Myths and Shibboleths

What doesn’t work and why?

The preliminary article to this, What Works and Why? can be found at Optimus Education

Do we know enough as teachers about what works and why?  Dr Howard-Jones thinks not.  His 2014 research, reported here, criticises “ineffective” teaching practices “sold to teachers as based on neuroscience [which have] no educational value and are often associated with poor practice in the classroom.”  Similarly in his 2015 article for the American Educator, Tom Bennett decries the “cacophony of the fashionable, the novel, the exciting” that has dominated educational thinking, perhaps explained by research reported here, which finds that there is something uniquely convincing about neuroscience in the context of explaining the mind.

Terry Burnham warns here about ideas that build up ‘meme-mentum.’

The 2015 OECD Education Policy Outlook found that only 10% of international education policy initiatives were evaluated.  As Andreas Schleicher says, “If we want to improve educational outcomes we need to have a much more systematic and evidence-based approach.”

But, as Carl Hendrick points out here, because the model of teacher effectiveness in Britain has been ‘outside in’ rather than ‘inside out,’ teachers are “passive participants,” in comparison to the findings of the 2012 Grattan Report Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia that teachers were “partners” in a “strong culture of teaching education, research, collaboration, mentoring, feedback and sustained professional development.” 

Myth 1: We can see learning

Learning is neither a visible nor a ‘snap shot’ process.  ‘Progress-checking’ by any other method than on-going assessment therefore has the following pitfalls:

  • Students may pretend that they have learned information
  • Students may think that they have learned information and be wrong
  • Students may have learned information incorrectly
  • Students may have learned information but then forget it
  • Students may have learned information but be unable to transfer it to unfamiliar contexts

Robert Coe argues here that we have focused on easily observable “outcomes that we mistake for learning rather than ... real learning.”

Graham Nuthall found in The Hidden Lives of Learners for example that, “students can be busiest and most involved in material they already know.”

James Theo outlines the dangers of poor proxies for learning here.

As Alex Quigley points out here, it can also be tempting to mistake correlation for causation: “This is of course of crucial importance in schools. We are constantly being sold silver bullets whose evidence is based on loose correlation (or worse) and nothing like causation.”

Strategies to accurately assess learning
David Didau has written extensively on the fact that learning is invisible.

Myth 2: Learning is intuitive

The DFE’s espousal of learning styles in Pedagogy into Practice: Learning Styles was not based on rigorous research:

From the moment we are born we make sense of the world through our five senses. However, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioners argue that those five senses may not contribute equally to that perception and that individuals may have a sensory preference for receiving and making sense of new information and ideas. They have identified three types of learner.”

Research into urban legends in education by Kirschner and Merrienboer here identifies the following problems with learning styles:

  • Many people do not fit one particular style
  • The relationship between what people say about how they learn and how they actually learn is weak.
  • At least 71 learning styles have been identified.
  • Research by Clark found that “learner preference was typically uncorrelated or negatively correlated to learning and learning outcomes.  That is, learners who reported preferring a particular instructional technique typically did not derive any instructional benefit from experiencing it.”

Similarly, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark found here that learners’ preferences can be unhelpful: “Less able learners who choose less guided approaches tend to like the experience even though they learn less from it.”  In comparison, task-specific learning strategies embedded in instructional presentations “require explicit, attention-driven effort on the part of the learners and so tend not to be liked, even though they are helpful to learning.”  Conversely, “Higher aptitude students who chose highly structured approaches tended to like them but achieve at a lower level...[because they] have acquired implicit, task-specific learning strategies that are more effective for them than those embedded in the structured versions of the course...[but] believe that they will achieve the required learning with a minimum of effort.” 

