UK United Kingdom

A secret formula to learning? Extra money and quick fixes won’t improve education

Everyone, it seems, has a “fix” for education. The government has staked improvement on extra funding while others say a higher bar for teaching graduates is needed, and some view the prestige of the profession…

There are no short-term fixes to the long-term issues surrounding education in Australia. shutterstock

Everyone, it seems, has a “fix” for education. The government has staked improvement on extra funding while others say a higher bar for teaching graduates is needed, and some view the prestige of the profession as the core issue.

Meanwhile, the federal opposition is touting free online learning as a way to reduce the costs of higher education and the government has slashed over A$2 billion from the higher education budget to pay for their school funding reforms.

These solutions and cuts all share common assumptions; that our education systems can be improved or made more efficient with relatively straightforward policy changes.

Of course, the right policy settings and sufficient resources are important, but there is no one formula for an education system just as there’s no one formula to perfect learning or teaching.

A brainy formula

What is being asked of teachers at all levels of education in the 21st century is no mean feat. In what is an increasingly complex social and technological environment, be it the physical or virtual classroom, teachers are charged with making lasting and positive changes to the most complicated piece of machinery in the known universe, the human brain.

This task is made all the more difficult in that a history of practice-based research has failed to provide simple formula for ensuring students learn what they need to learn. Even if such formulae did exist, technology is changing the landscape constantly meaning they would soon be out-dated.

Scientist, writer and medical practitioner Ben Goldacre, who is noted for his strong stance on rigorous scientific evidence, recently called on the British Department of Education to foster an evidence-based approach to teaching. In his discussion paper, Goldacre argues that the randomised control trial should be a central feature of educational research in much the same way as it is in medicine.

These trials work by treating randomly selected people with different clinical interventions to see what works best.

Goldacre is not the first to make this argument. In the early 2000s in the United States, there was a concerted push into what became known as the “what works” agenda as part of the “No Child Left Behind” policy. The basis of this agenda was that rigorous scientific evidence, gained predominantly from methods such as randomised control trials should underpin teaching practice.

In a similar vein, a committee set up by the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) reported in 2009 that there are significant and exciting opportunities to be gained by incorporating the learning sciences and neuroscience into education.

Although this committee stopped short of recommending the use of randomised control trials in the manner Goldacre has, what can be gleaned from their conclusions is the same: education is not informed by rigorous scientific evidence and it should be if we are to see meaningful improvement.

Quick fixes

While there are without doubt great opportunities for relying on more rigorous approaches to better help our teachers do what they need to do, the randomised control trial will not achieve this in isolation any more than a quick policy change will.

Nor can the learning sciences be easily adapted so that we can produce the magic learning formula or algorithm for ensuring all students meet specified standards.

The problem here is that rigour does not necessarily mean relevance. The context in which a school or university exists is itself complex in terms of socio-economics, availability of resources, student diversity and teacher capacity and capability, making it difficult to experimentally control. These contextual factors introduce too much noise to make any meaningful comparisons between “treatment” and “control” conditions.

As Goldacre succinctly argues, the challenge for the teaching profession is to become more about evidence-based practice. This requires investment in determining not just what works but what works in every educational context for every student.

Asking universities to rapidly become more efficient or throwing large sums of additional money at schools do not guarantee improved educational outcomes. Teachers need the most up to date, cutting edge practices and tools at their disposal and need to be shown how to use them properly in their classroom.

In short, teachers need the type of evidence ecosystem of multiple academic disciplines and professional development opportunities that are available to medical practitioners. Goldacre is right that improving education requires a greater emphasis on rigour and evidence, particularly as technology plays a greater role, but that is only part of the solution.

The real problem

The greatest hurdle in improving education is bridging the gap between rigour and relevance. The only way to give teachers the tools and knowledge they need is for learning scientists, neuroscientists, educational psychologists, instructional designers and teachers to all work together to solve pedagogical problems and enhance education.

Governments also need to have the foresight to invest in this type of research and not just expect simple answers to be provided by quick policy fixes.

Enhancing education is a complex, wicked problem because learning and teaching are multifaceted phenomena, involving biological, technological, psychological, social, economic and pedagogical factors.

Solving the problem of enhancing learning for our students is not to be found by altering one part of this equation by, for example, shifting large sums from one level of education to another, but by taking a multifaceted, multidisciplinary evidence-based approach.

Sadly, the capacity for our institutions to be developing the required evidence base is being further eroded as continuing cuts and political posturing bite.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. John Campbell


    What utter drivel, You would get the impression form this article that you need about five PhD degrees in order to teach reading writing and 'rithmetic.

    I think attitudes demonstrated here are part of the problem not part of the solution.

    The attitude should be that basic mathematics is easy basic logic is easy etc.and if a student is having difficulties it is usually because they have an insufficient grounding in the basics. (if so the subject really does become difficult and burdensome…

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    1. Chris Reynolds

      Education Consultant

      In reply to John Campbell

      Of course there have been no improvements in agriculture during your lifetime. If you believe that no wonder farming it is at its wit's end in these difficult times. The article is very much to the point because it argues that smart solutions are what we need in education as in most else of what we try to do in this country. Sadly we are held back by thinking which suggests that "back to the basics" is what will do the trick. Things were always better in my day!

      Funding is indeed an issue because…

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    2. John Campbell


      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      I would certainly like to see the research that suggests private schools with smaller classrooms have better educational outcomes because that is not my experience.

      While I agree skilled teachers are an issue there is little point in having them spoon feed kids in order to make the school look better or to attract students with more wealthy parents.

