Abstract for RCTs in educational research

There seems to have been a resurgence in calls for the use of systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials in educational research lately. There’s a lot to like (in my opinion) about RCTs in certain contexts because of how they are designed.  For example, when you want to figure out the effect of variable A on variable B, it’s a very useful approach because of the randomisation of the sample and the blinding of assessors and participants.

However, the method doesn’t translate well into most educational contexts for a variety of reasons, usually in the form of arguments for how RCTs in educational research are unethical and logistically difficult. I recently wrote a position paper with a colleague from Rhodes University where we looked at the argument against RCTs where we basically ignore the arguments just mentioned. We focus instead on how using an RCT pre-supposes an understanding of teaching and learning that is at odds with what we know about how learning happens. The article will be published soon in the African Journal of Health Professions Education. Here’s the abstract:

Randomised controlled trails (RCTs) are a valued research method in evidence-based practice in the medical and clinical settings. However, the use of RCTs is associated with a particular ontological and epistemological perspective that is situated within a positivist world view. It assumes that environments and variables can be controlled in order to establish cause-effect relationships. But current theories of learning suggest that knowledge is socially constructed, and that learning occurs in open systems which cannot be controlled and manipulated as would be required in a RCT. They recognise the importance and influence of context on learning, something that positivist research paradigms specifically aim to counter. We argue that RCTs are inappropriate in education research because they force us to take up ontological and epistemological positions within a technical rationalist framework that is at odds with current learning theory.