I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations recently about the reliability of ‘old’ research and whether it has some sort of ‘use by date’.
It is of course reasonable to be wary of over-relying on research that was published decades ago, and taking note of age when reviewing evidence is important, but it shouldn’t be a case of dismissing something because it’s been around for a long time if the points are still relevant. Fads come and go but that’s perhaps even more reason to look back at older research – new ideas quite often aren’t new at all. People use examples like ‘Would you trust your doctor if they prescribed using leeches?’ – maybe not for everything, but there are quite a few situations where leeches are still used in medicine today.
Should ‘good’ research be repeated to keep it fresh? Even if nothing new is being done? When this does happen, a quick look at the references and all the previous papers by the author/s are usually still there – of course there are likely to be a few changes but the general take-away messages remain the same and then the work is criticised for re-hashing the old stuff for the sake of it. We hear arguments that research needs to be repeated and ideas challenged as we learn more about how we can improve teaching but as soon as someone writes about a ‘debunked’ idea there are criticisms in the opposite direction.
For example, I’ve seen enough evidence from people I respect to believe that there is no mileage in the concept of individual learning styles but if those same people present evidence that has changed their minds (as solid as that would have to be) I would of course have to reconsider my own position. That’s a provocative example of course but my point is there – we can’t criticise research simply because it’s testing something we think is long-disproved – we need to criticise the research itself.
As research increasingly finds its place in schools, with different staff at different levels of engagement, it’s important to stress the need to develop critical evaluation skills. The role of research lead includes helping people to come at research from all angles – treading round popular ideas of the moment, being critical but not dismissive in the face personal bias. We need to be careful with new research that simply repeats itself rather than challenging ideas and be aware that not everyone has heard all the evidence around each theory – however much we think it’s been discussed to death.
Those of us who have heard all the arguments to the point of fatigue need to make sure we use and develop our own critical eyes too and remember how easy it is to run about in the echo-chamber. As we focus on how we help our colleagues we can’t forget to challenge ourselves. As long as we are aware that the age of a piece of research may limit its value to our work then we’re a step ahead, but maybe it’s more ‘best before’ than ‘use by’. When it comes to it, we don’t have access to everything we need to make a fully informed decision and we need to trust what experts say. If I’m honest, whilst it doesn’t sound overly pleasant to be treated by leech I would have to trust that the doctor knew what they were on about, and that some older ideas have a place.