“Most things in education, we have no idea whether they work,” admits Professor Steve Higgins.
The professor in the school of education at Durham University and co-creator of the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, speaking on this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, explains that this is because research in education is extremely complicated.
“Schools are unpredictable places and you cannot control all the variables. But when you control all the variables for a study in the lab, you make it less applicable to the real and hectic world of classrooms," he says.
“Lab studies are useful in exploring some of the theoretical components but when you move into a field trial in schools in the real world, you want a much better idea of whether this is practical and whether it makes a difference, and, if so, how much. From that, you can learn whether you think it is worth trying the approach in other settings. This is expensive, and you could not test everything this way, but unless you do test things this way, you run the risk of always assuming you know what is effective without really knowing how much difference it makes.”
Transferring research to the classroom
He believes that certain fields of research are falling victim to the difficulties of transferring to the classroom.
“With memory, you want to control and understand the variables, so design a study to do that in the lab, but in a school you want to answer a slightly different question, which is what is the best way to remember a particular skill or content, so that children can use it to be successful in school, and that is a lot more complicated. Motivation studies are also tricky. You can isolate all the variables in the lab, but when those concepts reach schools, you get the messiness of the real world and it becomes more complicated again," Higgins says.
“Even if you do have a really rigorous series of lab studies, you still need to do translational research to understand which of those are actually useful for the classroom, and not all of them will be.”
Research may involve the 'wrong' schools
He goes on to express concern about the kinds of schools engaging with trials and the impact that this might have on the results of those trials.
“One of my worries is that we have a self-selecting group of schools who volunteer for trials and they are the schools who are looking to improve anyway and are looking for different ways to help the children in their care, and that may bias your results. Ideally, you would want to randomly select schools, but that is not practical for all kinds of reasons. So we have to be cautious about generalising from the findings.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Higgins also discusses randomised controlled trials, comparisons with medical research, teacher research and the role of research in education.
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