You don't say?

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Research can be world- changing or bleeding obvious. A startling amount of time and money is invested in the latter category. But why? Does it really serve a purpose?

Here is the key finding," announced the email from the university academic. "Adolescents were two to three times more likely to exhibit at- risk levels of acting-out behaviours (externalising symptoms) if they missed more than 20 days of school in the previous academic year, than if they were more regular attendees in the previous year."

In academic jargon, it sounds like it might actually mean something. "Externalising symptoms", after all, suggest a finding of note. But strip out the syllable-heavy words, and it comes down to this: pupils who play truant are more likely to misbehave than pupils who do not play truant.

That's right. Pupils who have such little regard for school rules that they don't even bother turning up are more likely to, well, break school rules. And, to reach this conclusion, 600 pupils in 12 schools were monitored over a year, by a team of three academics from the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the most prestigious universities in the western United States.

But the UCLA academics are not alone in reaching such earth-shattering conclusions. There are, of course, many educationists who produce vital, practice-altering insight into what works best in the classroom. But, at the same time, many of their colleagues in universities across Britain, Europe and the US devote countless research hours and grant cheques to delivering peer-reviewed, statistically proven statements of the bleeding obvious.

For example, there were the researchers in Denmark who spent a year observing how 10 to 12-year-olds in several schools performed when the air supply to their classrooms was increased. The more fresh air was pumped into the classroom, the more effectively pupils worked. The same academics then lowered the classroom temperature from 23.6 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees for one week during late summer. In a chillier classroom, pupils' performance similarly increased.

In his subsequent report, Professor Geo Clausen, from the Technical University of Denmark, cited a series of layman-confounding stats - such as Plt;0.05 - and claimed that the improvement in performance averaged 15 per cent. And he offered a sociological spin on his findings: "Productivity improvements achieved in adult workplaces by improving working conditions can often be shown to make good economic sense, as they literally pay for themselves. But this cannot be argued as easily in schools, because the benefits of better learning take time to work through the system and benefit the whole of society."

However, take out the stats and the socio-economic musing, and his findings come down to this: pupils find it harder to concentrate and work effectively when they're breathing warm, stale air. It will be a rare teacher - one, perhaps, who has been breathing warm, stale air herself - who finds this in any way groundbreaking or illuminative.

The libraries of academic institutions are filled with similar findings: 900 Australian teenagers, for example, needed to be surveyed in order for researchers to conclude that: "being a `good girl'.is derided by many girls as `uncool'". Data on more than 2,300 pupils was studied in order for academics at the Institute of Education to reveal that: "Children whose parents experience a lot of stress are significantly less satisfied with their lives than children whose parents take life easily. Parents' suffering has a long-term impact on a child's emotional wellbeing." And it took six months of government-commissioned research by academics from Edge Hill University and the University of the West of England to propose that one of the ways to increase the number of girls studying physics was to "make sure students understand what physics is".

But David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, insists that no research is pointless, however much it may merely confirm what all teachers know already. "Sometimes common sense is right, and sometimes it's wrong," he says. "That's why you should research it."

Until something has been proven by researchers in a controlled environment, he says, it is nothing more than anecdotal evidence. And anecdotal evidence cannot be used by other researchers, even as a starting point. If truly new, assumption-shattering research is ever to be carried out, therefore, it must be grounded in a series of studies definitively proving what everyone already knew.

Besides, Professor Reynolds adds, the Government tends to favour carefully researched evidence over teachers' actual classroom experience when it comes to policy decisions. For example, in the 1990s, received wisdom among teachers was that, the smaller the class size, the more effectively pupils learnt. But it took time, money and repeated attempts for academics to come to the same conclusion under controlled conditions because their data was repeatedly skewed by the large numbers of less-able pupils being taught in smaller classes.

"Nobody thought to get behind the data," Professor Reynolds says. "It was only because it was counter-intuitive that class size had no effect that people carried on. Then they realised they had to control for pupils' ability, taking into account that small classes often had less-able pupils."

In this case, the researchers and the teachers benefited from each other's experience. Because of teachers' overwhelming belief in the effectiveness of small classes, the researchers kept trying. And, once they had definitively proved what teachers already knew to be true, national policy could begin to reflect it.

But, equally, research into the bleeding obvious can prove that, in fact, it isn't bleeding obvious at all. Teachers, heads and ministers all believed that introducing IT into the classroom would have a dramatic impact on pupils' achievement, until carefully controlled research effectively disproved it.

"The academics haven't found much effect from IT," Prof Reynolds says. "That's important. One could have just pulsed along with the zeitgeist, but they found that it wasn't right.

