Can we really trust educational research?

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Gilbert of the University of West Virginia and Nina Strohminger of Yale University presenting their findings that only a third of published psychology research is reliable.

Another article confirms that in the field of biomedicine less than 50% of research proves reliable when the “reproducibility factor” is applied. And astonishingly, we read elsewhere that “just 11% of preclinical cancer research studies could be confirmed”.

We might well speculate as to why such a body of inaccurate “research” is being published. And let’s be clear that it is academics themselves who are drawing attention to the problem, and expressing frustration.

And if research in medicine and psychology are this unreliable, shouldn’t we equally be concerned about the research that informs educational theories and methods?

What is research?

According to the dictionary, research is,

“the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions”

When we are told that the information we are being presented with is based on “research”, it gives us a sense of assurance that it is reliable. We assume that others have systematically investigated the facts presented, meaning that we don’t really need to think about them too hard, and can simply accept what we are hearing.

This is natural, a sign of our brains working efficiently. But this is also why it is so shocking to us when confronted with scientific evidence that only a third of psychological studies are reliable.

We mistakenly assume that research includes ‘double-blind’ clinical studies, is independently peer-reviewed, compared with alternative findings, and subjected to further meta-analyses. In reality, it would seem this is rarely the case.

Studies are very often skewed by the perspective of the researchers, and the conformation bias of those who present their conclusions. Take for example the Irish historians, who recently discovered the headstone of the oldest ever living human. According to the headstone he was 187, and his name was Miles from Dublin.

When we hear or read the words, “studies suggest that…”, we clearly need to bear in mind that other studies may have reached quite different conclusions. Let’s consider some popular education theories from recent years which are regularly cited in discussions about piano teaching…

Growth Mindset”

Based on the work of Carol Dweck, the “growth mindset” theory predicts that educational attainment is positively linked to a student’s belief that their ability is malleable rather than fixed.

The well-known education writer David Didau explains:

Dweck’s theory is more complex than simply ‘try, and you will succeed’. She is actually making three claims. First, that having a growth mindset leads to better academic achievement. Secondly, that having a fixed mindset leads to worse academic achievement – and lastly, that providing students with a growth mindset intervention changes students’ mindset and thereby improves their academic performance.”

Sounds great. But increasingly Dweck’s theories and research are being challenged. The 2016 Report Mindset in the Classroom surveyed a group of teachers who believe in growth mindset theory, finding that just one in five of them confidently reported success implementing it in their classrooms.

And in an article on the eteach website, Katie Newell hints at the corrosive impact that may accompany the sense of failure:

“Having tried the methods for some years, teachers and parents alike are finding many children trying their best again and again, but still not succeeding.”

Like others, Newell points to the fact that empirical studies have been unable to reproduce Dweck’s findings.

The most significant study into this is perhaps that of Yue Li and Timothy Bates of the Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh. Li and Bates sought to confirm Dweck’s theory, but came to this staggeringly different conclusion:

“Children’s own mindsets showed no relationship to IQ, school grades, or change in grades across the school year…
Fixed beliefs about basic ability appear to be unrelated to ability, and we found no support for mindset-effects on cognitive ability, response to challenge, or educational progress.”

Meanwhile, Dr Hugh Morrison of the Queen’s University, Belfast has written an in-depth academic analysis of the flaws in Dweck’s mindset research, which is well worth a read.

But I’ll leave the last word to Didau, who points toward the ethical and human consequences of the growth mindset craze:

“I’m not saying growth mindset is completely wrong or useless. But it does contradict a lot of research in other fields, and it also flies in the face of many people’s lived experience…
In fairness, Dweck isn’t the problem; it’s the legions of mindset fans who’ve popularised the belief that all people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough. And this message is both harmful, and wrong.”

10,000 Hours”

In unpacking the Growth Mindset theory, Didau tantalisingly points out:

“There is good research supporting the idea that inborn ability (including but not limited to intelligence) matters, a lot.”

Try telling that to evangelists of the so-called ‘10,000 hour rule’ popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success. The book claimed that if you wanted to become one of the best in the world at something, you simply had to practice it for 10,000 hours.

The theory drew on research by Anders Ericsson, who quickly went on record tempering and distancing himself from Gladwell’s conclusions.

The 10,000 Hours Rule has subsequently been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked, perhaps most clearly in a 2014 study from Princeton University, which concluded:

“More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing, but is it supported by empirical evidence?
To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated.”

Their conclusions were startling:

“We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.
We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”

This begs an intriguing question: if deliberate practice actually accounts for just a 21% variance in performance between musicians, what factors account for the other 79% variance? It would seem that researchers still have many important questions to answer.

Searching for the truth

The importance of ongoing training and continuing professional development cannot be overstated. But I have noticed that growing numbers of teachers are becoming weary of a culture in which conference speakers allude to obfuscated “research” before swiftly promoting their latest book or method.

Over three decades of teaching, I have seen plenty of fads, trends and bandwagons come and go. I have seen good, experienced teachers season their CPD with a large pinch of salt. Others have been left confused and deflated when promoted ideas didn’t work in practice.

In our search for the truth, it’s a good idea to find out what the latest research really says. Happily, a general internet search is usually sufficient to begin an investigation into any subject, and in a bid to counter misinformation most academic papers are now freely available online, at least as an abstract (summary).

There are two important issues to consider:
1. The source of the research
2. The quality of the research

When considering the source of the research, we must bear in mind that a lot of research is symbiotically linked to selling a product. Consider who funded, who undertook the research, and why. To what extent might confirmation bias have influenced the outcome?

When considering the quality of research, we might question the scale of the study, how it was conducted, and the independence and rigour of the analysis. Importantly, what are alternative studies and researchers saying? We should always consider the counter evidence and arguments before blindly accepting the outcome of a single study.

Lest this seem unduly cynical or “anti-academic”, let’s remind ourselves that researchers themselves are lamenting the fact the only a third of published psychology research is reliable. If they are concerned, so should we all be.

Concluding thoughts

When considering implementing new ideas and approaches:

  • Never reject tried and tested methods that you know work, just because you hear somebody claim they don’t.
  • Some of the approaches your teachers used apparently worked well for you, and may well work equally well for your students.
  • Be willing to refresh (without discarding) your approach by integrating new ideas alongside existing ones in a balanced way.
  • Be authentic; if a new theory is alien to your real-world experience, you should almost certainly bin it.
  • Be wary of any one-size-fits-all approach. Every student is unique.
  • Start with the big picture, not the details; look for the seed of truth which you can take away and use right away.

While some like to be seen as the pioneers who know about and adopt the latest theory, it is wise to take a careful, balanced and reflective approach, allowing our teaching to evolve naturally, and above all, well.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.