I know that most teachers don’t find statistics fun. Yet, if you are truly committed to evidence-based education, you must understand some fundamental facts about educational research.
This doesn’t mean that you need to lose yourself in a sea of statistical jargon.
However, if you want to base your practice on the best available evidence, you must know:
- How to judge which research to trust
- What that research is telling you.
Fundamental Fact 1: Not All Evidence Is Equal
When it comes to showing whether or not a particular strategy works, not all educational research is equal.
The strength of ‘evidence’ depends on how it was obtained. In short experimental research is stronger than anecdotal experiences, and a collection of studies are stronger than single studies.
Of course, this is an over-simplification. A poorly executed review may lead to misleading conclusions, and personal experiences can be critical. However, as a rule of thumb, it is better to let evidence from hard research guide your practice.
Fundamental Fact 2: Educational Research Shows Everything Works (Nearly)
Most things that teachers do have a positive impact on how well students do at school. The same holds true for the other people involved in a child’s education.
Whether you use inquiry learning or explicit teaching – you will help children progress further than they would have without you. While there are a few educational practices that have a negative impact on students’ learning (e.g. long summer holidays), educational research shows that nearly everything works – at least to some degree.
Therefore, research that a particular strategy works does not mean that strategy works better than other alternatives. Nor does it mean that strategy is always going to be worth the time, effort and money it would take to implement it.
You need measures that allow you to tell how good a particular strategy is, and how that compares to other strategies.
Discover what measures do this, and how to understand them.
Fundamental Fact 3: Context & Detail Are Important
Reviews of educational research, such as the one conducted by John Hattie in Visible Learning, provide strong and valuable evidence for teachers.
For example, Hattie found that two common practices in schools (homework and ability grouping) have marginal if any impact on student achievement.
However, the detail in the studies Hattie reviewed sheds light on some subtle, yet important findings, such as the fact that:
- Homework for senior students has a large impact on their results
- Within-class ability grouping in reading works better than mixed ability groups
As you can see, context and detail is important.
Therefore, whether or not a strategy is deemed generally effective (or not), you need to know:
- Who various strategies work for
- What subjects they work in
- The circumstances where they work best (or vice-versa)
WARNING: Watch Out for These Common Traps
People with deeply entrenched philosophies of teaching will often quote research to back-up their position. Yet, they ignore research that challenges their views. If you are committed to evidence-based teaching, you need to:
- Be aware of all the research
- Form balanced conclusions regardless of your prior beliefs
For years, tobacco companies sponsored research trying to cast doubt on the claim that smoking was bad for you. Within the educational arena, research can be sponsored by companies, unions, governments (including political parties), professional associations and other employers. Some of this research may be quite revealing. However, any research sponsored by someone with vested interests needs to be scrutinized carefully.