What Works In Education And How Do We Know?

blue-square-thingWhat Do We Mean When We Say Something Works In Education?

by Terry Heick

When measuring success, effectiveness, and performance in education, what are we measuring exactly?

Schools, curriculum, teachers, #edtech–when we say these things work or don’t, what do we mean?

Grades? Test performance? Literacy levels? Student curiosity? Graduation rates?

Enrollment rates? Parental satisfaction? Career readiness? Understanding?

The habits that lead to reading, creating, collaborating, reflecting, and integrating “meaningful stuff” in “meaningful ways”?

Hattie Takes A Swing

John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement represents a staggering effort to, in a way, answer the question of “What works in education?” Only even Hattie is careful to point out that the book wasn’t written to be a “recipe” of what works.

“For example, one of the major results presented in this book relates to increasing the amount of feedback because it is an important correlate of student achievement. However, one should not immediately start providing more feedback and then await the magical increases in achievement….increasing the amount of feedback in order to have a positive effect on student achievement (again—what exactly does this mean?) requires a change in the conception of what it means to be a teacher.”

He kind of sounds like me there at the end. It’s not as simple as using a “research-based strategy” to “move students” from “red to green.” And even that misses the bigger question: What are the terms of success in the classroom? Hattie prefaces his collection again.

“Of course, there are many different outcomes of schooling, such as attitudes, physical outcomes, belongingness, respect, citizenship, and the love of learning. This book focuses on student achievement, and that is a limitation of this review.”

Ack! Here we are again, back at the beginning. What are the terms of success in education? What does “student achievement” mean?

What Teachers Want To Know

What teachers want to know is really simple:

In light of what I know about how students learn, what should my actions be? Put another way, what should I teach, and how should I teach it?

And more recently, since I know that this student and this student and that student all need different things on different days in different ways, how can I use technology to make that happen?

The answer, increasingly, is a test—an attempt to measure the skills a student can apply, and the things a student understands. So assuming the test measures understanding, and assuming the students pass the test, then they understand by the terms we’ve established, yes?

And these would be their terms for success.

This isn’t passive-aggressive, sarcastic pot-shotting—I’m asking because I want to know myself. Test-based performance, while providing a kind of standard to evaluate, well, something, misses quite a lot, including a student’s ability to navigate critical information, think meaningfully about it, and use it in a way that results in personal and social improvement, for one.

On the way to get coffee, I often ride by a sign from a strip-mall “learning center” that promises to raise a “student’s performance” by at least two letter grades. Here, the performance is letter grades—and certainly nearly every student I’ve ever taught agrees. Test grades, letter grades, entrance exam scores.

These are their terms for success.

The Letter Grade

Grades are an interesting mix of understanding and compliance—if you more or less “get” the material, work hard to decipher the procedural mumbo-jumbo of most lessons, read well enough, and actually turn in all of your work, you’re likely to get “good grades.”

Do the work and show the teacher you care, and you’re in a decent place in most classrooms.

But by using empty words and phrases like “effective,” and “best practice,” do we not miss the enormous complexity of learning? I wrote a few months ago for edutopia that learning is a culture.

“The idea that learning is a culture alludes to the habits, networks, people, curiosities, emotion, and affection that all meaningful learning includes. Sustained, authentic learning not only behaves like a culture, but is embedded in one. One of the biggest mistakes education continues to make is to dehumanize the process. The need to learn begins in a community, and ends up there as well. From this community, people carry with them stories, insecurities, interests, and other strands of living that can act as powerful schema in the learning process.”

A lot of people disagreed. Learning is neurological, they said. It can be planned, caused, measured, and reported. It is the product of study habits and self-discipline. It is the result of research-based instructional design delivered by an effective teacher.

There’s that word again.

So when we criticize or celebrate edtech, for example, we should do so by those terms then, yes? The ability to demonstrate proficiency within given academic standards on a universal test given to all students?

The same with curriculum maps, teachers, instructional coaches, literacy programs, etc—these should be evaluated according to that same measure. To be effective in education then means to promote proficiency of academic standards for the greatest number of students.



What Works In Education And How Do We Know? Image attribution flickr user bluesquarething


  • You make some good points, Terry. We want to create new ways of learning and engagement in the learning process, yet continue to evaluate the success of these innovations using old methodology. It is time we as educators put our creative heads together to come up with new evaluation methods. These new #edtech methods are crying to be evaluated – how do we know if they are working – but the criteria for evaluation has to be fundamentally linked to the purposes/reasons we are using it in the first place!

  • If you are looking for more context/clarification I recommend “Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning”. Hattie explains “how to apply the principles of VL” aiming it at “students, pre-service and in-service teachers”. A must read for any educator in my opinion. His work has definitely influenced how we design and implement features at Geddit (we were recently fortunate enough to chat with him about our new formative assessment tool).

  • From my office at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, I’m watching a large group of men build a 14 storey building next door. The decisions about how to build are made by people not on site – they are engineers, architects, designers and the like who work elsewhere. The people on site are plying their crafts, but the reason the building ‘works’ is because they are all working on the same plan, following the design and direction of experts who have made the hard decisions: clearly there are some techniques that ensure the building stays up, and others that mean it will fall. And if you ask any of the workers on the site, they will have a more-or-less similar idea on what they are doing, and how they will measure their success.

    Contrast this with the education profession. Teachers make idiosyncratic (but often great) decisions about their practices. Teachers use their own techniques based on their own experience or intuition and often conflict with evidence. International experts warn that they never tell teachers how to teach – they just make suggestions and leave it to the teachers to decide what they will and will not, apply in their classrooms.

    from every educator I have asked, I have been given a different perspective on what, in their view, education is about. Some say learning, others say social outcomes, others say employment, and others, including highly experienced experts, admit they’ve never even thought about it. I fear that if we build 14 storey buildings like this, they’d fall down. So why do we run schools in this way?

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