post-its).

On the other hand, those who only pay attention to finding out ‘what works’, “will find that no [policy] can be implemented in the same way” everywhere. “Adjustments need to be made, but they need to be made by people who understand research”.

Policymakers (practitioners and the public) “all need to be critical consumers of research” because while research can offer hard evidence and inform advice, it cannot make up for the creativity that is required to use it and turn it into policy, programmes, projects and actions.

Is there anything else?

Certainly. Research can have an effect at other levels too:

  1. It can tell the public what is unlikely to work. Hence, if policymakers still want to do something that research suggests won’t work, the public would have the arguments to stop them from wasting their money and their time -and possibly using them as guinea pigs.
  2. It can help the public determine what policies to support. A policy might work but at too high a cost. Or it may deliver small but meaningful benefits for a modest cost. It may, too, help determine if a policy is fair.
  3. Research can help society to develop a deeper and richer understanding of how government works and why certain policies are better for them than others. Research can contribute to an informed public debate on policy.
  4. Research can empower the public as it aims to get involved in policy decisions and the implementation of policy.

You get the idea, I think. Research can guide policymakers’ approach to the public but also the public’ approach to policymaking and policymakers – and everything in between.

What does this mean for efforts to promote evidence informed policy?

The implications are not neat and do not fit in a log frame. Wiliam says it:

“… all need to be critical consumers of research”.

The keyword here is ‘all’: policymakers, practitioners, journalists and the general public.

The challenge is that:

  • This will not happen through workshops and toolkits;
  • It will take a long time;
  • The most obvious place to achieve this is through the education system; but
  • It is unclear that schools and universities across the world are equipped to deliver the kind of critical and creative thinking required.