How to persuade people about education — an evidence-based approach.

As purveyors of evidence, we tend to believe evidence alone is enough to win people over, but research from moral psychology suggests that we may need to adopt a more pragmatic approach if we want to get people to actually change their minds.

I had to persuade a colleague to take part in a trial that I’m running on formative assessment. Nervous to make a water-tight argument, I turned up to the meeting with copious handouts and photocopies. In the end, the conversation went like this:

Me: So… the rationale for this is based upon research into formative assessment and Dylan William’s model of…

Teacher: You mentioned it might reduce my marking?

Me: Yes.

Teacher: I’m in.

Those of us flying the flag for evidence-based pedagogies tend to use what psychologists call the information deficit model of persuasion. This means that we assume the barrier to persuasion is a lack of evidence, as opposed to other personal, moral or psychological barriers. Those of us trained in the scientific method are most likely to assume this, as the information deficit model forms the very foundation of the scientific process. As we have been persuaded by evidence, we assume other in turn will be similarly won over.

But there is a large body of psychological research which suggests that focusing exclusively on evidence is actually a very poor strategy to persuade people. In fact, given the selective biases by which were interact with information, it can often lead to what is called the ‘backfire effect’ — we reinforce our delusions instead of giving them up. Much as we may prefer to think this is purely an issue of weighing the evidence, if our actual goal is persuasion and change, we may need to be smarter about how we reach beyond our natural congregation.

Why don’t people change their minds when they see the evidence?

Beliefs about education are often moral beliefs. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows that when confronted on issues that they feel strongly about, people have powerful psychological filters that prevent them changing their minds. When cherished moral beliefs are challenged, we cherry-pick, rationalise and generate counter-examples. Anything to avoid having the belief changed. This is why someone can think that their experience of a relative who went to a grammar school can trump data that clearly shows under-privileged children doing badly in grammar school areas. If you already have an intuitive moral belief that grammar schools a are good thing you will accomplish mental gymnastics to maintain that belief.

Many strongly-held beliefs in education have this intuitive moral character. A belief in learning styles, for example, is carried upon intuitive moral beliefs about the inflexibility of the education system and the uniqueness of the individual. A belief in discovery learning is supported by intuitive beliefs about authoritarianism and creativity.

Unfortunately, directly challenging these beliefs with evidence usually makes the situation worse. Very often, strongly making an argument that challenges a strongly-held belief can lead to the ‘backfire effect’. In forcing the mind to defend its core beliefs, it erects new rationalisations and arguments to defend itself, leading to even stronger belief in the belief that is being challenged.

So what is the alternative? Surely you’re not arguing that we abandon evidence?

To get people to accept evidence, we may initially need to speak to them in a morally intuitive way. Firstly, we need to accept the fact that the beliefs people have about education tend to be highly personal, emotional and moral. Secondly, if we accept this as true, we must necessarily abandon the information deficit model as the only way of persuading people who strongly disagree with us. When discussing an issue as personal and morally intuitive as education, we have to make arguments that work in that psychological domain. Haidt’s solution is to learn how to make our own intuitive arguments that don’t trigger those psychological defences, and which open the drawbridge for the more rational brain to consider evidence and rational arguments (Haidt draws heavily on Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model from Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, which he refers to as The Elephant and The Rider).

So what would a morally intuitive argument look like in the context of the education debate? The most obvious one is workload. If you start a conversation about the Michaela Academy by talking about the behaviour regime, you may get a negative reaction due to coral moral beliefs about how schools treat children. However, if you start by talking to teachers about their policy on workload and marking, you may be able to open a gateway to have a discussion about the whole model. Like in the example I gave at the beginning, few teachers are going to raise psychological defences if you tell them you can save them time and effort.

Here are a few other examples of debates in education and what I think are morally-intuitive counter-arguments that go with them

  • Grammar schools — do you want to increase the number of Secondary Modern Schools too? Are you happy with a child’s ability being judged for life at 11 years old?
  • Learning styles — if a child can only ever learn kinesthetic way, then how can they ever learn the skills to do anything other than manual jobs? Surely, that thinking will restrict opportunities for poorer children?
  • Group work — do you want lazy students to be able to avoid doing their fair share? Would you want your child graded on the effort that other children put in?

These arguments should not be used instead of evidence, but certainly should be used to frame the moral core of the debate and increase receptiveness to evidence later on.

This approach is yet more evidence in the debate about the limits of a purely evidence-based approach. Dylan Wiliam has argued that he imperfect nature of the evidence, and the enduring relevance of professional experience, means that, as a profession, we are not on an inevitable trajectory towards a ‘science of teaching’. Similarly, Alex Quigley agrees that within schools we should call it ‘disciplined enquiry’ instead of research, not least because in many cases this is a better description of what we are actually doing. When it comes to persuasion, evidence is not a panacea, but a tool in discussions. Shouting the evidence more forcefully is a strategy with a natural limit, and an ability to tip over into counter-productivity via the backfire effect. If our actual goal is to change minds and practice, we neglect the moral dimensions of the argument at our peril.

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