Personally Speaking

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH is useless, a waste of public money. It only tells us what we know already. The findings of research are trivial. These were just a few of the condemnations in the mass media a few weeks ago, when Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of schools, gleefully unveiled the report on educational research he had commissioned from James Tooley of Newcastle University.

Woodhead, who dislikes educational research - while saying that he never reads it - employs a right-wing polemicist with similar views to write a critique of it. Tooley only scrutinised 41 articles in four journals, none were aimed at practitioners, and no books were looked at. I think the report, however, makes some good points, though I disagree with some of it, and the press coverage went way beyond what Tooley actually said.

Are educational research findings trivial and are they self-evident? Let me illustrate from my own research why I think they are neither.

Example 1: I investigated two methods of teaching reading to low-achieving children. In each case an experimental group was compared with a control group. Method A showed a superiority of 2.5 per cent over the control group, while Method B was 1.7 per cent better than the control. My view is even small improve-ments like this are worthwhile.

Example 2: When I studied, over a two-year period, more than 1,100 teachers in the first ever compulsory teacher appraisal, I found that 90 per cent said they had not changed their teaching as a result of being appraised. I defy anyone to say that result was predictable.

Let us look at example one again. Are findings of a 2.5 and 1.7 per cent gain of any use? Well, I must confess, I told a little lie. It was not my research into reading methods at all. I was actually referring to two large-scale American studies, costing $170m in the early 1980s, of beta blockers and low cholesterol diets when treating heart attacks. When 3,800 heart attack patients were split into two groups, half given the drug propranolol, and half given a placebo, 93 per cent of the propranolol group had survived 30 months later, compared with 90.5 per cent of the placebo group, a superiority of 2.5 per cent. A long-term study of low cholesterol diets did the same with 3,806 heart attack victims. This time 91.9 per cent on the low-cholesterol diet survived, compared with 90.2 per cent of the placebo group, a gain of 1.7 per cent for Method B. As Professor Nate Gage of Stanford University has pointed out, these findings made the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times and the Boston Globe.

Why are small gains welcomed in medicine, but ridiculed in education?

Now let us look at my second example. Was it self-evident that 90 per cent of teachers did not change their teaching when appraised? Maybe. There was little time or money, the unions had opposed appraisal, and schools were buried under the national curriculum and tests.

Actually I have been fibbing again. The result was exactly the reverse. It was 90 per cent who did change their classroom practice. But surely that too is obvious. Appraisal was required by law, teachers had to focus on a specific aspect, set and meet targets, and they were appraised by their line manager, so of course most of them changed their teaching. Or did they? Would you put your mortgage on which version was correct? Silly you. The actual finding was 50:50. Half said they changed, half said they did not. We can always explain research findings once we have been told them.

Often people do not appreciate that what they know came from research. We all realise the importance of parents' attitudes and behaviour on children's schooling, but it was seminal work by Professor Stephen Wiseman at Manchester University that led to an entire chapter of the Plowden Report in 1967 being devoted to the role of parents and later to their greater involvement in schools in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, are you aware that only a quarter of fathers read to their seven to 11-year-olds, compared with half of mothers? Or that 40 per cent of 16-year-olds have tried at least one illegal drug? Or that many children take little exercise? Or that British pupils do not do as well as German pupils?

You may well be. All these studies have been carried out in my own department and the details reported in the press. Other researchers are equally active. Educational research may have its faults, but it is not as bad as it has been portrayed.

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University