Point of View:

Beware the pong of debunked theories 

Much education research can be inaccessible from the classroom, but used effectively the good stuff can set you free, writes Carl Hendrick

The gap between education research and classroom practice is well documented and has led to calls for teachers to actively become researchers.

But there is, of course, a world of difference between doing research and using research. A champion Formula 1 driver doesn’t need to know the intimate workings of an engine in order to be a winner, any more than an engineer needs to know how to drive the car.

As the US psychologist Dan Willingham said, there is a fundamental difference between what researchers do and what teachers do. Scientists are occupied with describing the world, while educators, on the other hand, look to make something happen.

In trying to do this in the classroom, teachers need the best resources to hand that have been tried and tested. Yet erroneous beliefs about how students learn still abound and continue to have a profoundly detrimental effect on what happens in the classroom.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, doctors believed that cholera was caused by various unseen agents, including a mysterious miasma or ‘night air’ that could cause a whole range of things, such as obesity, simply from inhaling the smell of certain foods. In 1854 John Snow posited a link between cholera and contaminated water, a discovery that would save millions of lives and paved the way for a more evidence-based approach to health care. Many beliefs about how learning happens have had more in common with miasma theory and should really have been consigned to the pedagogical dustbin of history long ago, but yet they still persist. Why is this?

In their book Inside Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge, Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle outline a fundamental problem with our profession. They explain that there has been an outside-in model of knowledge creation about what effective teaching is, and a top-down model of school improvement. Teachers, they claim, have effectively been passive participants in the process of what constitutes good practice, and in research terms have traditionally been mere ‘objects of study’.

The research used as the foundation for improving practice has been conducted ‘almost exclusively by university-based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practice of schooling’, they say.

In a very real sense, teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask and solutions to problems that never existed. For example, take the problem of how to plan lesson content to match the individual ‘learning style’ of students. It is an undertaking now proved to have been a waste of time trying to solve and a sad indictment of how much time and energy has been expended on approaches with little to no evidence to support them. 

“Many beliefs about learning should really have been consigned to the pedagogical dustbin of history long ago ”

Much research in education is often published in obscure journals, inaccessible to classroom teachers using obtuse and unnecessarily complex language. One is reminded of George Orwell’s assertion that there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. For education research to have an impact where it matters most, it should be accessible, relevant and, above all, practicable.

Even where there has been good evidence, a key problem has been implementation of that evidence. This usually manifests itself in a kind of ‘Chinese whispers’ effect, where researchers produce high-quality research but by the time it filters down to the classroom it’s a pale imitation of its original form, devoid of any practical use. A good example of this is how Dylan Wiliam’s work on formative assessment was often implemented in a way that had very little impact on student achievement and a huge impact on teacher workload.

Of course, teachers should be aware that research can only tell you what has worked in the past and not necessarily what will work in the future.

Trying to implement research in the classroom is a bit like looking in the rear-view mirror while trying to drive the car forward. Just because a particular intervention proved to be effective with a group of undergraduate psychology students in California, that doesn’t mean the same approach will work with a group of thirteen-year-old Korean students on a cold November morning in Seoul.

However, what we are finding out is that children are often more similar than they are different in how they learn, retain and use knowledge.

What we are now beginning to gather is a series of ‘best bets’ about effective practice in the classroom. These ‘best bets’ should be part of the arsenal of every teacher in how they plan effective teaching so they can adapt and refine their practice according to the needs of their students. Many labour under the misconception that education research is merely the latest set of stone tablets telling teachers how to teach. But when used judiciously, effective research is a form of liberation that gives teachers a richer vocabulary with which to navigate the complex language of the classroom.

Carl Hendrick is head of research at Wellington College in Berkshire, UK and tweets @C_Hendrick. This article is adapted from the forthcoming book ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice’