Education research is messy, so let’s embrace the chaos

It’s tempting to simplify messages from academia and speak in absolutes, but a more nuanced appreciation of evidence will take us further forward


Education is messy. Like a teenager, it defies attempts to contain it, label it, predict its moves or understand it. It surprises, frustrates, and has numerous different faces, moods and manifestations. And, sometimes, it does things that we’d rather it didn’t.

That makes working out what works – or what “works” even means – very difficult.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the movement to be a more research-informed profession has been seized upon so keenly. Like a Marie Kondo for teaching, research has marched into messy schools and promised to bring us joy and tidy up: evidence-based strategies get neatly folded into the teaching cupboard while the ill-fitting clothes and unloved collectables – a learning styles box set prominent among them – are tossed in the trash.

Now breathe: it’s all going to be fine.

Unfortunately, such certainty is misplaced. Just as tidying up does not solve couples’ underlying issues on Kondo’s Netflix show, research cannot ever clean up education in the manner so many seem to desire.

Because research is every bit as messy as education. Each path to certainty leads to a large exit sign with a route marked “erm, it’s a little more nuanced than that”. Thousands of researchers plug away at small sections of the same picture, and that picture then becomes but a dot on a grand pointillist painting of research applicable in education.

The academics – the good ones, at least – will tell you this. They caveat, and hedge, and avoid absolutes. But are we listening?

Two recent documents, and the reaction to them, indicate an answer: the draft Ofsted framework consultation document and the Early Career Framework. Both are fully referenced so you can see their working out, which, as Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, points out in relation to Ofsted, is a brave and welcome move. But do those documents suggest an acceptance of the messiness of research and education?

Sir Kevan does an excellent job of explaining how Ofsted seems to want to confront this reality while never fully managing to do it – absolutes, selections (and omissions) without context still feature. The ECF, meanwhile, fares slightly better, but it is still prone to being overly certain.

Of course, selection of “relevant” research has to happen, but what is becoming problematic in the “evidence” narrative is a failure to acknowledge the reasons for the choices made and a tendency to use “will” and “should” when “might” and “could” are more appropriate. Why more of this, and not so much of that? Why this definition? What competing theories or adjacent material should this be seen in the context of? These questions are too rarely answered explicitly.

This is a problem for busy teachers, most of whom are thrust, blindfolded, into a vast world of research, and allowed to peek at only selected cities, towns or hamlets that they are guided to by others. This, they are told, is what the research says.

The justification is that academics often overcomplicate things (an unfair accusation in my experience), that we must simplify or the message will never get through.

This is dangerous exactly because teachers are time-poor. It means they are likely to just accept this curated journey on faith or to write it off as ideological posturing. Both outcomes significantly undermine the huge good that research can do in education.

Ofsted and the ECF are heading in the right direction, but they have not gone far enough: they are still pretending everything is tidy. Yet, if we keep only what brings us joy, we’ll have what we want but not necessarily what we need. For a more mature approach to research and its quirks, we should revel in the mess it creates. Perhaps we should all behave a bit less like Kondo, and a bit more like a teenager.


This article originally appeared in the 1 February 2019 issue under the headline “We’re messing up if we think research provides a neat solution”