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Monday 20 January 2014

What Works in Education: from myths and fads to evidence-based learning

Teachers are increasingly demanding training that is based on solid and robust research evidence for what really works in education and leads to improved learning.

For far too long, teachers’ CPD and subsequent practice followed various fads and trends that, on the surface, seemed attractive to implement and try as part of the classroom practice.  The appeal of many myths, like ‘brain gym’ or explicit reliance on different ‘learning styles,’ or what has been termed as ‘accelerated learning’ techniques, has been based on the premise that relatively simple and easy lists of strategies, if followed, could lead to big learning gains and improvement in pupil engagement.  Although these approaches promised research-based foundations on  how the brain works, the real fact remains that many of these myths, which have been sold to teachers as ‘real evidence’, often lack clear scientific proof that any of the suggested classroom strategies lead to improved learning.  It would appear that these quick-fix fads have been simply sold to the teaching profession as short-cuts to improvement based on snippets of inconclusive or out-of-context research.

Dr Hilary Leevers, head of education and learning at the Welcome Trust, agrees:

“Neuromyths” can merely perpetuate misconceptions about the brain.  Of greater concern is when they influence how we are raised or educated.  You may be familiar with the idea of different types of learner.  For example, if you are a “visual learner” you need content delivered primarily visually.  But there is very little scientific evidence to support this idea, and labelling pupils by type of learner and delivering content accordingly limits the richness of their learning experience and may reduce what is learned.                                                      (The Guardian, 7 January 2014)

Indeed, ‘labelling’ pupils’ can have a negative influence on learning and progress. Moreover, these unproven myths have not only contributed to a stream of ineffective classroom practices, that could be referred to as ‘educational fads’, they have also simplified some of the neurological research findings for the purpose of appeal on popular psychology grounds that vowed instant classroom success.  Another reason why these myths can be so damaging, is that teachers have come to expect ready-made lists of effective strategies that they can follow in class and, in some cases, this has led to a tick-list teaching-style characteristic of little reflection about what really leads to improved learning and quality outcomes for young people.  In contrast, substantive evidence-based research into better teaching and learning that results in improved learning progress cannot be reduced to tick-lists and is characterised by an approach-style methodology being used as part of the teaching and learning processes.

I feel that teachers need some help in distinguishing between solid, evidence-based research into what strategies, if consistently applied, really bring big learning gains and myths that result is seemingly quick-fixes but have little to do with improvement in learning outcomes or developing essential pupil learning autonomy for long-term success.  It is also critical to emphasise the need for deeper reflection and honest self-evaluation of teachers’ own practices so robust research-based evidence is seen in terms of an ‘approach’, rather than a list of ritualised classroom strategies.

Investment in high quality CPD for teachers based on solid academic research findings into what really works in education – and there is enough of evidence-based research regarding what approaches lead to improved outcomes – is absolutely key if we are to improve everyday classroom practice and long-term prospects for our young people.  It is about elucidating what is ‘real’ and what is a ‘myth’ so teachers can make informed judgements regarding the rationale behind their teaching methods.

When it comes to research-based evidence, it seems appropriate to mention the research into assessment for learning (AfL) as an example of a wide evidence-based study into improving learning outcomes. Despite the effectiveness of AfL approach based on the evidence of ‘effect size’[i] between 0.4 to 0.7 (one of the biggest found in educational interventions, Black and Wiliam,1998, and backed up by Hattie’s research into effectiveness of classroom interventions), this approach to better teaching and learning can be still poorly understood by teachers and policy-makers, who seem to be  conditioned into thinking that ‘assessment’ can be only reflected quantitatively, rather than qualitatively during the process, and ultimately leading to improved standards that can be demonstrated in quantitative, as well as qualitative, values.    

Seemingly, this lack of in-depth grasp of what AfL means in practice, highlights the need for teachers’ greater awareness of robust, research-based evidence so they can make more informed choices regarding their most effective practices in class leading to improvement and learning sustainability.

High quality, evidence-based training is crucial to institutional learning and continuous teacher professional development for improved standards in teaching and learning.



Black, P. and Wiliam D. (1998). Inside the Black Box. London: NferNelson

Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2014). Visible Learning and Science of How We Learn. Oxon: Routledge.

[i] Learning gains measure by comparing (a) the average improvements in pupils’ scores on tests with (b) the range of scores that are found for typical groups of pupils on the same tests. The ration of (a) divided by (b) is the ‘effect size’.