What works in education (revisited)

How do we know what works in education? Educational experiments are always suspect, since it’s impossible to control all the variables. There are also ethical issues involved in experimenting on students. So how can we possibly measure the effectiveness of different factors?

Grant Wiggins discussed this issue in an irritating post from three years ago. I usually admire Wiggins a lot, but I find his conclusion here to be counterintuitive and therefore implausible. He lists a large number of factors that might contribute to learning in a positive or negative way, and then he concludes the following:

Everything on the list has a greater effect on student achievement than the student’s background – despite the endless fatalism of so many teachers on this point (especially in the upper grades).

I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe it. It just runs counter to experience. I wish Wiggins had paid more attention to his own words from earlier in his article:

The caveat in any meta-anlysis, of course, is that we have little idea as to the validity of the underlying research. In a summary of all research we are agnostic as to how ‘good’ the research is.

So why do we believe this particular specimen of meta-research? Just because it supports Wiggins’s own views? I don’t see what his evidence is. And I’m particularly bothered by the tone of his concluding paragraph:

It is thus high time that we call teacher fatalism about their ability to achieve gains with poor or unmotivated students what it is: unprofessional, passive, and cynical thinking that has no place in school. It is a form of prejudice that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Categories: Teaching & Learning