What research can best guide teaching?

Advice to teachers on teaching should draw on rich, persuasive, justifiable and current evidence. This advice should also acknowledge that there are many desirable learning outcomes prescribed in national curricula worldwide.

One current dominant answer to this question is that we need to ‘scientise’ educational research to find out what is guaranteed to work anywhere, Professsor of Science Interdisciplinary Educational Research at Deakin University Vaughan Prain writes.

According to this agenda, we need our own and others’ expertise in big data analysis of past studies to identify effective teaching strategies and advise teachers on how to optimise learning. Educational systems and technology companies now seem to agree that this is the only way forward. While this drive for evidence based advice is laudable, I want to raise some concerns about this agenda, its assumptions and methods, and propose a more modest approach.

More than 10 years ago, Gert Biesta (2007) identified many compelling arguments against this scientised evidence based search for ‘what works’. Here I briefly cover four of his points:

Education is not ‘an intervention or treatment’ and cannot be separated from questions of what is ultimately desirable individually and collectively for participants. Education is about values rather than technocratic solutions to predetermined goals.

Educational research tells us what worked somewhere in the past, but not what will work everywhere in future. Curricular content and methods keep changing, making past insights (the rear vision mirror of big data analyses) only part of the evidence needed.

Education is about teachers making judgments about desirable outcomes in particular situations.

Therefore education research can inform and enrich educational practice and policy, but not dictate what should happen.

To pick up on the second point, picture the following lesson sequence undertaken by a Year 8 class in Sydney last year. In a STEM project, students were invited to work on a project about setting up a colony on Mars, where they worked with their technology teacher on rocket design, their science teacher on nose cone materials, and their mathematics teacher on inventing a calendar system for use on Mars. One student designed an interplanetary communication strategy based on the travel time of light between Mars and Earth at different points in their orbit. As this example suggests, a modern curriculum is a moving target, and therefore not easily amenable to ‘fixed’ past solutions and prescriptions for methods for success.

Another problem is the issue of what is hard or easy to scientise in educational research, and therefore what gets foregrounded or neglected in this agenda. Andrews and colleagues (2014), noted that current standardised tests measure a narrow range of learning goals, ignoring other educational objectives, such as physical, moral, civic and artistic development, and the need to prepare students to participate in democratic self government, moral action and a life of personal development, growth and wellbeing.

The upshot is that in casting teaching as mainly a technical capability that can be neatly prescribed from past studies, the scientised big data research agenda has tended to narrow the curriculum, disempower teacher initiative, and ignore the reality that effective teaching is built on positive relationships with students as individuals and as a class, and that there is a crucial role for teacher responsiveness and creativity in successful teaching.

Persuasive concerns have also been raised about the methods used to support ‘scientised’ claims for effective teaching strategies derived from big data analyses. Critics have noted the flawed statistics underpinning claims about which teaching strategies produce the biggest effect sizes on learning (see Prain & Tytler, 2017). Behind the scientific precision of the figures are studies that vary markedly in scale, context, design, processes and outcomes.

Where to from here?

While lessons can be learnt on what to do (and what not to do) from past educational research, there is now a compelling need for researchers and teachers to work together on researching conditions for success with a future oriented curriculum. While some curricular areas still view learning as mastery of pre-packaged teacher content, there is growing recognition that teachers also need to promote student creativity, critical thinking and problem solving of new problems, enabling students to be future job creators as well as job seekers. These capabilities are seen as crucial in many national curricula for promoting individual, group and national productivity and wellbeing. This is the real challenge for effective learning this century(http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/National%20STEM%20School%20Education%20Strategy.pdf).

Researchers and teachers need to work together to identify conditions when and where particular teaching and learning strategies (and learning sequences) address this agenda effectively. Did the STEM project described above promote learning for all learners across each curricular area? What refinements could be tried in a re-run with another group of students if the teachers viewed the learning outcomes as broadly successful?

Educational research needs to acknowledge complexities and the key role of context. At a recent Science of Learning conference (https://events.slrc.org.au/2017-international-science-learning-conference/) involving neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and educators, participants focused on gendered stereotypes, productive struggle by learners, and how ‘effect sizes’ depend on context. Problem based learning may work if students have sufficient background knowledge, and teacher use of predesigned programs may be effective in teaching basic skills, but less so for advanced creative problem solving.

Advice to teachers on teaching should draw on rich, persuasive, justifiable and current evidence. This advice should also acknowledge that there are many desirable learning outcomes prescribed in national curricula worldwide. Research partnerships between teachers and researchers should lead to practical support in engaging with future-oriented curricula.


Andrews, P. et al. (2014). OECD and Pisa tests are damaging education worldwide –The Guardian, May 6th.

Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: Evidence-based practice and thedemocratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1-22

Prain, V. & Tytler, R. (2017) Simplistic advice for teachers on how to teach won’t work. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/simplistic-advice-for-teachers-on-how-to-teach-wont-work-86706