Can we apply scientific rigour to teaching?

A colleague of mine spent a week at Harvard Business School earlier this year learning how to apply scientific methodologies to strategic decision-making. The course drew participants from all sectors and all parts of the world. Yet very few in education. Telling perhaps?

The premise is that if you are going to roll out a program/strategy/initiative, you need to be able to measure its impact. Otherwise, why introduce it in the first place? It starts with being able to articulate in ten words or less what you want to achieve (Question Zero), followed by the why (Theory of Change), the how and then the evaluation (during and post) to ascertain whether the program achieved what was intended. While the gold standard in measuring impact is to carry out randomised control trials, this approach isn’t always possible in education.

Another challenge is that teachers have their own deeply held views about their preferred strategies – often where focus is centred not on whether the strategy actually made a difference to the learning. That’s where we can benefit from following in the footsteps of the medical profession where the focus is on whether there has been a significant improvement in (patient) outcomes. To paraphrase John Hattie, it doesn’t matter which strategy you choose, so long as you have evidence that the child is learning as a result.

There are many examples of schools that already take this approach. Think Steiner and Montessori. In fact, Maria Montessori trained as a doctor, which is why their approach is based on ‘scientifically applied observation skills’. A scientific approach in education means shifting teacher focus from I think to We learn and beginning conversations with the student in mind, not the strategy.

Fisher and Frey (2018) discuss this in their paper ‘The Long View of Visible Learning’s Impact‘. The authors highlight the We learn culture in their own school community in the context of Hattie’s work. They write, ‘Rather than thinking, I taught it, but they didn’t get it, this teacher is saying, I must ensure that all students learn at high levels and I need guidance from my peers to accomplish my goal’. This leads into the application of scientific rigour in determining the impact on student learning.

In their example, Fisher and Frey note that teachers in their school community begin the process by collecting evidence prior to a unit of study, they then reflect on what needs to happen to ensure every child learns and then evaluate the impact their teaching has had. Through this, they are able to identify the students who did not meet particular competencies and what is required for each child. As Fisher and Frey point out, this approach leaves little to chance.

It’s a bitter-pill to swallow that we are still trying to find more efficient ways to treat school’s symptoms. The industrial model is well past its use-by-date so it requires leaders and teachers to create new cultures where observation, reflection, dialogue, evaluation and collaborative problem-solving in light of current theory/research are the norm.

Looking at learning through a scientific lens does not remove the human factor. In fact, without it, we cannot call ourselves a profession.








One thought on “Can we apply scientific rigour to teaching?

  1. Cognitive Science has led to the assorted varieties of Habits of Mind thinking dispositions. The zone of proximal development or zone of confusion you describe serves as the basis of pedagogy for all good teachers.Without understanding the starting points for each student often leads to teachers teaching to prescriptive industrial model teaching. This century requires different approaches and methods. What you have written about with cognitive science leading to breakthroughs, ironically has come under suspicion by Hattie and his effect size schema for whom you have quoted. Inquiry learning is seen as having little positive effect size compared to other traditional methods he cites. I have seen meaningful student engagement leading to real learning gains as a result of introducing Cultures of Thinking into our school curriculum. The work coming out of Stanford with the Thinking Project is also very exciting in terms of applying cognitive Science to today’s classroom that provides the best hope of achieving the 4 c’s for this century now. Communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity in every student should be the goal of all schools and the teachers of today.

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