The story of evidence

By Joseph Murphy

Let us attend to the most essential problem — the academic community’s belief that it has a monopoly on “evidence.” Scientific evidence is the only evidence that has legitimacy. We are almost on a religious quest to show that this should be the case. From my own observations and reading, we have arrived at the position where other sources of evidence are not only devalued, they are rarely acknowledged. In the process, researchers also have assumed a monopoly position with regard to how evidence can be collected and employed. The following example from Cooper and colleagues (2005, p. 491) is illustrative, I believe, of where the research community has positioned itself. “Our goal is the production of knowledge that is . . . scientifically valid, since it is only this type of knowledge that can ultimately benefit practice.”

When we step back from statements such as these and look with fresh eyes, three points emerge. One, they are arrogant. Two, they are hardly outliers in the narratives in the educational community. Three, they are inaccurate. Scientific evidence is not the only source of evidence nor is it the source of evidence that always holds high ground in decision processes. Aggregating up from schoolwork, we see a need to acknowledge that two other large bins of evidence exist and merit our attention.

The first might best be labeled craft knowledge. This includes wisdom gathered over time by practitioners; and to push outward a little further, stories, ad hoc observations, and intuition. It is the evidence that legitimizes professional judgment in decision making in our field. My experience over a long period of watching is that these practices are very poorly received as a source of knowledge and rejected outright as legitimate evidence, and routinely ridiculed. To arrive at this position requires a fairly closed perspective on education writ large and actions by teachers and school administrators in particular.

Stories, for example, are a robust source of evidence, oftentimes quite useful and valid evidence. Of course when this perspective is raised, research colleagues often react with incredulity. They are in the business not of trying to investigate craft knowledge but to replace it. Although it is easy to trace the roots of this perspective, it is a belief that is and almost assuredly will never hold center stage in the practice world of schooling. Nor should it. I have been in the profession a long time and I have never seen a teacher or principal reject a story as legitimate evidence. They are often not taken at face value. But to argue that stories from practice are not legitimate evidence is quite absurd. It is not, as routinely suggested, a matter of converting school people to the use of scientific knowledge. It is coming to recognize that scientific evidence is not the only real type of evidence available, and that concepts such as generalizability are arrived at in different ways in the domain of practice than they are in the research sector of the profession.

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