Friday, 14 July 2017

In teaching, what works? (The answer is obvious when you think about it.) - Guest post from Professor Tim Cain

This week's contribution is a guest post by Tim Cain, who is Professor in Education and Director of the Research Centre for Schools, Colleges, and Teacher Education, Edge Hill University - who asks the question : In teaching what works? (The answer is obvious when you think about it.)  However before we proceed, I think it would be worth making a few things clear.   First,  the post has not been subject to any kind of editorial control - in other words, the topic was chosen by Professor Cain and I've made no changes to the post whatsoever, other than to cut and past the original document into my blog.  Second, I have decided to post the blog without comment, as I believe it's only right and proper that Professor Cain's words speak for themselves.  Third, and I would say this, I think researchers and bloggers working together to raise issues about evidence-based practice should be more common, with bloggers, researchers and teachers having much to gain from the on-line and other conversations generated by this form of communication.  So I now give you the work of Professor Tim Cain.

What works? Consider these scenarios:
Scenario 1: The teacher is at the front of the class, talking and displaying a PowerPoint. The material is well structured and attractively presented, and the teacher’s sense of humour helps to lighten the challenging nature of the material. She doesn’t notice that, near the back of the class, two girls are sharing photographs on a mobile phone and mouthing messages at each other. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn.
Scenario 2: Children are in groups of five or six around tables. They are supposedly discussing a poem they have just read. As the teacher approaches one group, one of the children reads the poem aloud and they make a brief show of discussing the poem’s rhyming scheme together. As the teacher leaves them, they resume their previous conversation about one of their friends. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn. 
Scenario 3: Children are in pairs at a computer, searching the internet for information. When they have found a page they think is relevant, they print it off and glue it to a poster, along with several similar pages. They design a reader-friendly title to the poster but they haven’t read the print-offs very carefully and haven’t noticed that they aren’t all relevant to the title. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn.
People who promote the idea of research-informed teaching often compare teaching with the medical profession: medicine is research-informed and teaching isn’t. Responses to this idea often include the obvious retort that, whereas medicine and surgery (although not all healthcare interventions) ‘work’ without much active participation from patients beyond turning up for the surgery and remembering to take the tablets, education relies totally on active and sustained participation by the students. In most instances, if the students don’t work, they don’t learn. (Unfortunately the corollary is not always true – some students work hard but don’t necessarily learn.)
In his popular and well-informed book Why Don't Students Like School? Dan Willingham points out that students, like everyone else, don’t really want to learn because learning involves thinking and this means hard work. So the answer to the question ‘in teaching, what works?’ is obvious: students do. Of course teachers do too but a hard-working, bright, charismatic teacher can only do so much. In the end, no learning happens if the students are not willing to engage with the subject, extend their abilities, think hard and … well, work. In each of the above scenarios, students don’t learn what their teacher wants them to learn because they don’t work. So when thinking about ‘what works?’ in your existing school, you will include questions such as, ‘is a particular teaching and learning innovation likely to increase or decrease the students’ work-rate?’
This doesn’t mean, of course, that innovations must be geared entirely to the particular interest of students. The idea that, for instance, students will increase their interest in poetry if poetry is taught through the medium of rap music, has not been proven by research. On the contrary, there is evidence that students’ interest in a subject increases as a consequence of learning about that subject, rather than the other way around (Rotgans & Schmidt 2017). However, as Rotgans & Schmidt (2017) acknowledge, students do not learn unless they have some interest in the subject, even if that interest is inspired entirely within a lesson, is only temporary and is limited to the particular situation of being taught the subject. So to extend the analogy, students’ interest in poetry might actually be better increased through the medium of Shakespeare’s sonnets than rap music, but only if they can be motivated to acquire sufficient ‘situational interest’ to put in some work into learning about Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The situation is similar for school leaders who are considering research-informed innovations. Meaningful innovations require school staff to work hard – to think differently and to act differently. Innovations work only if the school staff are sufficiently motivated to work. Again, there is no reason to believe that this motivation needs to be a prior condition. Staff motivation can be generated through, for instance, inspirational leadership, high quality CPD or, most persuasively, clear evidence of greater progress by the students in their own classes (Guskey 2002). But in education (unlike medicine or surgery) it is not the innovation itself that ‘works’; the innovation is not the cure. Rather, the innovation is a tool to be used – well or badly, enthusiastically or reluctantly – by the teaching staff and the students. When considering research-informed innovations, it might not be sufficient for school leaders to say, ‘This is evidence-informed, just do it!’ Instead, they might ask questions like, ‘What will motivate my staff to adopt this innovation?’ What will sustain their motivation over time?’ and ‘What will sustain their motivation in the face of difficulty?’ The trick is to think of research-informed innovations as tools, not cures, and to remember who (not what) works.
Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and teaching8(3), 381-391.
Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2017). The relation between individual interest and knowledge acquisition. British Educational Research Journal43(2), 350-371.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  1. Thank you for sharing Tim’s piece. Do you have a link to the origin?

