What works best in education? It’s surprising just how many people think they know the answer to this question. Education is a unique industry. Almost everyone has experienced teaching strategies in some way, whether that be as a student or a teacher.
It is true, everyone has an opinion, but at the end of the day, whether it is coming from the headmaster or your plumber, it is important to remember that it is just that, an opinion.
What we really ought to know is what works objectively in education for the average person. Let’s quit our guessing game, and get down and dirty with the facts.
Once medicine was a guessing game. Anyone could guess that your illness was due to bad food, or an evil spirit, or even the way you spoke to your neighbor the other week. Medicine has progressed and people, for the most part, no longer believe things unless they are backed by science. But where is the science behind education?
One approach employed in science is macro analysis, where peer-reviewed articles are assessed on a large scale and the results are essentially averaged. If a medicine worked pretty well in most case studies, exceptionally well in a few and bad in only one out of 100 peer-reviewed studies, chances are it does indeed work, on average, pretty well.
Data Analysis in Education
For a long time, education was based on only a small number of studies, anecdotal data, or even misconceptions. So, what happens when data is analyzed on a large scale and the average positive (or negative) effect of different tested interventions in education are averaged and ranked? Which teaching strategies will come out on top?
Macro analysis is not that new in education, but it is surprising how few people know about it. Back in 1999, John Hattie from the University of Melbourne first published his macro-analysis, available on Visible Learning. For about 20 years, he and his team have compiled a pretty extensive list of teaching strategies and ranked them in terms of ‘effect size,’ the extent to which doing these things in the classroom (or at home or on a school wide level), has a positive effect on student outcomes.
As a hypothesis, let’s imagine I had two identical classes and decided that for one class, keeping everything else constant, I would start a whole class discussion every lesson. While for the other class, keeping everything else constant, I would give them homework instead of doing the discussions.
Now it is a common belief that homework in beneficial, and this is indeed true. It has an effect size of 0.29, a relative ratio where 0 would show no effect. Yet classroom discussion has a much greater effect size of 0.82. Based on this, if it takes the same amount of time and resources, it would be more beneficial for a teacher to implement a classroom discussion plan than a homework plan.
Teaching Strategies that Work
So far, I have been using the word intervention, but in fact, on his website, Hattie uses the word influence. This is because he does not just do a macro analysis on what teachers can do, but on all factors that affect learning, like home life, curriculum and even disabilities. In some cases, teachers may not be able to make a huge impact on student outcomes no matter what they do. Things like school leadership and how many hours students sleep are influences which may be hard for a teacher to impact.
Indeed, I have heard things like teachers are usually only responsible for about one quarter to one third of the results of students in their class; the biggest factors influencing student achievement tend to be home and societal factors.
But don’t despair. A quarter is still a huge amount and could be the difference between a student graduating high school at the academic level of a 14 year old as opposed to that of an 18 year old. So without going into too much detail, here are the top two influences related to teachers. Worded differently, these are the top interventions teachers can apply to the classroom, or just think about, in order to help students achieve better results.
1. Response to Intervention
This is a fancy way of saying individualized learning plans. We as teachers can gauge which students are going to struggle with pretests or other methods. Once they have been identified, it is quite possible at the start of the year when students are high on hope, to plan one-on-one with those students. We can ask them what their goal is and plan backwards accordingly. We can assign them with additional or tailored learning tasks to give them greater support in achieving their goals and succeeding in class.
2. Cognitive Task Analysis
Give students tasks which require more thinking. Teach them how to be critical of their thinking. Have them consciously use higher cognitive load, and they will learn better. The more we think the more we learn, but as we progress through the year we teachers often forget that just because students are doing something, it does not mean they are thinking. The challenge is to do less so called low-key skills like memorizing, recalling and copying, and more higher order skills like analyzing, comparing, creating and discussing.
So there you have it. A brief guide that might help you think about what is really important in the classroom. There are many more teaching strategies and learning strategies that can be implemented and have positive effect on student outcomes, but as teachers we can’t do everything.
It is important to prioritize and realize that just because someone tells us that colorful chalk, using names, direct instruction or even homework are good for students, unless you have the time to test them yourself in a controlled way, you can’t really know this works for your students.
The best chance you have is first to look at the evidence. Then try something which is usually the most beneficial and then adjust it for your classroom later.
So maybe the kids were right all along when they told you that homework isn’t THAT important!