There is now a consistent call from people outside the teaching profession – e.g. the EEF, the government, education academics – for teachers to be more involved in education research, whether this be by getting involved in trials or by reading research already produced. The problem with these calls is that education research is as good as useless for helping teachers improve their classroom practice.
Education research is written by non-teachers for consumption by non-teachers. It is plagued by problems of moral hazard and misaligned incentives resulting in the production of irrelevant and poor quality research.
When I started teaching, I was initially buoyed by the possibility of creating an evidence-based profession modelled on the medical profession. Experience as a teacher and as a consumer of education research has led me to conclude that reading educational research is a waste of time for teachers, incurring huge opportunity cost for almost zero gain.
Teachers should stop listening to non-teachers
Well-meaning education “experts”, academics, tech gurus, politicians, and celebrities are quick to tell teachers how to do their jobs and how they are currently failing to educate our children for the challenges that face them in the future.
Teaching seems to be unique amongst professions in that everybody who has been to a school thinks they are qualified to opine and tell the true experts – teachers – how to do their job. If somebody were to tell a midwife how to deliver babies because they were born in a hospital, we would rightly ignore them. And yet, as teachers, we must frequently defend our practice to such people.
What these people fail to realise is that teachers develop expertise by taking risks – classroom micro-experiments – and learning from them, slowly evolving and refining their practice based on the results of their risk-taking. You learn from every single interaction you have in the classroom, building a huge body of implicit expertise.
Those who experienced their teachers delivering material and getting students to practice recalling and using their knowledge in a boring “20th century factory model” assume that teachers do this because they know no better or have no desire to teach students in a way more relevant to the 21st century. The real reason is that teachers have converged on these methods as the most effective after countless innovative classroom micro experiments.
In the same way that the experienced motorist hangs a bit further back from the car in front, drives at reasonable speeds, and waits to see if that car indicating left on a roundabout but going slightly too quickly is really going straight on, teachers have honed the craft of ensuring that every lesson has the greatest probability of success for as many pupils as possible, and that no lessons are a complete write-off thanks to a failed piece of technology or an activity that sounds good on paper but is ineffective in practice.
This sounds like a small point but its effects are profound: in a world where one has to take risks daily, the useful ideas survive and the useless techniques subside. Risks that result in ruin – in lessons that turn into disaster in which pupils learn little to nothing – are avoided at all costs. It is exactly this world that academics do not live in.
From the shelter of their ivory towers, it is very easy to tell teachers what they should be doing and what they’re doing wrong. But non-teachers do not know what teachers know, and academics have very little idea how their ideas play out in a classroom. Educational research academics are not experts in education or in teaching, but experts in being educational researchers.
They do not have to bear the consequences of misguided ideas. If a technique or idea turns out to be disastrous, they are immune and sheltered from the fallout. They have no skin in the game. It is pupils and teachers who suffer. This dynamic is a great moral hazard. Moral hazards have caused disasters in many fields, most notably the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007.
The world of the education researcher
As an academic educational researcher, you are judged by your peers according to success criteria defined by your peers and the institutions they work for. In education academia, this means publishing lots of papers and publishing them in the most prestigious journals possible. There are no criteria that say that your research should be useful or interesting to actual teachers; the entire educational research system comprises groups of academics publishing papers designed to be read only by other academics.
The presence of paywalls to journal articles ensures that nobody outside of universities can even read the research in the first place. This goes a long way to explaining why many education papers are 40 pages of jargon-laden nonsense; they are literally designed to discourage people from reading them.
Education research is so useless that not even other academics read it
There are at least 30, 000 education research articles published each year. Are there 30, 000 discoveries about education made each year? Are there 30, 000 new ways of doing things that will yield useful insights in the way we teach our children?
Even education academics find the majority of published papers useless. Only 15-20% of educational research is cited and the most common number of citations for any educational research paper is 0. If the people whose job it is to produce and read such research don’t bother reading it, why should teachers?
Cognitive psychology – the theory of how we learn – answers most useful questions in teaching
As classroom teachers, we are interested in improving our pupils’ learning. The study of how humans learn is done by cognitive psychologists and not by educational researchers. Cognitive psychology tells us about the limits of working memory, about the effectiveness of pairing images with text, and about the incredible improvements to long-term memory when learning is spaced out and information is retrieved from memory.
It also guides us in educational philosophy, telling us that the reason to provide a broad curriculum is to give students more hooks (schema) from which to hang new knowledge, that creativity and critical thinking are not skills that can be taught directly, decoupled from subject knowledge, and that the only thing separating experts from novices is a bewilderingly large bank of varied and well-connected knowledge in their specific domain.
None of this incredibly useful information was brought to us by education research i.e. by research done in schools. In fact, research in schools can often confuse and muddy the waters due to its contextual nature. A useful advance in knowledge can be made to look useless if it is not implemented or measured properly.
Is education really that complicated?
The proliferation of education research leads us to a natural question: just what are we trying to find out? Education research is not like natural sciences, in which we can uncover some deeply profound law of the universe that might change everything. It is feasible that when we discover what dark matter actually is that it may have untold applications that we can’t even think about yet, just as the discovery of radio waves led to applications that not even their discoverers could see.
But is there an equivalent in education? Are we about to discover some law that will lead to a step-change in the ability of our pupils to learn new information? (Recall that understanding learning is the realm of cognitive psychology and not educational research anyway).
Education is about getting the basics right, day after day. A pupil may have just 150 hours of instruction in a given subject before they leave school. There is only so much that can be learnt in such a short time (it takes around 100x that number of hours to become an expert in the subject).
Everybody knows that the route to the perfect body is to eat well and to exercise. The hard part is doing it – day in, day out. There is no secret food, no secret exercise, and no secret pill that one can take to transform you into somebody that people will pay to take pictures of. Education is similar. Searching for a magic educational intervention simply distracts, just as the dieter who jumps from one celeb-endorsed diet to the next never actually makes any progress.
It is high time that teachers stopped allowing their practice to be dictated by non-teachers, and in particular, education academics. Education research can be read by teachers if those choose, but it should be up to teachers if and how that research is used and implemented. And teachers certainly shouldn’t be pressured into reading education research or participating in it as subjects; the opportunity cost is so high that nearly anything else would be a more fruitful use of time.