Education research requires us to go beyond headlines

Evidence-based interventions in the classroom can work only if we are well-versed in the concepts – and can sniff out bullshit as a result, writes Alex Quigley
19th April 2019, 12:03am
Sometimes Research Headlines Aren't Correct
Alex Quigley

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Education research requires us to go beyond headlines

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/education-research-requires-us-go-beyond-headlines

Jonathan Swift reportedly wrote in 1710 that "falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it". So, well before the advent of fake news and clickbait, we were warned about the threat of being oversold by catchy headlines that gloss over the facts.

Research evidence in education is a prime example of an area where we need to exercise caution about the truth. Although it is tempting to rush to accept quick fixes and fads that promise to improve teaching, we need to take the time to dig a little deeper.

Yet, with so much research evidence going unread, it is understandable that the clickbait articles sometimes win out. Complex psychological constructs can easily get distilled into catchy labels such as "grit" and "growth mindset". Too often, these terms appear to be well understood but few people take the time to drill down into the detail required to fully understand them.

The field of "character education" is prone to this: it gets column inches but often delivers disappointing results.

The "growth mindset" phenomenon quickly proved attractive to many people working in schools but, in reality, interventions often fail to replicate the positive outcomes touted by articles.

Meanwhile, leading academics such as Professor Robert Plomin have called out "growth mindset" as "bullshit", stating: "Good interventions are the most expensive and intensive - if it were easy, teachers would have figured it out for themselves."

This conflict between news stories and the research behind them is not limited to education; it is a worry that has beset many fields. For instance, psychology - a field from which we draw many of our insights about what happens in the classroom - appears to be in the midst of what Ed Yong, writing for The Atlantic, calls a "replication crisis".

Whether the study is about "power posing" to nail a job interview or the importance of young children being able to resist a marshmallow, the hype around new psychological theories often takes off before robust research evidence is in place.

In education, with new technologies and ideas emerging all the time, it is hard for researchers to catch up - the fad simply flies past them.

Take project-based learning, for example: we see schools being promised success from a radical new curriculum that is not only engaging but is "just like the real world".

The truth, however, as shown by an Education Endowment Foundation randomised controlled trial, was that even with the best possible supports, such exciting innovations flounder in the face of the complexity of our schools.

So, what does this all mean for busy teachers and school leaders? Well, we need to resist the headline hype. We need to read the original research. We need to seek out whether the exciting new evidence is replicated and corroborated by other research, or whether there is a literature review that does this synthesis for us. We need to know more about concepts such as "controls" and "statistical power" before being sold on the latest "evidence-based" idea or intervention.

In short, every school leader and teacher needs to tread carefully, so that we are not caught out when the "limping truth" finally catches up with us.

Alex Quigley is a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation, a former teacher and author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap

This article originally appeared in the 19 April 2019 issue under the headline "If teachers don't dig deeper, they risk burying the truth about 'evidence-based' interventions"

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