Big data analysis is now widespread in many fields, including education. Education systems look for large-scale evidence-based accounts of “what works” to frame teaching and learning policy.
After trying many methods, it seems timely and reasonable to use big data sets, or aggregations of multiple studies, to identify effect sizes of different teaching strategies and advise teachers on how to optimise learning. Effect sizes entail comparisons of the extent of learning outcomes, usually measured by standardised tests. Departments of education in Victoria and NSW are now applying this approach to teacher guidance.
While this drive to base advice on solid evidence is positive, the type of evidence being selected is questionable. It tends to distort accounts of teaching and learning.
The first example is the Victorian High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS). Teachers are encouraged to set clear goals, structure lessons, teach through explanation, model solutions, provide feedback on what students should do next, let students collaborate, and adjust each learning experience to individual learners’ needs.
The second is the New South Wales example. Teachers are advised that explicit teaching, based on effect size, is the best way to teach. In this approach, the emphasis is on teachers explicitly explaining course material, rather than highly-active student roles.
These strategies seem plausible, but we have concerns about their narrow view of teacher practice, their unconvincing “scientific” evidence base, and their limited view of the curriculum, teacher and student roles, and the capabilities required of students this century.
Narrow teacher practice
These strategies may be individually useful, but fail to explain why, when and how (and how often) any strategy might be used alone or in combination with others. These lists also fail to recognise that effective teaching is built on positive relationships with students as individuals and as a class, and on responsiveness and creativity in teacher practice.
As noted in the work of multiple education experts, there are flaws in the statistical methods on which these claims are based. The main problems relate to how effect sizes are calculated and comparing them across different contexts. Behind these seductively precise numbers lie studies that vary considerably in context, design and outcomes.
At the very least, teachers need to use their own professional understanding and practical reasoning to assess the value of the proposed strategies and when, how and why they should be incorporated into their teaching. More analysis is also necessary to identify the conditions under which what versions of these strategies are useful.
The limited curriculum
The strategies outlined in HITs also imply a very traditional view of learning as mastery of pre-packaged teacher content. They fail to suggest how teachers might promote student creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
These lists also fail to acknowledge the possibility of students making reasoning moves outside those orchestrated by the teacher. By this we mean students might come up with productive contributions that might surpass what the teacher has planned for.
However, these student capabilities are now seen as crucial in many national curricula for promoting individual, group and national productivity and wellbeing. This is a pressing challenge for effective learning in this century.
This advice for teachers offers a limited vision of teacher and student roles. Crucial questions are not addressed in this extended focus on how to organise teacher-designed learning. These questions include when and in what ways teachers provide explicit guidance to individual students and groups, and when they encourage and trust students to work independently. This advice fails to take into account the need for teachers to establish a generative learning environment where productive relations between students and teachers, and between students, flourish.
There is no hint, within the HITS “differentiated teaching” strategy, of cultural, gendered, or socio-economic dimensions to difference. Learning to follow explanations and procedures is clearly a desirable goal, but a narrow teacher focus on this dimension of learning is likely to be counterproductive. Developing a generative and supportive classroom culture, including shared and celebrated goals and successes, would likely be sacrificed.
Where to from here?
At a recent Science of Learning conference involving neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and educators, some strong themes emerged. These included addressing gender stereotypes, the productive role of struggle by learners, key relational factors in learning, and the dependence of effect sizes on both what learning strategy is used, and when it can be used successfully within a larger learning sequence. Problem-based learning is effective if students have a relevant knowledge base to draw on. Explicit teaching and the use of instructional packages are effective in teaching basic skills, but less so for advanced creative problem-solving.
Advice to teachers on teaching should be based on rich, persuasive and justifiable evidence. This advice should also acknowledge the diverse range of desirable learning outcomes prescribed in national curriculums worldwide.
Advice should also provide practical support to develop teaching approaches that justify and integrate strategies which otherwise remain fragmented and prone to faddish take-up or abandonment.