Call for researchers to highlight negative 'side effects' of methods like phonics

6th March 2017 at 11:04
sad child
Professor Yong Zhao argues teachers should be told that some interventions that improve results can also 'hurt' pupils

Education researchers should be compelled, like medical researchers, to be explicit about the negative “side effects” of the interventions they advocate, according to a leading academic.

The approach would help teachers to understand how methods such as phonics and policies such as parental choice might “hurt” children as well as benefit them, according to Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Kansas in the US.

In China, there was a saying that “all medicine is poison at the same time”, Professor Zhao said. He argued that all too often education research ignored the fact that “what works may hurt” and focused on proving or disproving the effectiveness of an intervention – be it a policy, a programme or a teaching method.

Schools and teachers were never told that while a reading programme might teach pupils to quickly sound out words it might also make them “hate reading forever”, he said, or that a teaching method might improve test scores but reduce pupil creativity.

However, other researchers have highlighted that it can take years for "unintended consquences" to emerge.

Professor Zhao is calling for governments and organisations that award education research grants to force educational researchers to report both the intended and unintended consequences of an intervention at the same time – just as medical researchers must.

“Educational research seems to be exclusively interested in what works, but ignores the possibility that what works may hurt at the same time,” he told TES. “When you buy a medical product, you are given information about both its effects and side effects. But such practice does not exist in education.”

Walter Humes, an honorary professor at the University of Stirling who has worked in educational research for nearly four decades, said that researchers could at times be guilty of being blind to the downsides of the interventions that they were evaluating.

However, he also pointed out that it could sometimes take years for unintended consequences to emerge.

This is an edited article from the 3 March edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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