What I’ve Learnt 2 – Research and Learning

In my last post I argued that much of what teachers believe or are asked to believe stem from Theories of Learning that are not constrained by that pesky thing that scientists insist on: “evidence”.

So what evidence is there, and what does it tell us? Unfortunately it tells us distressingly little.

While I was thinking about how to structure this post Matt Perks (@dodiscimus) tweeted a link to a blog from Professor Paul Kirschner (@P_A_Kirschner):

Kirschner is one of the more famous educational psychology researchers amongst tweeting teachers for two reasons. One, because through his blogs and tweets he gets involved, and two, because of the relentless championing of one of his papers by teacher twitteratti bad boy Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman). Anyway this blog is Kirschner’s attempt to put together a list of “know the masters” papers for those starting out in educational psychology research. As @dodiscimus indicated it is not a short list, but what it does illustrate is the diversity of ideas that have informed psychologists’ thinking about learning. Gary Davis has described has described research into learning as “Pre-paradigmatic”, and while I know that Kirschner wasn’t aiming at a list that described educational psychology as it is today, you certainly don’t get the feeling from his list of masterworks that there is an overarching body of ideas that could be called a paradigm.

With no single paradigm to guide the design of experiments how do you approach finding and using evidence within the field of learning? There seem to be a number of responses to the problem:

Argue that humans are unique and chaotic and that therefore the ideas like “falsification” from the Physical Science simply don’t apply.

Dylan Wiliam (famous in teacher circles for his association with AfL – which is rarely questioned as anything other than a thoroughly good thing, and because like Kirschner he is willing to interact with teachers) has said at least once of education interventions that “Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere“. He went on to say it is the “why” behind this that is interesting, which is of course a reasonable scientific position, but it is the “Nothing Works Everywhere” bit that gets quoted with approval.

When I see “Nothing Works Everywhere” being quoted it tends to lead me into twitter spats, because I regard it as a dismissal of the scientific method and can’t help myself. However, I do think that very many teachers sincerely believe that all pupils are unique and that therefore there cannot be an approach to teaching or learning that is inherently better than another. That doesn’t mean that those teachers can not regard themselves as “research informed”, it is just that their research and its implementation are peculiar to them with little expectation of general applicability.

Forget Theory and Investigate “What Works”

If you believe in science does have something general to say about teaching, and moreover if you believe that it is extremely unlikely that evolution has endowed us all with utterly unalike brain architectures for learning, then you probably believe there are some ideas that work pretty much all of the time. This, of course, is what we want in order to practice as “research informed” teachers – some generally applicable ideas that work. It is just that finding them and demonstrating their general applicability is incredibly hard to do; humans are unique and chaotic etc etc.

How can you do it? Well ideally you do it on a massive scale so that when you say that the small effect size you have identified is significant the numbers mean that it probably really is. Unfortunately to conduct that kind of research requires government backing to tinker with education. I only know of one such and that is “Project Follow Through“, although governments can provide researchers with quasi-experiments by changing their education systems. For example, we all wait with bated-breath to find out what the result of Finland’s new emphasis on “generic competences and work across school” – or as the headlines have it “Scrapping Subject Teaching” will be. Unfortunately changes that weren’t designed as experiments have a tendency to be controversial and open to interpretation, probably because the results are so politically charged.

Project Follow Through found that highly scripted lessons with a lot of scripted teacher/pupil interaction worked best for the Primary School age kids in the programme and that the other approaches like promoting self-esteem and supporting parents, improved self-esteem, but not academic competence. How many of us are signing up to do our lessons from a script? I’m not. I am really not that committed to being research informed!

Alternatively, you can simulate a large scale experiment by combining the effect sizes of multiple small scale experiments testing the same ideas; meta-analysis. Most famously this was done by John Hattie in his 2008 book Visible Learning who combined meta-analyses within broad teaching ideas like “feedback” into a single effect size for each. “Fantastic” said many of us, including me, when this appeared, now we know – Feedback/good (0.73), Ability grouping/not so good (0.12),  Piagetian Programs/great (1.28).

Unfortunately, Hattie’s results are hard to use. For example, what feedback is good feedback? We all give feedback, so it’s an effect size of 0.73 compared with never telling the kids how they’re doing? Who does that? Or is there some special feedback, perhaps with multi-coloured pens, that’s really, really good? The EEF found this to be a problem when they ran a pilot scheme in a set of primaries “The estimated impact findings showed no difference between the intervention schools and the other primary schools in Bexley” “Many teachers found it difficult to understand the academic research papers which set out the principles of effective feedback and distinguished between different types of feedback” “Some teachers initially believed that the programme was unnecessary as they already used feedback effectively.”

Or take Piagetian Programs – what are they? Matt Perks did some investigation and found that  at least some of the meta-analyses that Hattie included in this category were actually correlational, i.e. kids who scored highly on tests designed to measure Piagetian things like abstract reasoning did well at school. Well duh, but how does that help?

So Hattie’s meta-analysis of meta-analyses is too abstracted from actual teaching to be really useful. Many other meta-analyses are open to contradiction, which leads to the question, are there any that are uncontroversial and tell us something useful? Well yes. The very narrow “How to Study” or Revision field of learning does seem to throw up consistent results, as summarised in the work of John Dunlosky. Forcing yourself to try and recall learning helps you recall it later whether you succeeded or not (low stakes testing), and spacing learning out is better than massed practice. A group of academics calling themselves the “Learning Scientists” do a great job of getting these results out to teachers. However, even they find that just two results don’t make for an interesting and regular blog and so stray into blogging on research that is much less certain.

Finally in “What Works”, if you can’t go massive, and you don’t trust metas, then you need to conduct a randomised and controlled trial (RCT) where the intervention group and the control group have been randomly assigned, but in such a way that both groups have similar starting characteristics. It is RCTs that the EEF have been funding as “Effectiveness Trials” and the results have so far been disappointing. I’m sure that some of my disappointment is because I have been conditioned by Hattie to expect big effect sizes. Obviously most of the effect sizes Hattie included were for post-intervention verses the starting condition, rather than post-intervention verses control, and therefore bound to be bigger. However, even allowing for that, the EEF doesn’t seem to have found much that is any better than normal practice. My biggest disappointment was “Let’s Think Secondary Science” which was a modernisation of  CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education). At the 2016 ASE conference in January, those involved were very upbeat about their results so the assessment in August that said “This evaluation provided no evidence that Let’s Think Secondary Science had an impact on science attainment” was a real surprise. However, it was in line with many other EEF findings which tend to conclude that the teachers thought the intervention was excellent, but the outcomes were less convincing. This is even true for some of the studies that are trumpeted as successes like “Philosophy for Children” where the positives are very qualified, for example; “Results on the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) showed mixed results. Pupils who started the programme in Year 5 showed a positive impact, but those who started in Year 4 showed no evidence of benefit.”

Go back to Theory

As I see it the final option, the one that I see most often being reported, and to my mind the one that ResearchEd promotes, is to do what I said most of us do, in my previous blog, adopt a theory. Of course any principled educator/scientist is going to pick a theory which they believe has solid evidence behind it, but if you pay any attention to science at all you’ll know that Psychology has a massive reproducibility issue. Therefore if you’ve picked on an evidence backed piece of psychology theory to hang your teaching or possibly your research career around, you know there is a risk that that evidence is far from sound. But don’t let that stop you from being dogmatic about it!