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Publications:Focus on: Education systems in a post-truth world

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Publication date: 31 March 2017


"I think people in this country have had enough of experts" – Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education of the United Kingdom

There is no denying that evidence and those providing it are under fire in the public debate. The word "post-truth " has become so ubiquitous in our everyday discussion of politics that the Oxford English Dictionary has declared it its Word of the Year 2016. Evidence, or "facts" are arguably increasingly replaced by deep-held beliefs that many politicians regard as true despite there either being no evidence to support them or even ample proof to contradict them. This development inevitably leads to the question: Can you run an education system on beliefs alone?

First of all, it is important to recognise that beliefs to some extent always matter in policy-making, even when efforts are made to follow the facts. Research suggests that people tend to ignore evidence that does not fit their worldview and instead focus on "facts" that confirm their expectations. Likewise, we all have a tendency to be influenced by so-called "cognitive dissonance". That is, when we are faced with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we are more likely to oppose the evidence even more. An example of such "backfire effects" in education is the continued practice of grade repetition in several EU member states despite clear and substantial research suggesting that in the longer term, students who are held back from their peers continue to struggle academically, are more likely to leave school early and show worse socio-emotional outcomes than similar students that continue school in their age-group. So, if we are subject to such cognitive bias anyway, does that mean we should throw in the towel and let our beliefs run free in our education systems uncompromised by research or harsh "truths"?

Whatever the appeal of belief-led education systems to some politicians, there are good reasons for stressing the need to seriously consider evidence. Firstly, evidence can arbitrate when societal convictions are conflicting. During the last few decades, societies in Europe have become more diverse due to increased migration, both within Europe but perhaps more significantly, from outside Europe. Inevitably, there is more diversity in educational beliefs  about what the education system should look like and what the aims of education are. Education in this context is on a particularly sticky wicket, because it directly relates to the cultural and moral norms or values for society and for our children. Evidence provides a basis for reconciling these differences because it breaks down large abstract concepts into smaller units that follow certain rules of codification. In this sense, it allows for a policy discussion based on more tangible criteria than emotions and beliefs and largely removes absolute moral imperatives from the debate. Consequently, evidence helps tremendously in making democratic systems work and facilitates less antagonistic debate.

Secondly, at least attempting to look at evidence might mitigate negative effects of basing policy solely on beliefs – however strongly held they may be. If a policy-maker acts on the basis of personal convictions in light of opposing evidence, she or he should be held to account. In these circumstances, unaddressed problems that have been set aside will accumulate and, ultimately, lead to a situation where the system does not address societal needs. Therefore, policy-making should at least try to pay attention to evidence that contradicts personal beliefs in order to get the best possible results – even if none of us can ever be completely free of our own perception influencing what we take into account.

Thankfully, things do not seem to be so bleak for Europe – at least not yet. A recent Eurydice-report  suggests that policy-makers in education in Europe tend to include a wide array of researchers, public institutes and other types of evidence-providers in education policy-making, even if they have room to manoeuvre on which sources and what kind of evidence to consider.

Nevertheless, even if evidence is being generated, the challenge remains for evidence-providers to convince politicians, civil servants and various stakeholders to take it into account. This may be particularly difficult if a reform based on such evidence would prove unpopular to key interest groups or the general population.

Clearly, merely stressing the need for evidence, without taking into account the power and social structures underlying its creation and proliferation cannot be the panacea to cure all our societal and political ailments. Nevertheless, policy-makers would do well to follow Bertrand Russell's advice:

"When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed".

Authors: Franziska Böhm and Jari Matti Riiheläinen