Common practice in schools is often not based on sound evidence ,according to a new book


Albert Einstein defined insanity as: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In education, it is fair to say that some practices are repeated again and again without much change in outcomes. It is also true to say that   rather too often common practices are not backed by any evidence. They happen because that’s the way its always been done.  Insanity-maybe not- but a desperately poor and counter-productive  use of resources, certainly.

“Bad Education, Debunking Myths in Education”, is a book  of research essays addressing widely-held educational myths and examining their gossamer-thin evidence-basis. It canvasses the existing research on everything from teacher assistants, through learning styles to ability grouping, and in most cases demonstrates convincingly that these practices have no sound basis in evidence. The  mantra -evidence based practice- trips easily off the tongue, but has been  honoured as much in its breach as in  its observance.

A striking conclusion from Professor Dylan Wilam in the first chapter – is that  the PISA studies suggest that teaching is slightly less good in independent schools on average than in state schools (p12), despite attainment being much higher in private schools  Wiliam says ‘… controlling for the social class of the students, students in state schools and private schools in the UK perform about the same…’  Wiliam, as it happens, is a frequent debunker and  clearly rather enjoys being  counter-intuitive. The data suggests that schools are more or less the same all over and that it doesn’t really matter which school you go to as long as you go to school. In terms of progress, there is little difference. So, instead of measuring the number of A’s our students get we should be looking solely at the progress they are making. The only factor we should be really addressing is the learning they are doing rather than the best grades overall.  Wiliam believes more generally, that we should focus much more on the quality of teaching as this has a big effect on outcomes,  both good and bad. There are poor quality teachers in the system, but rather than demonise them, says Wiliam,  help them to improve .

Then there is the issue of ‘Grouping pupils by ability in schools’. Ed Baines tries to make the case that setting is done for all of the wrong reasons and, in some circumstances, can be detrimental to the education of some. Ability grouping is the most common form of setting in Secondary schools in the UK. It seems to be accepted that it is ‘best’ for all children  as we can focus on individual needs more appropriately if there is less of a disparity in ability in one class. The data though doesn’t seem to back that up.

Ed Baines claims that, in the higher ability groups, overall average effect seems to be negligible. There is evidence of slight improvements in some cases, for sure – when a curriculum is specifically designed for that ability group –  but more often than not there is very little or no effect. In some circumstances the pace of curriculum coverage can cause some students to fall back in higher ability groups.

But in  lower ability groups, setting can prove close to disastrous according to Baines. The pace of work drops as it is believed that lessons need to be more structured and repetitive for lower ability groups to function. This breeds boredom and disengagement at a time when creativity and inspiration is needed more than ever. Add to this the removal of the advantages of working with those who are more able and you can see who gets the bad deal here. It doesn’t help that, as Baines found in his research:

‘… schools may tend to allocate the most knowledgeable and experienced teachers to the high ability groups and the less knowledgeable or experienced teachers to the low ability and difficult classes.’

This particular chapter on grouping by ability by Baines suggests that, since it is disadvantageous for the least able it should be avoided. (again, as  is often  the case  the needs of the more able pupils, if not ignored, are given little weight) The more successful setting by ability seems to happen ‘Within Class Ability Groups’, which is rare in Secondary school but very prominent in Primary. The ability to differentiate group tasks with the advantage of changing to mixed ability peer groups seems to be the most successful model.

This is an interesting read and useful for Heads, teachers and governors. If you want to know what interventions work best based on evidence look at the recent toolkit provided by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education [Paperback] Philip Adey (Author), Justin Dillon (Author)


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