Daniel Willingham on Why Learning Styles Don’t Exist
David Didau explodes Right Brain/ Left Brain Bollocks

Myth 3: Learning must be collaborative

As Tom Bennett points out in Group Work for the Good, the emphasis on group work owes much to Vygotsky, who argued that: “what a child can do today in cooperation, tomorrow he will be able to do on his own.”  Group work can be effective – particularly where a dialectic process deepens students’ understanding - but it has pitfalls:

  • It may not be as effective or efficient as individual work in ensuring all students think hard about the learning
  • Student-to-student interaction may be lower level than teacher-involved interaction
  • It may focus on proxies for learning such as engagement or student interaction
  • It may make assessment of individual learning more difficult
  • It may prevent conditions of desirable difficulty

Interestingly, Nuthall found in The Hidden Lives of Learners that much of what students learn from each other is actually wrong.  

David Didau on Should Group Work be Imposed?

Myth 4: Growth mindset alone is the answer

It’s a bit more complicated than that.  Astbury and Plomin point out in G is for Genes that, “for genetic as well as environmental reasons, it will be harder for some people to develop a growth mindset than others.”

Carl Hendrick warns here against reductionist ‘pop psychology’ in “promising areas” like Growth Mindset, which fails to take into account students’ multidimensional self-concept and underestimates the impact of achievement on self-perception, which Muijs and Reynolds found here to be “stronger than the effect of self-concept on achievement.”  Similarly, David Didau warns here that “growth mindset has been so universally heralded as a ‘good thing’ that it’s in danger of becoming one of those memes we think with rather than about.”

Nick Rose points out here that school interventions designed to improve students’ metacognition and ‘character’ can be problematic.  A 2015 review on, The potential for school-based interventions that target executive function to improve academic achievement suggested that:  

“There is surprisingly little rigorous empirical research that explores the nature of the association between executive function and achievement and almost no research that critically examines whether the association is causal. From the existing research it is not clear whether improving executive functioning skills among students would cause their achievement to rise as a result.” 

The review found that none of the skills-based approaches that it investigated appeared to directly improve student outcomes.

Scott Alexander critiques growth mindset here
Nick Rose Growth Mindset: It’s not magic
How to use Growth Mindset effectively: Growth Mindset – so What’s Next?  by Alex Quigley.

Myth 5: research alone is the answer

Again, it’s more complicated than that.  Tom Bennett argues here that:

“Teachers need to interact with what the best evidence is saying and translate it through the lens of their experience... Teaching is not, and can never be a research-based, or research-led profession.   Research can’t tell us what the right questions to ask are, nor can it authoritatively speak for all circumstances and contexts... [but] it can assist bringing together the shared wisdom of the teaching community... Teaching can — and needs to be —research informed, possibly research augmented. The craft, the art of it, is at the heart of it. Working out what works also means working out what we mean by ‘works’, and where science, heart and wisdom overlap and where they don’t.” 

Daniel Willingham suggests here that the main reason for a cognitive dissonance between teachers’ belief in the validity of research and the techniques they use in the classroom, is fear of losing autonomy.  However, Carl Hendrick here cites Stenhouse’s argument that research in which teachers are involved is in fact “the route to teacher emancipation.”

Alex Quigley warns against an uncritical ‘the research says’ approach here.

What next and where? 8 ideas

As Andy Tharby points out here, “What is most critical... is that we question, test and evaluate our assumptions and intuitions, whatever our position in the educational system – from trainee teacher to Secretary of State. Unless the evidence is incontrovertible (and it almost never is) always avoid the simplistic answer, however seductive it sounds.”

1. In Four Ways to Use Evidence in Education, Harry Fletcher Wood suggests:

  • Looking for evidence of our impact
  • Asking for evidence
  • Improving our teaching using research
  • Developing Research Lead roles in schools

2. Check out Education Data Lab, which brings together a team of academics, researchers and statisticians to produce independent research that can be used by schools to improve practice.

3. Check out the Education Endowment Fund’s brokerage service, which links research with classroom practice.

4. Geoff Petty suggests how to use evidence to improve teaching here

5. Highbury Grove School’s vision for the research-engaged school

6. Check out ResearchED 

7.  Keep up to date with research through twitter.  The following blogs are great places to start:

8. Check out schools developing research-informed practice

Posted on May 9, 2015 .