As we kick off a new school year, we need to remember how important getting kids learning off to a good start is for their future life chances. A young person’s level of education is one of the strongest predictors of their future earning capacity, so staying and thriving at school is critical.
As a parent, you might wonder if your kid’s school is giving them the best possible start and you hope that they are using approaches to teaching and learning that are known to be the most effective.
But there are common myths about what works best in schools – you may be hassling the teachers with all the wrong ideas.
To take out the guesswork, the team at Evidence for Learning has busted the top ten myths about schools and learning. The answers are drawn from more than 10,000 education research studies from around the world and can be found at the Toolkit.
Myth #1 - Smaller class sizes increase learning for all students
It seems obvious that reducing the number of students in a class would improve learning because there would be more time for one-on-one attention. However, the evidence shows that there isn’t a large positive impact until a class size is reduced to under 20 (or even 15). And the negative impacts don’t really kick in until class sizes grow beyond 35. The more important factor is the quality of the teaching as good teaching will be valuable for all students. And poor practice is not improved with a smaller number of students.
Read the evidence on Reducing class size
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Reducing class size
Myth #2 - Kids learn better when they get information in their preferred learning style (e.g. audio, visual, physical)
There is very limited evidence for a consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that show genuine differences in the learning needs of young people. In fact, the evidence suggests that it can be damaging to assign learners to learning style categories. Learning preferences do change in different situations and over time and there is some evidence that cognitive preference and task type may be connected (for example, visualisation is particularly valuable for some areas of mathematics) but that is not the same as a single, fixed style. It is particularly important not to label primary school age students or for them to believe that any lack of success is due to their learning style. It seems to be more effective to focus on other aspects of motivation to engage students in their learning.
Read the evidence on Learning styles
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Learning styles
Myth #3 - Grouping kids in class by their academic ability benefits all learners
The evidence indicates that this approach benefits high achievers but is detrimental to mid-range and lower performing students. Gifted or talented learners can get up to 12 months extra learning but others can lose one or two months learning on average. And this approach can have long term negative impact on their confidence or belief that they can improve through their own academic efforts.
Read the evidence on Setting or streaming
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Setting or streaming
Myth #4 - Wearing a school uniform increases student learning
There is a common belief that school uniforms support the development of a culture of discipline and motivation which causes improved academic achievement. However, there is no robust evidence that introducing a school uniform will, by itself, improve performance, behaviour or attendance. There are studies about these outcomes linked to the introduction of a school uniform policy, but uniform was usually one factor amongst other improvement measures, such as changes in behaviour policy or other teaching and learning developments. So, whilst there is a link between schools with good academic outcomes and uniforms, there is no evidence that uniforms are the cause.
Read the evidence on School uniforms
Read the Australasian Research Summary on School uniforms
Myth #5 – Homework improves learning and achievement
The answer on this one is mixed. It is certainly the case that schools whose students do homework tend to be more successful, but it is not clear that the homework is the reason why. There is good evidence that homework in secondary school is effective especially when it is short and focused (like a project or specific learning goal) with an optimum of one-two hours per school day. For primary school students there is much less evidence of benefit. The broader evidence base suggests that activities which relate directly to what is being taught in school and encourage parental engagement are likely to be more effective than regular daily homework.
Myth #6 – Kids benefit more from praising their efforts than giving critical feedback
We have known for a long time that giving learners feedback can help with big gains in learning. But the evidence now clearly shows that the kind of feedback is crucial. The best feedback is specific, accurate and clear (e.g. ‘It was good because you...’); compares what a learner is doing right now with what they have done wrong before (‘I can see you were focused on improving X as it is much better than last time’s Y…’); and provides specific guidance on how to improve (‘Try next time to …’). Just giving praise for effort (‘It is great that you’re trying ...’) can be ineffective or even negative as it does not help the learner know how to improve.
Read the evidence on Feedback
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Feedback
Myth #7 – The best thing for a struggling student is to repeat a school year
The evidence is really strong that staying down a year actually has a negative impact on learning as well as being very costly. The impacts are worse for primary school students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The evidence suggests that students who repeat a year are unlikely to catch up with peers of a similar level who move on, even after completing an additional year’s schooling. Studies also suggest that students who repeat a year are more likely to drop out of school. The reasons may be that the student just gets ‘more of the same’ rather than additional support or a new approach and that the repeat of the year will have a negative effect on self-confidence. Much more effective approaches are one-to-one support and peer tutoring.
Read the evidence on Repeating a year
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Repeating a year
Myth #8 – Extra-curricular outdoor activities improve student academic performance
The evidence suggests that is does, but partially. Studies of adventure learning approaches showing positive benefits in academic learning as well as wider outcomes such as self-confidence, self-efficacy and motivation. On average, students who participate in outdoor adventure learning appear to make approximately three additional months’ progress, but understanding the evidence as to why they appear to improve academic outcomes is not straightforward. Evidence is limited and relatively inconsistent but it does suggest that the impact is greater for longer courses (more than a week), and those in a ‘wilderness’ regrouping, though other types of approaches still show some positive impacts.
Read the evidence Outdoor adventure learning
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Outdoor adventure learning
Myth #9 – Motivating students to aim high increases their performance
It is commonly believed that raising kids’ aspirations is an effective way to motivate kids to work harder so as to achieve the steps necessary for later success – but that’s not the case. Mostly, approaches which aim to raise aspirations actually have little to no positive impact on educational achievement. This may seem to be against common sense and the evidence is not settled but there are three possible explanations. Firstly, most young people actually have high aspirations but some underachieve because they don’t have the knowledge and skills they need. Secondly, when kids have low aspirations, it is not clear that targeted approaches actually succeed in raising them. And finally, even where aspirations begin low and are successfully improved, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows. For example, it is unclear whether raising aspirations can be credited for the learning gains rather than the additional academic support or increased parental involvement.
Read the evidence on Aspiration interventions
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Aspiration interventions
Myth #10 – A good physical environment to learn in improves academic achievement
There is no evidence that new buildings or particular aspects of architecture directly improve student learning. Once a learning environment provides a basic level of order and physical comfort, further improvements do not improve learning outcomes. Changing the physical learning environment refers to such things as moving to a new school building or seeking to improve the design, air quality, noise, light, or temperature of an existing building. Moving to a new building could be an effective part of a whole school change which seeks to change student behaviour and establish new norms, but there is no evidence that new buildings or particular aspects of architecture directly improve learning. The environment only shows a relationship with learning at the extremes, for example, with high noise levels of a flight path or extreme heat or cold.
Read the evidence on Physical environment
Read the Australasian Research Summary on Physical environment
What is most effective?
Ok, so these are ten approaches that don’t work to improve learning at school. But there are approaches that the evidence consistently suggests are most effective. They are:
- Specific feedback to learners on where they are at and what they need to do to improve.
- Self-control and 'learning to learn' approaches where students are supported to develop awareness of their learning habits and behaviours and improve them.
- Collaborative learning where small groups of mixed ability share tasks on a well-designed learning goal or project.
- Mastery learning, where students must show a high degree of understanding of content (e.g. 80% success rate) before passing to the next level of difficulty in the material.
We all have a role to play in helping our schools be the most successful learning environments possible. And so the next time you want to discuss an improvement at your child's school, why not start with what the evidence says about what works best.
Evidence for Learning is incubated by Social Ventures Australia (SVA) with the support of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the Education Endowment Foundation (UK) as founding partners.