What Actually Works in Education?

In my time in education, I’ve come across or been presented a number of theories of how education works or should work. These have included smaller learning communities, piagetian constructs, TJED, the trivium, VARK learning styles, open classrooms, Bloom’s taxonomy, critical approaches to education, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and many others. I would assume that you have likewise heard of and experienced a number of approaches to education as well. In most cases I have heard people speak or write persuasively in favor of these approaches, but one of the most valuable lessons that being involved in the world of debate and critical thinking will teach you is that you can make almost any concept sound great theoretically. It’s when it comes time to support with evidence that things get tricky.

So I propose for the homeschooling community what I believe to be a simple and reasonable offering regarding whether or not we incorporate various approaches or curriculums- It should not be sufficient for an idea in education to make theoretical sense, sound exciting or inspiring, be a new development, be used anciently, or be different than a system that doesn’t work very well for us to devote our time, attention, and energy to that idea. Rather, I propose that in response to inspiring theories of education, we say, “show me the evidence that it works”.

What I want to know most is if any approach or system achieves meaningful change for students. The good news is that not only can we observe those changes in our children anecdotally, there is also a wealth of research that has been conducted on educational approaches.

I’ve recently been getting into the work of John Hattie. John Hattie is a renowned education researcher who has dedicated his career to answering the question “What works in education?”. In order to answer that question, Hattie has compiled a data set encompassing 277 unique influences on education outcomes and 100,000 studies conducted on over 300 million students around the world. While there are certainly critiques out there of Hattie’s work and no doubt flaws in his method (as with all ambitious research), Hattie’s research is a great place to begin to think about the question, “What works in education?”

The teachers of the WIDL delved into Hattie’s research this summer as a means of improving our own teaching methods. Here are some interesting findings from his research worth thinking about-

  • In the dataset there are almost no strategies or approaches that teachers use that don’t advance student learning to some degree. However approaches range in efficacy from barely effective to very successful in affecting change for students. So it should not be good enough for a teacher to say “the student advanced so I’m using the right methods!” As teachers we should be asking if our methods are having a serious and meaningful impact on student skills, habits, and ways of seeing themselves and the world.
  • A sometimes popular approach in the homeschooling community is to de-emphasize the role of the teacher in outcomes. This concept often sounds like “The student has to want it”, “Teachers are just there to guide students on their journey”, or “Inspire not require”. This is an example of an approach that sounds great in theory, but is simply not well supported, at least not in this dataset. It turns out that while the Hattie dataset shows that student attitudes and circumstances can have a serious negative effect on educational outcomes, the effects which really promote positive outcomes for students are largely teacher driven. Success in education is largely about how teachers view themselves and their students, what methods they use, what they require students to do, and so forth. And this comports with my experiences as a teacher. Whether or not my class will succeed is largely up to me as the teacher, so I must emphasize in my own mind the role that I play for my students.
  • While many of the findings are not very surprising (who knew that ADD is really tough for a student to deal with?), there are a number of findings that may be surprising based on conventional wisdom surrounding education. For example, standardized testing can have a strong positive effect on student outcomes, teacher praise by itself appears to do very little to bolster student achievement, teaching to “learning styles” is relatively ineffective, memorization drills can be very effective, etc.
  • The overall name chosen for the Hattie research is “Visible Learning”. The concept here is that the most effective strategies are strategies that you can see. Teachers don’t have to wonder if students are learning, because if they are learning, chances are that you can see it. Students learn best in activities that have them actively doing a thing that you can observe such as working in a group, speaking, writing, creating, or in some other way doing. This, again, comports with my experience as a teacher. The less time the student spends passively listening to me the more comfortable I am. I want my students actively doing for absolutely as much of any given class as I can manage.

I encourage you to get into the Hattie research. A good place to start is these two videos. Not only that, but you can access the entire Hattie dataset right here.

To sum up, two of the most powerful effects in the Hattie research are Collective Teacher Efficacy and Teacher Estimates of Achievement. These can be roughly translated into two questions. Do teachers have a strong belief in their ability to be agents of change for their students? Do teachers pay attention to whether or not their students are making real meaningful progress and adjust accordingly? Here in the homeschooling community we can raise our level of teaching and the outcomes for our students by taking those two questions seriously. Do we believe that we can make a difference and are we paying attention to what is actually facilitating real meaningful growth for students? I know that I can make a change and I do measure that change in the students I teach. For me, theories aren’t enough. I want the type of evidence I can see right in front of my eyes.