Why has educational research failed to provide us with any widely accepted sense that we have discovered new and improved ways of educating our children?
There is no shortage of research being undertaken to help try to improve the quality of education provided in schools across the world. By now, we should really have discovered rather more about the best ways for teachers to teach and learners to learn, but somehow there appears to be more disagreement than agreement.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that reliable educational research is extremely difficult to achieve.
This is due to the very high numbers of variables involved and unavoidable levels of bias, in terms of the selection and set-up of experiments, and of the manipulation of subjective data and the communication of results, especially where an agency is keen to prove their hypothesis is the correct one.
In the UK there are a number of independent policy ‘Think Tank’ organisations that regularly currently conduct educational research. Amongst others, the most well-known are probably the Policy Exchange, Sutton Trust, Demos and the more recently formed Education Foundation.
Each has its own agenda and political leanings, despite their claims to be independent. At the same time there are also numerous university-based research projects and individuals engaged in MA and PhD research which are expected to have impact.
The main problem however is that most teachers just don’t have the time to engage with the reports they produce. Until policy and/or schools address this, it is left to the motivation of the individual.
Meanwhile ‘ResearchEd’, sponsored by the Education Development Trust and run by @TomBennett71, appears to be the current buzzword in schools at present. It has the noble ambition of getting teachers to become involved in undertaking research activities as part of their everyday experience in the classroom, and sharing the results with others.
Over the past years I’ve been fortunate to be involved with various educational research projects of one sort or another. Each one has proved to be a fascinating and rewarding experience that I would strongly recommend to any teacher. And that’s something I’ll return to later …
But during that time I have developed a healthy disregard for the so-called results, or ‘evidence’ as it is referred to, of much educational research. The chances are that the experiment just isn’t reliably repeatable because the variables – students, teachers, school, content, timing and intentions – are just too variable.
Then there is the problem of interpretation – there have been occasions I’ve known where leading statisticians have disagreed about how a particular set of results should be interpreted, or when the stats have been conveniently re-interpreted to produce a different, more desirable, conclusion.
There is also the danger of inappropriate causation.
A particular factor might appear to be producing a certain effect, but that effect may actually be the result of another influence. For example, the simple action of doing something (i.e. anything) differently has been shown to produce a significant increase in work-rate and successful task-completion.
Quantitive versus Qualitative:
While quantitive scientific research deals with the objective and reliably repeatable under identical conditions, qualitative educational research deals more with subjective observations and opinions. However, to justify its conclusions, it often adopts techniques and methodologies that are based on sampling, surveys and scale-based ratings that produce numerical data that can be subjected to statistical analysis – which then runs in to the same problems of manipulation as scientific research.
Some educational research involves the extended use of data-free case-studies and ethnographic studies: while there is a potential for considerable bias in these, they can result in interesting, thought-provoking insights for further consideration.
Neuroscience and Cognition:
Meanwhile a current controversial area of education research is based in the area of neuroscience and cognitive psychology which explores the biological process of the learning. Unfortunately the ‘scientific’ data derived from such studies has sometimes been used to sell various educational products into schools, while other findings have been misunderstood.
As a result there are those who support such research and see at as a useful advance in understanding how children learn, while others dismiss the findings as myths that should be ignored and discredited.
Yet despite all these pitfalls, reformers and governments impose policy based on the data, which also feeds the media. There are no magic silver bullets in education that will instantly create better teachers and better students.
And that’s most important to be aware of at a time when the DfE are busy reforming education based on research data that they choose to interpret in particular ways that suit their policies. Indeed, while in the past policy arose out of the results of research, today it’s often the other way round – research is undertaken to justify a particular policy.
Perhaps all these problems involved in conducting meaningful, but unreliable educational research, explains ‘why’ that in well over a hundred years of the provision of education, there is still little consensus as to what and how we should be teaching our children. While research in most other aspects of our lives has succeeded in producing a sense of progress, the current political policy is that we need to go back to traditional approaches to education that have little to do with the future learning needs of our children.
Why has the educational research that has been undertaken failed to provide us with any widely accepted sense that we have discovered new and improved ways of educating our children? Is there anything to suggest that future research will do any better?
Examine and Discuss:
If all this makes it sound as if most educational research is a waste of time, what it does very effectively achieve is to cause us to examine and discuss existing practice, raise questions and search for possible answers. The evidence it produces points the way to new or emerging practices and methodologies that might in certain situations prove to be worthwhile for large or smaller groups of the student population.
The most beneficial aspect of much of the research I have been involved with has been to those who have actually been involved in collecting and analysing the data – indeed it’s probably the best form of CPD there is. Just as long as it’s understood that it isn’t going to provide any guarantee or certainty of improvement for everyone.
So, if someone pushes a piece of educational research in front of you, read it with interest and with an open-mind. Assume that ‘the research’ is not necessarily a universal truth, and that the claims it makes might not be completely trustworthy or relevant to your teaching or school.
What is important is to be able to evaluate the evidence behind the claims of educational research, so below is a handy cut-out and keep checklist. Although it relates to Scientific rather than Educational research, you may find it helpful if you are doing your own research to make sure it will pass the test when others come to challenge it!
Download ‘How to spot unreliable educational research’ here.
He can be found on Twitter at @TristramShepard.