Can the field of bio-ethics help us think about the ethics of teacher-led research and evidence-based practice in schools?

In previous blogs I have tried to get some kind of grip on the ethical issues associated with both school-led research and evidence-based/informed practice within schools. This has led me to doing some reading on ‘bio-ethics’ and the general ethical principles used in the caring professions to see if they can shed some light on how to conduct ethical evidence-based practice.  Recently, I read an article by Hersch (2018) – who borrows two concepts from bioethics - clinical equipoise and therapeutic misconception -  and applies them to ‘research’ conducted by teacher researchers.  So the rest of this post will in explore in more detail what is meant by the terms educational misconception and educational equipoise, and will then go onto examine the implications for teachers and schools.

Educational misconception

In the context of medicine, therapeutic misconception exists where a research subject/patient has the mistaken belief that decisions about his or her care are based solely on what is best for patient/subject. So a patient may take part in a clinical trial, be in the control group receiving a placebo and think they are receiving the best possible care.  

This type of misconception is not limited to medicine, it can also happen in teacher and school-led research.  As Hersch argues once a teacher decides to evaluate a teaching strategy or intervention they add an extra aim to their classroom – other than teaching pupils to learn to the best of the teacher’s abilities.  This additional aim involves finding out what teaching methods work best to accomplish this.  As such, the beneficiaries of the research may not be current pupils, but rather the teacher themselves, or future pupils taught by this teacher.

Hersch goes onto argue that educational misconception is a problem and states: Considering the seriousness with which research on human subjects is conducted, and the importance placed on voluntary participation with easy opt out and informed consent, it would be a significant ethical failing if students were under the misconception that their teachers only have their learning in mind in the classroom.  Of course, we are not dealing with life-and-death issues, nor even with serious consequences in students’ health, either physical or mental.  Yet this does not detract from the gravity of letting students continue with their studies under an unnecessary misconception (p8)

Educational equipoise

In the context of medicine, clinical equipoise arises where there is an honest professional disagreement amongst experts about the most appropriate treatments. In other words, there is no consensus about the pluses and minuses of the various treatments.  As a result a clinical trial may be designed to resolve, if possible, the disagreement.

This notion of equipoise has found its way into education, for example, Coe, Kime, et al. (2013) - in the EEF’s DIY Evaluation Guide – state

Ethical evaluations start from a position of 'equipoise', where we do not know for certain what works best, it can be argued that that it is unethical not to try and establish which is more effective, particularly if the intervention is going to be repeated or rolled-out more widely…..It is important to explain that an evaluation of a new possible method is taking place, not an evaluation of a better method as if we knew it was better, we’d be doing it already.

Hersch then goes onto identify three difficulties in translating the notion of clinical equipoise to educational research.  First, teaching lacks an ethical framework which goes ‘beyond the ethical requirements for people in general’. Indeed, one of the ironies of teaching is that if a teacher were to introduce a new approach and did not rigorously evaluate it, this is within the bounds of acceptable teaching practice.  On the other hand, a teacher who sets out to rigorously evaluate their practice is probably going to be held to a higher ethical standard.  

Second, the chances for harm may be smaller in an educational context than in a clinical context, but that does not mean the potential for pupils being harmed should be ignored.

As Hersch states: At worst, students learn a little less than they could, so is that really a worry? But it is a worry when considering the ethics of SoLT (scholarship of learning and teaching).  Just because there are worse harms to which people can be subjected in other contexts, and just because some teachers do a poor job teaching does not mean that those who seek to research their teaching need not care about the harms they inflict, minor as they might be.

Third, Hersch raises the point about who the community of experts is, particularly when there are disagreements about the success or otherwise of an intervention.  Is it researchers who work in higher education institutions or other bodies?  Is it the professional bodies or associations of teachers? Are the experts within the senior leadership teams of a school?  Is it the subject experts who work in a department within a school? It is, perhaps, another indication of how we are from being a research-informed profession, that such seemingly simple questions are so difficult to answer.


So how can schools and teachers meet some of these challenges?

·      Teachers should consider making it clear to pupils participating in a study, what the aims  of the study are and who are the intended beneficiaries.

·      Teachers have an ethical obligation to keep up with the latest research, and in particular where there appears to be an emerging consensus, so as to make sure they are using the most effective interventions – otherwise, there may be an issue around educational equipoise

·      The school research lead has an important role to play as a potential gatekeeper as to ‘what works, for whom, to what extent, where, and for how long’

And finally

Perhaps, before thinking about undertaking teacher-led or school-led research practitioner inquiry, time could be spent thinking about the ethical values which inform the work of the school.  If this is done, so many other things might become that much easier to manage.


Coe, R., Kime, S., Nevill, C. and Coleman, R. (2013). The Diy Evaluation Guide. London. Foundation, E. E.

Hersch, G. (2018). Educational Equipoise and the Educational Misconception; Lessons from Bioethics. Teaching & Learning Inquiry. 6. 2. 3-15.