Problems with Research and Why Outstanding lessons are Elusive

Research in education is a wonderful and valuable thing. Events like ResearchEd and mediums such as twitter have brought huge amounts of useful research information to teachers. A healthy skepticism has emerged.  The days where programs such as Brain Gym which were enthusiastically embraced without clear evidence have gone.

I feel, however,  there is a fundamental problem with reading too much into educational research. It can often  lead to simplistic analysis and just a confirmation of bias.  Education is not simple, nor is it complicated, it is complex.

The work of Barbara Zimmerman on complexity in health systems can be partially transferred to educational contexts. A summary in the chart below shows the differences


Following a script of a lesson plan is pretty simple. The Bridge Schools do this in Africa  a pre designed curriculum is delivered verbatim by teachers. Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable. Some argue that it is better than the haphazard unstructured approach that many African teachers adopt due to lack of training and money. Or copy and paste education as one African parent described it – The children chant back what the teacher has said.  Having supported some  schools in poverty see   I’m appalled at the poor education that many African children get, scripted Bridge lessons take this from terrible to something better, but money flows from Africa to the USA and that seems wrong!

A research based complicated teaching approach (if done well) may well better results than a simple one. Publications like the Sutton Report add huge amounts to learning. Research is brilliant when used to look at the most efficient ways of learning. Ideas like Cognitive Load – Applied to trainee teachers here . Interleaving  – studying related skills in parallel. has been shown to be highly effective Deliberate practice  – 10,000 hours of practicing to become an expert. You should focus on what you are not so good at. Most of us happily practice what we are good at. Im a tennis coach and see players hammering forehands to forehands in warm ups,  ignoring their pathetic backhands They then hope their backhand wont be exposed in a game.  There is a caveat to deliberate practice. It works for complicated things like chess, mathematical laws and most of  physics – not all !, but has less effect on complex creative tasks.  Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion  contains a wealth of good advice. All of this understanding of the process of learning is essential for good teaching. A teacher with great subject knowledge and great pedagogical knowledge may not be a great teacher though. Students who do well at exams are not always great learners. We should always be wary of reducing the complex to the complicated or simple.

It is important to think about what we are trying to achieve with education. Much of which is often unmeasurable. If we are simply moving students from point A to B to pass an exam, then complicated, or even simple, usually works. So if we measure success simply on exam results we can put together systems that achieve that. We can make our teaching very efficient, remove all distractions (with enforced compliance) and teach what gets tested. Superficially we appear to be successful and arguably we are. Our students have the qualifications to make decisions – we have done our job.  Or have we? Should B be the end, or is it the beginning? Should we look at longer term and harder to measure objectives like C – a passion for lifelong learning?

I went into teaching to inspire, to give to others what some of my teachers gave to me. A passion for learning, to want to take things further. The teachers who inspired me were not efficient, they didn’t stick to the curriculum. They treated me like an individual, as if I had an identity worth having. In their class I didn’t feel education was something done to me or that I was just jumping through hoops. They changed my life. I was very successful in other lessons and was taught effectively, but no passion was stirred.

The teachers who taught me were not great at complicated, but were brilliant at complex. Other teachers using the same lesson plans would have left me cold. There is no recipe for inspiring.

The very nature of research it tells us what is best for the average child. The bigger the study the closer to the average child it gets. As a teacher though I never saw an average child. What is best for this mythical average child can destroy the outliers.

Teaching children is highly complex if you want to be outstanding. It cannot be broken down into complicated and/or simple. Complex events are by their very nature not solvable, nor entirely replicable. To me this is the joy and the frustration of teaching. That lesson that really nailed it with the year 9 class period 1 bombs with another class two hours later.  There is no silver bullet that works for all children all the time.  We can enforce compliance, ensure silence, remove disruptive outliers. I am not entirely against these measures as such, I just worry that sometimes we may be achieving B, but destroying C.

Children are not rational , nor predictable beings. Some schools try to remove this variable by ultra strict rules. This tends to improve exam results,  according to Hattie poor behaviour has a big negative impact, but does it come at a cost?  I really dont know, nor is there any real data to prove it.  Are we only measuring what is important?

Use research to make yourself a better teacher, but always question whether the strategy is appropriate for that bunch of mixed drivers, hormones and emotions that are sitting in front of you. None of them are the average child.

The OECD Report on Complex vs Complicated is  Here

Dr Gary Jones points out the issues of research and the difference between Research , Quality Improvement and Evidence-based practice here 

Research can be defined as the process of creating new generalisable knowledge, and which could include both the generation and testing of hypotheses.
Quality Improvement  can be defined as systematic, data-guided activities designed to bring about immediate improvements in local settings.  (Lynn et al., 2007)

Evidence-based practice can be defined as the making of decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources in order to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome. (Amended from Barends et al., 2014)


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