Making up our Minds

Education research must be really frustrating for many as it appears to contradict itself over time, and differing settings. This situation reminds me of story given by Martin Seligman (2004) in his very entertaining TED lecture.

He explains:

So they came to me — CNN — and they said, “Professor Seligman, would you tell us about the state of psychology today? We’d like to interview you about that.” And I said, “Great.” And she said, “But this is CNN, so you only get a sound bite.” So I said, “Well, how many words do I get?” And she said, “Well, one.” And cameras rolled, and she said, “Professor Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”

And I said: “Good.”

“Cut. Cut. That won’t do. We’d really better give you a longer sound bite.” “Well, how many words do I get this time?” “I think, well, you get two. Doctor Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”

And I said: “Not good.”

“Look, Doctor Seligman, we can see you’re really not comfortable in this medium. We’d better give you a real sound bite. This time you can have three words. Professor Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”

To which I said: “Not good enough.”

The same story, I suggest, might apply to educational effectiveness research. We have made great strides over the last fifty years highlighting many things which contribute to learners’ success. And this has been good.

However, at times research has been too dogmatic, ideological and bound by distinct paradigms. Much of the early debate around traditional vs progressive education might fall in to this camp. At its worst, this has led to the teach-by-numbers approach that has de-professionalised teachers and short changed learners. This is not good.

We have learnt that our former quantitative tools were blunt instruments that only weakly pick up on complexity, interactions, non-linear effects and the very contextual nature of learning. If at all. This is not to say that prior progress is illusory – far from it; but it is now appropriate to ask ‘what next’ as our research power improves. Now with much greater technical finesse, better data, mixed methods and a generally more pragmatic approach research may shine a light on old and new dilemmas. Former pivotal studies such as Coleman (1966) are being reanalysed and reconsidered (Borman & Dowling, 2010) and we are finding answers to previously impossible questions – e.g. such as the temporal and contextual impact of leadership (Day et al., 2009) and its impact on student attainment (Connolly, 2015).

It is easy to see how early efforts were ‘good’, some application of these became ‘not good’ but with new methods and more computational power, we can now improve on ‘not good enough’.

An example of this is the recent report of the US National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) which highlights early antagonism between traditional and progressive paradigms. However, advice now moves beyond this to a pragmatic mix, which recognises that a blend of approaches is required. So too, when we consider problem based learning; for which a dogmatic application of pure PBL is not good (Walker, Leary, Hmelo-Silver, & Ertmer, 2015). Also not good, is an uncritical application of Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009) which deserves close scrutiny and a revisiting of sources at times.


Borman, G., & Dowling, M. (2010). Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Data. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1201–1246.

Coleman, J. S. (1966). EQUALITY OF EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY. Retrieved from

Connolly, V. (2015). Leadership, School Culture and Attainment: a secondary data analysis of TALIS 2013 (England) (MPhil). University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Day, C., Sammons, P., Hopkins, D., Harris, A., Leithwood, K., Gu, Q., … Kington, A. (2009). The Impact of School Leadership on Pupil Outcomes: Final report (DCSF-RR No. 108). London: Department for Children, Schools and Families. Retrieved from

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.

NMAP. (2008). The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. US Department of Education. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. (2004). The new era of positive psychology. Retrieved from

Walker, A., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C., & Ertmer, P. A. (Eds.). (2015). Essential Readings in Problem-Based Learning: Exploring and Extending the Legacy of Howard S. Barrows. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.


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