Where's the research? Why we need to stop looking in the rear vision mirror at longitudinal research and data.

Don't get me wrong. There is no question that educational research is useful and that understanding what has worked in the past can and should inform our decisions about which pedagogical interventions we use day to day.

However if we limit ourselves to what is formally researched and published in peer reviewed papers we are going to continue to fail a good portion of our young people. To get a change in outcomes we must change our practice.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” - Henry Ford

It concerns me that there is still a tendency (for some) in education to dismiss new approaches, new strategies, new ideas, patronisingly belittling new ways of doing things as fads and passing fancies, simply because there is yet to be a lofty body of evidence that proves it works across the board. Sitting around and waiting for the evidence to be served up on a silver platter before you are willing to try new interventions and strategies is only going to result in our learners missing out on on a whole raft potentially effective and engaging approaches. It also results in practice becoming stale and whole schools becoming stuck state of stasis.

And let's be honest, even the proven stuff is not working for all students. If any of the researched approaches was the silver bullet we would all be sitting back watching all our students succeed. But of course the notion that any one approach is the answer is naive. Technology in and of itself is definitely not the answer (although universal access most definitely opens up your options for a greater variety of approaches), MLEs are definitely not the answer (although what they too enable a far greater variety of approaches), Hattie is not the answer (although his work may provide part of the answer for many). No one approach nor one collection of approaches is ever going to be the (complete) answer. And if it was the answer 25 years ago or even 25 days ago, the chances are it may not be the answer tomorrow.  In a world which is changing at an ever increasing rate the answer is going to keep on changing.

"The only constant is change" - Heraclitus

So what is the answer?

I believe it has to be and and.

As professionals we absolutely need to take it upon ourselves to be well read and well versed in what has been proven to work in the past and we need to have these approaches and strategies as a foundation for our pedagogical practice, the basis of our teaching toolkit. This might include; understanding what effective direct instruction looks like, understanding what effective questioning looks like, knowing how to give effective feedback and feedforward and so on and so forth. But if this is where we stop and look only to the past for our best practice, we are simply missing out on better practice. We will undoubtedly become less efficient, less relevant and ultimately run the risk of becoming redundant as a result of not changing our practice to meet that change of society and the demands that society puts upon our young people.

"When the rate of change outside of the organisation is faster than the rate of change inside the organisation, the end is in sight."  - Jack Welch 

If we are to evolve and adapt, if we have any hope of becoming what Linda Darling-Hammond refers to as adaptive experts, we absolutely must embrace the new, even if some strategies may not stand the test of time. Of course we do not blindly adopt every shiny new tool, strategy and approach for the sake of it. There is absolutely no point in innovation for the sake of innovation and change for the sake of change. In whatever we do, we absolutely must keep our eye on the prize - improving outcomes for our learners.

For me, the answer lies in nailing that stuff in the rear vision and being open to the new and shiny, albeit whilst appraising the new and shiny with a critical eye. This is where the concept of the "spiral of inquiry" or "disciplined inquiry" is key. If I am going to be creative, be innovative, be a risk taker, I absolutely have to do it in such a way that I am also critically evaluating the impact of 'new pedagogies' on my student's learning.

I really like the diagram below (from the REPORT of the Professional Learning and Development
Advisory Group) as it builds on the concept of teaching as inquiry. Beginning with the focusing inquiry where you 'Analyse what's going on for your learners', then 'Define your focus', Develop your thinking about why this happening', Learning more about what can be done' and the 'Take action - try new solutions' and then 'Check the difference you have made. '

Source: http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Ministry/Initiatives/PLDAdvisoryGroupReport.pdf
This is the key, trialling the new and shiny when we have identified a need, develop our thinking, learn more and then try new things and then check if the new stuff worked. This is not about the risking the student's success by throwing out the baby with the bath water and blindly adopting every new practice that comes along, this is not about turning whole cohorts into lab rats or guinea pigs, this is about trying ew ideas and being willing to sometimes fail forward, now that at times you will in fact propel forward.

Personally I think we need to get on with trialling a whole range of seeming unproven strategies, as long as we are doing so mindfully and with a view to gathering the evidence as we go. We have to learn to embrace uncertainty and believe all of our abilities to create new knowledge and new approaches. And if we do gather evidence (whether it be successful or not), I believe we have a responsibility to disseminate and share, thereby building the body of evidence (whether it be quantitative, qualitative, empirical or anecdotal) to help ensure any particularly effective 'new pedagogies' are adopted alongside the tried and true.

And maybe it's time to stop glorifying 'best practice' and talking 'better practice' instead.


