Why ‘the research says...’ is a dangerous phrase

The move towards making teaching a research-based profession has been great, but ideals still need scrutiny, says Louise Lewis
1st November 2019, 12:03pm


Why ‘the research says...’ is a dangerous phrase

Research & Teaching

Cognitive science and its application in education is becoming increasingly mainstream. 

This is a welcome move, of course; the tide is shifting from opinion, gut instinct and "because I said so" decisions, to the kind that are informed by experimentation and analysis. 

Organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation, Research Schools Network and Teacher Development Trust have been shining beacons in this necessary move, providing research and reviews, and making it accessible to teachers.

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It is making our profession more professional.

Prior to this movement, I was starting to feel that I wanted to do anything other than teach. Literally anything. I looked at starting my own business, retraining as a clinical scientist, running away to a desert island. 

The job had become all-consuming and unsustainable. Other people's boardroom decisions were directly and negatively impacting on my life and my mental health and I felt like a rubbish teacher because of it. 

I was expected to be the entertainer in the room, providing four tiers of work in each activity-rich lesson. Burnout doesn't even cover it. I needed something to change. 

And it did, with a new focus on utilising research and evidence to inform decisions. It has renewed my faith in teaching, providing real hope that we can do our jobs, and do them well.

Magpies and mutations

The trouble is that us educators are magpies. We see a shiny idea, take it, and, because we are egocentric humans, mutate it to become a version of ourselves or our practice, rather than what it actually is. 

Take feedback. This is ranked highly on the EEF Toolkit, giving +8 months progress, with a fairly robust evidence base (three out of five padlocks) and is low cost (one pound sign out of five). 

But this was used by leaders - who potentially did not understand the research behind the meta-analysis - to enforce watertight marking and feedback policies including triple-marking, extensive written comments, target grades, aspirational grades and every other grade in between written all over books. 

To what avail? Sundays spent marking from dawn til dusk, terror if every page didn't have red pen, green pen, smiley faces and so on.

Is this low cost? Absolutely not. An NEU survey revealed that 18 per cent of teachers plan to leave the profession in two years, with workload cited as a major contributory factor. This is the biggest cost, both on a personal and systemic level.

But hammering feedback was the best thing to do, right? The research says so. And this is the issue. The phrase "the research says" has become impossible to argue with.

But why? A lack of understanding, a drive to push a change or purely through misguided ignorance?

Ask the right questions

As consumers of evidence, or as subjects of evidence-informed decisions, we should be critical of it. If it is robust, it will be open to scrutiny and will pass the test. So what questions should you ask of it?

  • What is the source of evidence?

  • Are there any signs of bias or vested interest?

  • Are there any red flags?

  • What is the sample size?

  • Are we doing what the actual research suggests, or is it "our version" of it?

  • Is this evidence providing a solution to a problem in our context or is it just driving an initiative?

We have spent an era in education complying with decisions built on a foundation of sand. This no longer has to be the case. 

But without robust critique, the sand castle will stand tall with a flag flying saying "the research says". Which is in jeopardy of fast becoming the "because I said so" with frills on. 

Louise Lewis is a research lead and deputy head of science in a Yorkshire secondary school. She tweets @MissLLewis

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