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Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education


The idea that professional practices such as education should be based upon or at least be informed by evidence continues to capture the imagination of many politicians, policy makers, practitioners and researchers. There is growing evidence of the influence of this line of thought. At the same time there is a growing body of work that has raised fundamental questions about the feasibility of the idea of evidence-based or evidence-informed practice. In this paper I make a further contribution to this discussion through an analysis of a number of assumptions that inform the discussion. I focus on the epistemological, ontological and praxeological dimensions of the discussion and in each domain identify a deficit. In the epistemological domain there is a knowledge deficit, in the ontological domain an effectiveness or efficacy deficit and in the practice domain an application deficit. Taken together these deficits not only raise some important questions about the very idea of evidence-based practice but also highlight the role of normativity, power and values. Against this background I outline the case for the idea of value-based education as an alternative for evidence-based education. As I am generally concerned about the expectations policy makers hold about what evidence can and should achieve in professional practices such as education, my contribution is primarily meant to provide educators and other professionals with arguments that can help them to resist unwarranted expectations about the role of evidence in their practices and even more so of unwarranted interventions in their practices.

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  1. 1.

    A (random) selection of journal titles devoted to the idea of evidence-based practice: The Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine; The Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare; The Journal of Evidence-based Dental practice; Evidence Based Nursing; The Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work; Journal of Evidence Based Health Policy and Management; The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring; The Journal of Evidence Based Library and Information Practice; The Journal of Evidence-Based Practices for Schools.

  2. 2.

    Holmes et al. (2006) also use the notion of ‘micro fascism’ to criticise the discourse on evidence within the health sciences and make a convincing case for the use of this notion.

  3. 3.

    “Evidence.” The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Retrieved September 15, 2009 from

  4. 4.

    Whether it is possible to conceive of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ is another matter. The issue has been a topic for discussion ever since Gettier (1963) provided examples of justified true beliefs that would not count as cases of knowledge.

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    This is a very brief summary of a point made in much detail by John Dewey—see for example, Dewey (1929).

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    This is an issue that has also troubled the interpretation of quantum physics.

  7. 7.

    I wish to emphasise that the point I am making here does not rely on a claim for the alleged superiority of a transactional epistemology. Rather than seeing my point as a general philosophical one, it actually centres on the question what follows if we apply an epistemology that can take experimentation seriously. The ‘case’ for a transactional epistemology is therefore only based on the attempt to overcome the tension—if not contradiction—between the experimental methodology that plays a central role in the ideas of proponents of evidence-based practice and the representational epistemology that they seem to employ in arguing for the alleged superiority of the knowledge generated in this way.

  8. 8.

    This argument can be read as an ontological or as methodological argument. Systems theory tends to take the methodological route, arguing that phenomena operate as if they were closed, or open, or recursive systems. In terms of notions of causality and how this plays out in social interaction, it can be helpful to make distinctions at the ontological level such as between a ‘causal ontology’ and a ‘social ontology’ (see Biesta 2010c).

  9. 9.

    A question I will not be able to deal with in this article is to what extent attempts to reduce complexity at the very same time increase complexity. For an interesting reflection on this issue see Rasmussen (2010).


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the symposium on “Research in the Educational Praxis” at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, 8 October 2009. I would like to thank Petra Ponte for the invitation and would like to thank those attending for helpful feedback and comments.

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Correspondence to Gert J. J. Biesta.

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Biesta, G.J.J. Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Stud Philos Educ 29, 491–503 (2010).

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  • Evidence-based education
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Evidence-informed practice
  • What works
  • Epistemology
  • Ontology
  • Praxeology
  • Values
  • Value-based education
  • Power
  • Normativity