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Which research finding do you wish wasn’t true? 5 education experts reply

Which research finding do you wish wasn’t true? 5 education experts reply

7 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed

In a recent CPD training session to teachers, we were asked: “Which research finding do you wish wasn’t true?”

It’s a great question. It forces us to confront what we currently “know” and how it may differ from what we “want” to be true.

At the time, we didn’t have a very good answer to this excellent question. We thought about and wrestled with it for a while, hoping to provide a better one. This also made us curious to know what other educators think – so, we reached out to a few of them to see what they came up with.

Find our answer as well as four others from some of our favourite education experts below, and please make sure to follow all of them on Twitter for more insightful content.

The limited (or sometimes negative) impact of technology on learning

By Bradley Busch, Lead Psychologist at InnerDrive

Given how many schools and colleges are embracing technology within their lessons, I would love the research to unequivocally support the wholesale embrace of laptops and tablets. There are certainly some learning gains to be had – it is easier to save and preserve notes, there is an increase in availability of information from around the world at our fingertips, and interactive features allow us to explore learning in different ways.

But is there a potential learning loss to be aware of? Research suggests so. For example:

  1. Worse note taking – Several studies (such as an interesting 2022 article and fascinating 2014 article) have found that the quality of note-taking and the likelihood of remembering them is better if done by pen and paper compared to a laptop. This is probably due to students being able to type faster than they can write. This leads to them copying down what has been said verbatim when doing so electronically, which in turns leads to a shallower processing of information.
  2.  Increased distraction – Paying attention is hard. It is easy for the brain to get distracted. Turns out that having the world at your fingertips isn’t conducive to staying focused at the task at hand. What is quite cool about this study is that it turns out that having electronics is distracting for others around you as well.

This isn’t to say that we need to reject technology completely. It clearly does offer some potential gains. But at the moment, I think the reality of what is happening in classrooms has outpaced what we currently know from the research about technology and learning. Given the expense, time and opportunity cost involved in using technology in education, a highly structured and defined use of engagement is almost certainly needed.

Smaller classes don’t necessarily lead to better learning

By Paul Cline, Psychology Teacher & Director of Teaching and Learning

Intuitively, it seems obvious that smaller classes would lead to better outcomes. Smaller classes mean more time for individual feedback, more personalised support, stronger relationships with students, more “effective” lessons with less time spent on general crowd-control… the list could go on. 

Yet Professor John Hattie reports that in over 100 years of research, there has been no strong empirical support for the idea that reducing class sizes improves attainment. At best, the evidence suggests that smaller class sizes may only “slightly” improve achievement and some studies even found negative effects.

If there is an effect, it is probably not a linear one and there may be some form of threshold effect here; reducing classes from 30 to 25 might have some impact but reducing from 25 to 20 less so. The important question then is why? One reason, according to Hattie, is that research suggests that a reduction in class sizes is rarely accompanied by any concomitant increase in effectiveness of teaching; teachers are teaching a class of 15 exactly as they would a class of 30 and not allocating their time in ways which benefit students more. 

Furthermore, reduced class sizes likely means employing more teachers, which may increase the likelihood of greater variability in teacher quality, potentially countering any benefits gained of having smaller classes. Even with the most positive interpretation of these findings, the benefits smaller class sizes bring are unlikely to outweigh the significant costs of trying to implement them. Schools would be much better off investing their limited resources into improving teacher quality rather than worrying about class sizes.

The strong predictive power of IQ

By Alex Richardson, Professional Learning Mentor

The education studies I find most dispiriting are those on IQ and its link to academic attainment and life outcomes. In this case, it’s not so much individual studies as decades of research all pointing in a similar direction – namely that there is such a thing as heritable intelligence, and that it contributes very strongly to the academic performance of our students.

As Freddie De Boer has noted, “people sort themselves into academic ability bands relative to peers at a very early age and at a scale more or less remain in those bands throughout their academic lives. The star students in first grade are very likely to be the star students in college, again with exceptions, but as a general rule with remarkable consistency”.

Why is this a shame? We aren’t generally loath to accept natural difference in sporting ability, after all. So why does it stick in the throat for intelligence? I suppose because there is something pure about the image of our teaching carrying students as far as they are willing to go and to work for. And perhaps because the knock-on effects of intelligence for people’s lives are likely stronger than their aptitude for sport.

I’m not sure what the remedy for gloom is on this – celebrating the general life in knowledge even if we can’t level the playing field is one option. Or maybe all this will turn out not to be in important ways. There are credible voices remaining who argue that social class, work ethic or even luck remain greater determinants of success than heritable intelligence. Here’s hoping!

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It’s really hard to overcome misconceptions

By Sarah Cottinghatt, Learning Design at Ambition Institute

With great teaching, teachers can undo any misconception a student has, right? That’s what I thought. It was therefore pretty disappointing to learn that there are some stubborn ideas students really don’t seem to be able to move beyond – misconceptions teachers just don’t seem to be able to full quash.

These tend to be counterintuitive ideas like “the earth is round” or “-5 is smaller than -1” where the temptation, from their experience of the world/number, is for students to think otherwise. It turns out, rather than unpicking and righting these misconceptions, when it comes come counterintuitive ideas we need to run some sort of interference to stop students defaulting to their instinctive answer and get them instead to stop and think (Babai et 2015Roy et al 2019).

The good news is that this can support them to employ a slower analytic mode of thinking that steers them away from their default incorrect notions of these concepts. So, while it’s not surprising that these counterintuitive concepts are hard to overcome, I wish they could be righted more easily and for the long term. I guess the upside is that promising research shows us how we can help students overcome them!

What helps performance doesn’t often help learning

By Jade Pearce, Director of Performance at GAT Institute

In the paper “Learning versus performance”, Bjork and Soderstrom explain that there is a distinction between learning and performance. Performance is the short-term gains that occur during instruction. For example, this can be seen when pupils are able to answer questions, complete a task or solve problems in a lesson. In contrast, learning is the long-term change in pupils’ knowledge and understanding.

Frustratingly, not only is learning different to performance, the instructional strategies that are most effective for learning are also different to those that will improve performance. Performance will be enhanced by strategies such as blocked and massed practice and re-studying that increase short-term fluency. Whereas learning requires the in-depth, effortful processing required by strategies such as spaced practice, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice. Unfortunately, these strategies make learning feel more difficult and may be detrimental to performance. This means they are less likely to be used by both teachers in lessons and students during independent study. If this was not the case, it would certainly make our lives as teachers much easier!

Final thoughts

The beautiful thing about research is that it helps free us from our subconscious biases. It allows us to separate what we want to be true from what the reality probably is.

This process can be uncomfortable as we have to address our preconceived notions head on. But this is key to developing an evidence-informed approach. Plus, as research is constantly changing and yielding new findings, it also gives us permission to change our mind about what we think we “know”.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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