  2. No - this is the original - Tim wrote this for my blog

  3. In that case Gary here are a few comments from me.

    I don’t accept Dan Willingham’s point that student’s don’t want to learn because it involves work for them. This suggests among other things that learning has no intrinsic value and that people cannot gain pleasure from learning. There are plenty of examples where people choose to engage in learning.

    Tim suggests that in the three scenarios the reason why the students do not learn what the teacher wants them to learn is because they do not work. This view ignores other reasons why the students are not learning what the teacher wants them to learn. There are numerous possible reasons for the students not learning what the teacher wants them to learn one of which might be that some of them already know what the teacher is teaching. Had these students simply been doing what the teacher expected them to do it would appear that all the class were learning when in fact some clearly wouldn’t have been. Observing students working, even if they are doing what the teacher wants them to do does not necessarily equate to learning.

    Tim goes on to suggest that when thinking about what works, teachers should focus on what is likely to increase or decrease students’ work rate. Increasing or decreasing students’ work rate may have little if any effect on learning (see the point made above for one example why this may be the case).

    Tim correctly states that learning does not happen if students do not engage with the subject in such a way that it extends their current abilities, and at times makes them think hard.

    So despite the alluring title of the blog, the answer to what works in teaching is not as obvious as Tim makes out. Moreover simply concentrating on increasing students’ work rate could do more harm than good. It may lead to very busy students getting nowhere in particular.

  4. Hi Terry - thanks for engaging constructively. Much appreciated. To clarify:

    People can and do gain pleasure from learning but learning involves work, which is something children (like us!) often choose to avoid. My point is that there has to be SOME form of motivation for children (or us!) to work.

    I agree with you that working does not always lead to learning; that's the point I was trying to make, writing "some students work hard but don’t necessarily learn".

    I am not advocating "simply concentrating on increasing students’ work rate"; I don't think this would be helpful. I'm arguing instead that research-inspired innovations (or any other innovations, for that matter) require work if they are to succeed, and that this needs to be taken into consideration by teachers and school leaders.

    I hope this clarifies matters. What motivated my post is that, in many of the schools I visit, there is enthusiasm for research-informed practice but there is also resistance. Some of the resistance is against the research (and rightly so, see but some of it is, I think, due to a slightly insensitive 'Research says you should do this so just do it' approach which is perceived to come from school leaders.

    Thanks again.

  5. PS If you can't access the research report I referenced, I'm happy to send you a copy.

  6. Thank you Tim for devoting time to responding to my comments so as to enhance some aspects of the original post and to provide details of the link to your research piece.

    I have no objections with a stance that proposes learning involves work and therefore SOMETIMES people choose to avoid getting involved in learning SOME things. There are times when all of us find it difficult, or would prefer not, to expend the effort needed to learn something yet on other occasions the effort required can seem like no effort at all.

    I am also pleased that you think concentrating on increasing students’ work rate would not necessarily be helpful. The point I was emphasising at that juncture was that it can be very difficult to distinguish learning from performance particularly when students are busy in both instances. It is very easy to make the mistake of thinking that students are learning simply because they are doing what the teacher wants them to do when it is possible of course that during such times some students (maybe even all of them) are generally doing something which they can already do.

    Turning to your recent research publication, may I begin by passing on my thanks for bringing it to my attention. I found it to be a very thorough and thoughtful account of your study which leaves readers with a handful of further research questions to ponder. Given the current campaign to promote research-informed education practice I do believe it is both a timely and novel contribution to the debate. As you rightly state your findings and interpretations are tentative but I would add that does little by way of reducing the power of your work. For me your piece is a refreshing and thought provoking addition to the research base which fittingly portrays teachers as intelligent actors and advocates in the development of their research-informed practice.

  7. Many thanks Terry for sharing your thoughts generously and openly. The issue of distinguishing learning from performance is a tough one; as you say, being busy isn't the same as learning. (Perhaps there's something in the notion of 'Personal Best'? It seems quite common in PE and it wouldn't work in most curriculum areas but might it be helpful in others?)

  8. You are welcome Tim. I am not sure we can thrash out the difficulties of distinguishing learning from performance or answer questions about the relevance and benefits of doing so in this thread but I do think the notion of ‘Personal Best’ is interesting. Is it something you are currently working on?

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