      How do you propose to educate smarter because after years and years of the same sort of rhetoric (and supposed solutions) we have only been going backwards

      There seems to be a rather unhealthy dose of post modernism through the 'education' system at present and I would suggest that is part of the problem. You can have students (or anyone) chose their opinions but not their facts.

      By the way I'm more than happy to be just a lowly farmer.

    3. Chris Reynolds

      Education Consultant

      In reply to John Campbell

      I concur with some of these remarks and di not intend to patronize with my comments about thinking/acting smart across all sectors, but I have found that there are some strange assumptions made about education - perhaps as strange as though made often about parenting (a more generic unpaid activity of more ancient origins).

      As I think I have said, funding is not the only matter (although you have to have enough (well-trainde) teachers to do the job. The real issue is to keep working at the quality…

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    4. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      The problem is teaching cannot attract enough discipline specialists - graduates who have proven their abilities and passion, through demanding academic programs for foundation disciplines, such as Maths, Physics, Geography, History, Biology, Economics, and so on. Though this problem has been allowed to fester over the past 30 years, it has only recent started blowing up in our faces.
      Thirty years ago, you could find public school teachers with 1st Class Honours degrees in English, Maths, Biology…

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    5. Robert Attila

      Business Analyst

      In reply to John Campbell

      Exactly! I can associate with much of what you have said.
      Little wonder standards are dropping if teachers cant even spell these days.

      Seems like teachers need to get back to basics, & ensure each student has learned the basics.

      There needs to be 'life coaching' so that the kids understand why it is important that they learn not only facts but problem solving skills.

      They need to be encouraged to self teach, to seek out, to take initiative with their own education.

    6. Chris Reynolds

      Education Consultant

      In reply to Robert Attila

      Robert, the trick is, as David has pointed out, to raise the skill levels of all teachers. The first step, as many have argued, is to recruit better from the outset. By this we mean not just more knowledgeable in their field but passionate about it and above all about teaching the young.

      Then the expectations of and orientation of teachers in the early years and the pedagogic craft into which they are inducted need to be better informed by evidence (the work of Hattie is widely known in this area but there are others) and sustained. Teaching is about collegiality sand about individual practice. The combination of these two aspects is very important to teaching success as is the calm and confident leadership fo older professionals to the growth and development of young teachers.

  2. Jonathan Marshall


    Excellent article - learning is a very complex and I think we are only starting to scratch the surface as to the core mental processes involved and how we could develop more effective and personalised learning systems.

    We are currently experimenting with the development of a serious game that looks at the factors of practice, motivation, attention and engagement to improve the skills of agricultural extension workers in the developing world whose only access to the 'education system' is via technology platforms such as mobile tablet devices.

    But again there is no real framework or model that provides a pathway to ensuring we bridge that gap between rigour and relevance.

  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Most commentators avoid the number one issue raised by teachers - bad behaviour.

    It doesn't matter what learning strategies, technology or materials we have. If teachers are scared of students, or students refuse to do what they're asked, the whole system falls apart.

    It might be a complex pronlem, but we'd better start thinking about it.

    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, I think the behaviour issue is the key to getting the teaching profession to accept pay differentials based on merit. Apply a salary loading t teachers who teach at places like Mt. Druitt, Bankstown, Broadmeadow, Wilcannia. If there was, say, a $30,000 salary top-up for teachers at Mt. Druitt High versus Mosman/Killara/Unley/Balwayn High Schools, I'd say, a lot of the very best teachers would start putting their hands up.

    2. John Perry


      In reply to James Jenkin

      Good teachers and, more importantly, good principals and school leaders ARE already thinking about it. And talking about it, and acting on it.

      My reading of the literature and own observations over the last ten years or so suggest that:

      1. Creating a positive - GENUINELY positive - school environment with positive links to home and community members (including voluntary and paid workers in social work-type positions);

      2. The principal knowing EVERY child in the school very well and maintaining…

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Among others, Ladwig and Gore have established a strong literature on what actually works in Australia (NSW, QLD & ACT at least) through their research and development in the "Quality Teaching" paradigm (note: teachING not teachER). I have seen implementations in the ACT and it has produced strong results in public schools in disadvantaged areas. No, it doesn't work overnight. No it is not easy. Yes, it is complex. No, it doesn't cost the earth and it doesn't require "performance bonuses" and other…

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  5. Peter Moss

    logged in via Facebook

    I learned as a teacher that there is no secret formula to anything pedagogical; what did me good, however, was the impulse to find that formula and thereby apply new ideas and advice to my teaching. There are then tricks of the trade and psychological and pedagogical strategies that one can employ; there are educational theories to engage with, but the experience is so varied that it is not reducible to checklists and philosophies, though these do abound in teaching and are helpful to a degree…

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Peter Moss

      Pedagogy should be completely banished from the universities. Pedagogy is not an academic discipline. It is more akin to a trade or a craft. It should be taught for registered, experienced, and GOOD teachers.

    2. John Perry


      In reply to David Thompson

      I agree that it is more of a craft. That's not to say it should be banished from the universities - plenty of opportunity for a lot more mock lessons (which are a lot scarier - and effective - than people think) and for the teacher trainer to give on-the-spot feedback. The problem is the uni lecturers who aren't so crash hot on lesson delivery themselves.

  6. Annette Rome

    Casual lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne

    As a neurophysiologist in a previous life, now an educator, there is no doubt that obtaining objective, comprehensive data to inform our practice is an ideal. Issues with using such an approach in our schools are, however, enormous. I cannot see parents happy to sign permission forms (as indeed they would have to) for their child to be part of a randomized trial, though I would like to think that they would consider doing so. I would also caution regarding the ‘quality’ of the research undertaken…

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