How our education system resembles 17th century medicine

The education system in Australia is currently comparable to 17th century medical practices, with teachers frequently using tools without any scientific evidence behind them, according to a leading education expert.

Sir Kevan Collins, who is chief executive of the UK's Education Endowment Foundation, which was established to improve education practices and outcomes, said many teachers around the world are "essentially allowed to make it up as [they go]".

"Until the 18th and early 19th centuries, doctors would just invent their own practices, before the [medical community] understood you could use science and randomised control trials to test drugs and measure which approach to solving a problem had the best effect," Sir Kevan said.

He is now leading the implementation of randomised control trials for classroom practices in the UK, and is currently in Australia to speak to members of the Gonski 2.0 review panel, Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham and state ministers including NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes.

"About a third of schools in England are involved in testing teaching approaches out in a systematic and scientific way," Sir Kevan said.

"We're now saying we've got evidence and there are ways of learning that are most effective."

Sir Kevan said the trials, which began about five years ago, have provided evidence on how existing resources such as technology and teaching aids can be used more effectively.

"We spend [billions of pounds] on technology and teaching aids in schools, but we're finding that unless it's done with evidence and in a thoughtful way, you're increasing investment in education without achieving outcomes," he said.

"The problem at the moment is that anyone can invent a resource and walk into a school and sell it without having to prove that it actually works. You can't do that with something like cosmetics, you have to prove they meet health and safety standards."

Sir Kevan said the UK has a needs-based education funding model that is similar to the Australian Gonski model, but that British schools are "reporting that they're spending money more wisely" since the EEF was established in 2011.

The UK has also seen its international performance improve in the past five years, and the gap between the results of students from low and high socio-economic primary schools has closed by 23 per cent during that time.

Sir Kevan said EEF began three trials in Australian schools this year in partnership with Evidence for Learning to look at different ways of teaching maths and phonics, with results expected by the end of next year.

Work to build evidence for teaching practices is also being done in the US, Denmark and part of Latin America, and Sir Kevan said results are relevant across the world.

"A great deal of what we do [as teachers], we all do," he said.

"But you don't get better at teaching just by doing it for longer. So we're looking at how we can learn from what millions of teachers have been doing over hundreds of years and how we can collaborate."

Sir Kevan said taking a "medical approach to teaching" is creating "a bit of a quiet revolution".

"Education in universities has been in the world of sociology rather than in the harder sciences, but now we're realising it's much more about the science of the brain and we can measure children's dispositions and responses more effectively," he said.

"It's a shift from education being a guru telling teachers what to do, to saying this is a professional, profound act that we can have insight into if we have the discipline to collect data.

"For ordinary teachers, it's deeply empowering to be part of building that evidence."

This story How our education system resembles 17th century medicine first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.