  1. Hi Claire,
    I think the real question is how we frame what we mean by 'best practise'. I would frame best practise as teachers engaging in the type of inquiry approach you advocate. That is - you identify a desired learning outcome and/or 'problem of practice', you investigate what existing research and 'best practise examples' from similar cases has to teach or say on the issue, you then make some decisions and apply some strategies/approaches/ interventions - and innovate if you see potential advantages for your students and context - and then evaluate the impact on achieving the learning goals you set... perhaps need to revise goals, further adapt or change the approach... iterative process.

    Hattie's main message has always been 'know thy impact' and 'be an evaluator' - which fits totally with this inquiry mindset.

    This inquiry approach is also the foundation of being 'professional'. Every doctor must keep up with latest research to be aware of what new findings and treatments are available to maximise benefits to patient outcomes. In the medical research lab and in research trials etc thousands of doctors are also continually looking for new and better approaches to advance the knowledge base - finding the 'next best practice'. Both work hand in hand together. However, if a doctor ignores good evidence that an approach doesn't work well or continues to apply an approach because 'it works for them' when ample evidence says perhaps other approaches are more efficacious then does s/he not have an ethical responsibility to try the 'better' approach?

    1. That was way more eloquent than my ramble and probably says what I was actually trying to say - thanks Shaun. It's a shame more people don't focus on Hattie's message you stated rather than using his meta-analysis achingly selectively to either maintain the status quo or even worse....seemingly go back in time!

    2. Hi Claire, research is not reactive; often it is about making sense of actions, and then making sense of collective actions over time as shown in literature which has gone through a peer review process to ensure it is a rigorous representation of aspects of educational practice. (ie a synthesis like the Ministry of Education's former BES reports, or even Hattie's work). Without those kinds of reviews, we will never understand what accumulated action means. Shaun Hawthorne also made the point about the medical field- without research, understanding new and more effective practices might never happen. This is true for education too. By all means undertake practice-oriented research, but unless this is shared through the kinds of peer-reviewed processes that academic papers must pass through, there is no check to its validity. Dianne Forbes and I share a blog - we are very careful to have each other check it before it goes live, so we are always cognisant of each other's professional gaze and therefore aim for a high level to our expressions of opinion. (interrogatingeducatioNZ).
      I would argue that unless we keep looking at where we've been, we'll never know where we can go to improve things. The documented trail is hugely important if we are to add to knowledge and grow. Research doesn't stifle innovation - it tracks it. This makes it possible for people like John Hattie to write the kinds of books you refer to that become influential about education practice and what has the greatest learning impact.

    3. Hi Claire
      I appreciate your thought provoking comments and agree that inquiry is an essential approach to learning (for both the teachers and the students - all learners). Unfortunately inquiry can also be misused (just like research outcomes can be) if the outcomes the inquiry is judged on is narrow - such as assessment results for formal tests or exams. Outcomes need to be focussed on the skills our students need for this rapidly changing world that we live in. We need to be looking at how their competencies have been developed, their collaborative skills, their mindsets (growth vs fixed), their critical thinking and problem solving (in authentic contexts - ie the broadest sense), how their sense of identity and sense of who they are as a learner is grown.
      The other thing about research (something we haven't really faced in the past) is that even something done 5 years ago may not be relevant to our current situation. 5 years ago most schools were limited in terms of access to digital technologies for example. This will continue to be an issue going forward as the changes seem to be exponential. So the inquiry approach and the importance of us sharing within and beyond our school environments is very important. We need to share and collaborate more and you have inspired me to get out there and be part of that solution.

  2. "it's time to stop glorifying 'best practice' and talking 'better practice' instead." Yes.
    And all of that in context for each school, teacher, and student. The hidden side to the 'easy answer' coin, is how badly we want there to be an answer we can all accept, to give us the feeling that we're doing it 'right'. The critique of new ideas is as much a critique of the huge singular investment some people make in the singular answer. Like you've said here, that's not the answer at all.
    Shaun, if best practice is the way we engage in the process of constant reflection and re-creation around the moving needs of students in a moving world, then yes, best practice is great, but that's not how everyone interprets the idea.
    When we move to better practice in our contexts, and then sharing that process of inquiry and decision making, we move to a much more interesting conversation that could yield patterns of approach rather than interventions as stand alone answers to be debated.

    'iPads or netbooks?' No.

    'We consulted with our community, and ran a process that led us to the conclusion that we really needed our students to type so they could share through written language to an authentic audience as their primary focus. That's why we went with netbooks.'. Yes. We can relate to that, and the conversation is more interesting.


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