Experimenting with children?

I am an educational researcher by profession. One of the components of my profession – if not the most defining component – is conducting (educational) experiments. These experiments can take place in a lab under artificial conditions via so-called randomized controlled trials , but can also be ecologically valid studies [1] , so ‘in the wild’ in the classroom / in schools. The experiments I conduct can be highly controlled experimental intervention studies where I try to eliminate all chance, but they can also be quasi-experimental or even design-based where all sorts of (unexpected) things can happen. However, whatever research I do, with the exception of literature research or desk research, I have to have everything reviewed by an agency called the ethical review committee [2] (ETC) for ethical reasons (which are also established in my field) . It doesn’t matter whether I only administer a questionnaire about how a child says they learn, try a different form of education (and compare it with a similar group without this intervention) or administer fish oil to see if this leads to better learning. In the latter case, I even have to go to a medical ethics review committee. Regardless of what I do, I have to show this committee that I act ethically, that I will not harm the student (or the parent/guardian) through the chosen instruments or interventions, that I provide ‘aftercare’ after the intervention, such as conducting a follow-up interview or reporting to the participants about the results found and so on. If my research – the experimentation – is done with young children, I must first obtain permission from their parents or guardians. If it concerns children between the ages of 12 and 18, I must obtain permission from both the parents/guardians and the children themselves, and for students aged 18 or older only from the young people themselves. I must also give students the opportunity to opt out of the experiment without any adverse consequences to them, and I must also give them the space to withdraw from the study at any time (same without consequences).

With this ‘lament’ I do not want to argue that all this is too much and that it could or should be less. On the contrary. I think it is excellent that my colleagues and I are forced to ethically justify what we do in our educational experiments on the one hand and (even more importantly) to think carefully in advance about what possible adverse effects/consequences our ‘innocent’ experiments can have for the participants, i.e. our children.

What I find all the more strange is that schools and even the government are allowed to do all sorts of things without having to take such ethical considerations into account. Think of what the Dutch Parliamentary Inquiry into Education Innovation Committee , or the Dijsselbloem Committee,  found (for which I conducted one of the sub-studies together with Frans Prins). Three of the conclusions of the parliamentary inquiry were: 
-Major risks have been taken with vulnerable students ; 
-The scientific substantiation of ‘ the new learning ‘ is largely  lacking ;
-The manner in which ’the new learning’ was introduced was risky ).
Schools and governments can, for example, simply implement an unconsidered intervention based on vague suspicions or hypes of education gurus and eduquacks and led by untrained people (I will not mention any names or educational interventions here, but you know them). They can also implement changes/innovations that have only been thought about a tiny bit. These changes/innovations are then based on suspicions or assumptions (think of the Second Phase). Again, in both cases without any prior ethical review!

I find this absurd. Let us demand that schools and the government adhere to the same norms, rules and standards as professional educational researchers. It is about our children and the damage we can do to them. We cannot take this lightly!

[1] Ecological validity is the extent to which the research results from a study correspond to everyday practice

[2] .ETCs aim to safeguard the values, rights and interests of participants in a research project. For each research project requested, this committee checks whether the researchers take into account generally applicable legal and/or ethical standards relating to the type of research to be conducted. The ETC assesses the ethical aspects of a research project and its methods, promotes fully informed and voluntary participation by potential participants who are capable of making such choices (or, if that is not possible, informed consent given by an appropriate proxy such as a child’s parents or guardians), to ensure all aspects of the participants’