"Even if stuff sounds self-evidently true, it still needs researching. If stuff seems right, it might not be. And if it seems wrong, it might not be. It's always worth researching. Researchers must make their decisions based on research, not based on the zeitgeist."

Some researchers, however, take this to its logical extreme: where there is zeitgeist, they reason, there must also be research. This is the likely rationale behind a piece of research published by academics at Ohio State University this year.

Having studied the internet habits and academic results of 219 pupils, they revealed that those who use the social-networking website Facebook spend less time working, and have lower school grades on average, than those who have not signed up to the site. But, they added: "more than three-quarters of Facebook users claimed that their use of the social networking site didn't interfere with their studies."

They have, in other words, extracted academic plausibility from the argument taking place every day in teenage bedrooms across the western hemisphere. "Stop spending so much time on Facebook," concerned parents chastise their workshy offspring. "You need to do your homework, otherwise you won't do well at school." "Nah," the teenage miscreant replies. "It's not getting in the way of work. No way." "Oh yes it is," the parents reply. "I can cite you percentages and journal references, peer-reviewed and controlled for accuracy."

Such zeitgeist-surfing might at least justify itself, albeit tenuously, in terms of practical value. But university education departments are filled with academics whose ivory-tower musings have little, if any, relevance to the day-to-day lives of most teachers.

For example, the latest edition of English in Education, the research journal of the National Association for the Teaching of English, includes a paper in which an academic at Sheffield University views and discusses the film Shrek with two 15-year-old pupils.

Speaking about the film's plot, one of the girls volunteers: "They don't just fall in love and that's the end. They have an argument and they have problems - relationship stuff, which is quite real."

The other muses more lengthily on the nature of realism: "At the time when you are watching the film, you don't think, `oh, that can't be true'. If you think, `it's not real, it's all made up', then you wouldn't actually enjoy the film. You'd just think, `it's not real', so what's the point of even watching the film?"

The aim of such papers is to highlight pupils' views of the world. For anyone working day-to-day with pupils, their authors argue, surely such insight is invaluable.

But Michael Hand, director of postgraduate research programmes at the Institute of Education in London, questions the strength of this argument. "There are a million and one studies in journals of pupils' perceptions of this or teachers' perceptions of that," he says. "It's as if asking kids about anything and everything is a worthwhile thing to do. But my feeling is that it probably isn't, unless you have a very clear framework about why in hell you should care what the answer is."

And the pedagogical implications of such research are often difficult to discern. This is especially true when academics dispense altogether with any attempt to illuminate pupil thought: the research equivalent of skipping the main course entirely, and jumping straight to dessert.

For example, a group of academics from several universities recently delivered a series of presentations at a high-profile international conference on educational research, in which they each examined different elements of the Harry Potter books. Nicholas Sheltrown, an academic at Michigan State University, spoke about the use of IT at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.

"This collection of stories often emphasises a close relationship between technology and identity, particularly as we consider the role of wand as a passport into and out of the world of witches and wizards," he wrote.

"It was not that Harry mastered technology (such as a special spell) to defeat Lord Voldemort. Rather, he mastered human use of technology, by recognising its problems and limits."

Beneath his sceptically raised eyebrow, Dr Hand acknowledges that there is value to allowing such research within education departments. "It's good for universities to be interesting places to pursue interesting questions, that may or may not turn out to be useful," he says. "That's as true in education as in maths or astrophysics. You don't know which research project will be likely to yield the next breakthrough. Studies may shed pretty crucial light on why pupils are motivated and what gets them learning.

"So let's give people the freedom to pursue questions that they find interesting, even if there isn't an immediate pedagogical outcome. In all disciplines, there should be space for research based on what's interesting to individual researchers."

Dr Hand's own publications include a book entitled Is Religious Education Possible? This, he admits, would be a prime candidate for inclusion in the library of the bleeding obvious. "In my mind, there was a serious philosophical problem about what religious education was trying to do," he says. "But the problem existed on a theoretical level. Meanwhile, teachers across the country were merrily teaching about different religions, and pupils were taking exams on them.

"Universities' education departments are here to improve education - the quality of experience of children in schools and in youth clubs. We need to take that responsibility seriously," concludes Dr Hand. "There needs to be a balance."

Statements of the bleeding obvious

  • Teenagers are more likely to misbehave if they have missed more than 20 days of school during the previous academic year than if they attended regularly.
  • Pupils work more effectively when the air supply to their classroom is increased.
  • Teenagers tend to make fun of people with mental health problems.
  • It is possible to teach religious education in schools.
  • Pupils who choose what they learn at school are more interested in their lessons than those who do not.
  • Thinking is an essential skill for learning and for life.
  • Pupils whose parents are stressed are more likely to be unsatisfied with their own lives.
  • Pupils can be bullied in school because of their race, religion or skin colour.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today