Education Education Research

researchEd national conference

On 9 September 2017 I gave a talk at the national researchEd conference in London. The presentation was about how mythbusting might lead to new myths. The presentation covered the following:

  • I started by explaining how myths might come about, by referencing some papers about neuromyths.
  • I then used the case of iron in spinach to illustrate how criticising myths can lead to new myths (paper by Rekdal).
  • I gave examples of some themes that are in danger of becoming new myths.
  • I concluded that it is important to read a lot, stay critical and observe nuance. No false dichotomies please.

I will endeavor to write this up at one point. Slides below.

Education Research

Was the Sutton Trust report really about myths?

I’ve tweeted quite a lot about this report and true, this blog post comes quite late after its publication. I was quite positive about the report, but did notice that the press and the blogosphere seemed to mainly focus on the two (!) pages in the report on ‘ineffective practices’ (p22-p24). The executive summary -correctly- barely mentions them. reportI think this emphasis on ‘myths’ is a shame because the first half with effectiveness models, and the second half on frameworks for capturing teaching quality, are very interesting. In addition, the section on myths is rather light-weight regarding evidence, in my opinion. The character of the report, called a ‘review of underpinning research’, is not really shown in this specific section. Sure, this doesn’t mean that ineffective practices should not be uncovered, but surely this goal is better served with some more grounding. Something that should have been easy to do, as in some cases genuine reviews are referenced.

Let me give some examples:

Use praise lavishly
Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. For example, Dweck (1999), Hattie & Timperley (2007). Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low
What evidence is used here? Firstly Hattie and Timperley: their review on p96 is much more nuanced in my opinion. There are several sources that might have been used to support the claim in the report. Dweck’s article also seems to mainly reference her own work; I would hardly call it a review. Finally Stipek, a reference which I had trouble finding because it was placed wrongly in the reference list at the D, is a website. The website is an excerpt from a 2002 book. It could very well be that the contents also is in a more formal publication, but using this source as evidence for a myth does not seem to be such a strong case.
This happens with the other points as well:
Allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves
Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006). Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.
The Kirschner et al. paper is excellent, and published in reputable journal. It would, however, been nice if there were some more references, even when they would be sources reviewed in exactly that article.
Group learners by ability
Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014). Although ability grouping can in theory allow teachers to target a narrower range of pace and content of lessons, it can also create an exaggerated sense of within-group homogeneity and between-group heterogeneity in the teacher’s mind (Stipek, 2010). This can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.
This section again references the Stipek website (and indirectly book). Higgins et al. from 2014 is NOT in the reference list (sloppy, there are several of these errors), I assume it’s the 2013 reference to the Learning and Teaching toolkit. Within that am I to assume the report is referring to ‘setting and streaming’? There are references here, maybe some more taken from those references could have made the evidencing more substantial.
Encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas
This finding has already been mentioned in summarising the review by Dunlosky et al (2013). Re-reading and highlighting are among the commonest and apparently most obvious ways to memorise or revise material. They also give a satisfying –but deceptive– feeling of fluency and familiarity with the material (Brown et al, 2014). However, a range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches.
The Dunlosky et al. article is a strong source. Brown et al. refers to the book ‘Make it stick’ which again might be strong, but I would say that in general I’d rather see a peer-reviewed source. There also are some common names in both (Roediger for example), which might be a good thing (triangulation) but also could mean self-citation. I also think the mention of ‘a range of studies’ should have been evidenced.
Address issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content
Teachers who are confronted with the poor motivation and confidence of low attaining students may interpret this as the cause of their low attainment and assume that it is both necessary and possible to address their motivation before attempting to teach them new material. In fact, the evidence shows that attempts to enhance motivation in this way are unlikely to achieve that end. Even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012). In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.
This reference refers to an extensive report by the Joseph Rowntree foundation. I assume p76 and p77 are the relevant pages, and they give me the impression that here too, the findings are more nuanced than qualifying it as an ‘ineffective practice’.
Present information to learners in their preferred learning style
A belief in the importance of learning styles seems persistent, despite the prominence of critiques of this kind of advice. A recent survey found that over 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)” (Howard-Jones, 2014). A number of writers have tried to account for its enduring popularity (see, for example, a clear and accessible debunking of the value of learning styles by Riener and Willingham, 2010), but the psychological evidence is clear that there
are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style (Pashler et al, 2008; Geake, 2008; Riener and Willingham, 2010; Howard-Jones, 2014).
This section has quite some references. The Howard-Jones one is about prevailing perceptions of teachers, but indeed Pashler et al. is a strong source. I would, however, frame it differently: ‘evidence it is not effective’ is not the same as ‘no evidence that it’s effective’. It is also ironic that the aforementioned Teaching and Learning Toolkit (Higgins et al., 2014) classifies Learning Styles as “Low impact for very low cost, based on moderate evidence.”.
Ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember
This claim is commonly presented in the form of a ‘learning pyramid’ which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction. Memory is the residue of thought (Willingham, 2008), so if you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This might be achieved by being ‘active’ or ‘passive’.
I think here two separate issues are connected. The ‘learning pyramid’ (Cone of experience?), especially the specific numbers, has been debunked. However, is it true that the header of the section ‘is commonly presented in the form of the learning pyramid’? I read no supporting evidence for this. Of course, I think I know what is referred to, but I’d rather have some more substance included.
Overall, I think this section could have had more substance. The pages, in my opinion, do not warrant the current coverage of both the press and the blogosphere. Certainly not in the sense of soundbites like ‘the Sutton Report shows that <insert ‘myth’ here>’. It also did not seem the intention of the authors, as the executive summary barely mentions them (although I thought it was strange that this article on these ineffective practices came first, only a week later followed by what does work; also the press release starts with the ineffective practices). To conclude, I think too much emphasis has been put on two pages from a much longer report by the press and the blogosphere. Not only doesn’t the total length of the ‘ineffective practices’ warrant this, the section also is quite lightweight on evidence. I think the rest of the report, which is a better mix of teaching frameworks and teaching quality, subsequently was undervalued. This does not mean ‘myths’ need not be debunked, of course. Luckily, the topic is quite fashionable, so we can be sure that more rigorous articles and books will appear. I hope, however, that this will be a case of evidence, not a case of sound-bites.