Are we still practising eminence-based teaching?

I listened to the Freakonomics podcast last week titled: Bad Medicine, Part 1: The Story of 98.6. The podcast is worth a listen just to learn about how we came to use 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit as the basis for a healthy body temperature. However, what struck me was the discussion of how medicine has moved from eminence-based medicine to evidence-based medicine and to what extent that applies to teaching today. 

Eminence-based vs Evidence-based

You know, if you think about medical science, for thousands of years what was medicine but something that somebody of esteemed authority had done for many years, and told others that it worked for me, so you better do it.

“The reality was that what we were practising was something called eminence-based medicine. It was where the preponderance of medical practice was driven by really charismatic and thoughtful, probably, to some degree, leaders in medicine. And you know, medical practice was based on bits and scraps of evidence, anecdotes, bias, preconceived notions, and probably a lot psychological traps that we fall into. And largely from the time of Hippocrates and the Romans until maybe even the late Renaissance, medicine was unchanged. It was the same for 1,000 years. Then something remarkable happened which was the first use of controlled clinical trials in medicine.”

Vinay Prasad – Assistant Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University

Vinay made me think about the number of individuals in education who are “really charismatic and thoughtful” and who drive practice in schools. For example, Dweck’s growth mindset approach has been widely adopted in schools, but the Education Endowment Fund found little evidence of impact on attainment. The practice of “deep marking” took hold in schools over the past several years and has only just been quashed by Oftsed who referred to the lack of evidence that this style of extensive marking improves attainment. The work of organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation and ResearchEd demonstrates that we are moving away from an eminence-based approach and more towards evidence-based teaching. 

Scurvy lag

However, this still leaves us with the problem that medicine has – it takes far too long for the profession to adopt the new proven practices.  

In medicine, one study showed that the lag between significant discovery and adoption into routine patient care still averages 17 years. 

The so-called Scurvy lag describes the 190 years that passed between the discovery of lemon juice as a preventative for scurvy and its regular use by the British Navy and it was a full 264 years before scurvy was eradicated from the mercantile marine. 

Encouraging developments

With the creation of the Teacher Development Trust we now have a body which, alongside those mentioned above, can help shorten these timescales for adoption through the promotion of effective teacher professional development based on evidence-based research rather than eminence-based practice. However, this also needs to feed back into our teacher training institutions whether they are Higher Education Institutions or schools – the fragmentation of teacher training through Schools Direct makes this all the more important as there are now many more providers of teacher training. Which organisation will take the lead on proving effective practice and who will ensure its implementation?

On a final note, this note wasn’t designed to bash educational gurus – unlike some I don’t think we “have had enough of experts” – we just need to ensure that the evidence backs them up.


James de Bass

CEO, Educate