Who’s Afraid of Data in Schools?

It’s hard to have a school-wide faculty meeting, or open an education magazine, without encountering the word “data.”  Once highly idiosyncratic, teaching has rightly become more and more a skill to be learned with outcomes to be measured.  I could not be happier about this move from teaching-as-witchcraft (or worse, merely bad theatre) to teaching-as-skill.

Those opposed to the use of data in schools are legion.  Some teachers say gathering data gets in the way of instruction.  Lots of stakeholders argue that it couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of good schools and teaching.  The most troubling objection is that data isn’t necessary to improvement; it’s somehow just a sideshow for accounting fetishists.

A recent post by Robert Wachter in New York Times puts it like this: “the objections [to using data] became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to ‘look good,’ had led them to turn away from the essence of their work…. The focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

Then, quoting a “hard-nosed scientist” and measurement expert about how to improve the helping professions, Avedis Donabedian, Wachter claims he said on his deathbed: “The secret of quality is love.”

There you have it: love.  Retool, everyone!  Make loving schools and the rest falls into place.

Hardly.  Under the rubric of “love,” lots of pretty awful things happened: low expectations, damning “ability” streaming, corporal punishment, whole-language instruction, and on and on. Yes, teachers should be loving: but we know that because ample meta-analyses suggest that teacher-student relationships have a huge impact on student outcomes.  That’s data.

Why We Should Embrace Data

“Count something.” That’s the advice of Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer, health care reformer.  I am fond of borrowing his ideas, and this is no exception.  We ought to be counting more, not less; we ought to be asking research questions in our own schools and classrooms; we ought to be finding the best evidence about the effectiveness of our individual schools and making decisions based on it.

Ask Yourself: Without “Data” or “Information” or “Evidence”…

… How would you know if your classroom or school is functioning at its best?  Rather than gathering data, would it be better to merely guess?  Or perhaps listen to the loudest teacher complaining in the faculty lounge?

… How can you find improvements?  How do you know if your students are being well-served? How do you know if program changes are aiding student learning or the opposite?

Models of Using Data That Are Likely to Work:

– Validity: Measure what is valued instead of valuing only what can easily be measured

– Balance: Create a balanced scorecard

– Insist on credible, high quality data that are stable and accurate.

– Design and select data that are usable in real time.

– Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement.

(This list is taken from Andy Hargreaves, sometimes quoted as being opposed to the use of data in schools.)

Imagine This

Using the above criteria, I suggest that each school (or department within) embrace as their operating principles – something they just do as a matter of course – a set of measures.

ImagineColleagues getting together to decide, informed by stable accepted research (yes, it does exist) and professional judgment, what things really matter.  A few possibilities to illustrate: student engagement; preparation for the next step; effective instruction; and so on.

Then, consciously asking: how can we collect data – qualitative and quantitative, in valid and practical ways – to figure out how we are collectively doing across these domains?

Then, embracing an ongoing effort to track and discuss the data to improve programming or approaches.

The Scientist in the Room

I’m fond of saying that the best teachers are scientists in the room, looking for data about how the students are doing. That data could come from a lot of different sources: it could come from examining exams after students have written them; it could come from moderated or parity marking with colleagues; it could come from student surveys; it could come from student exit interviews; it could be routine (brief “stop/start/continue” surveys for students at the end of units). The more conscious we are of the information we base decisions on the better our decisions are likely to be.

The important thing is that we count, measure, and gather information, from a variety of sources to paint the most accurate picture of what we’re doing and how well it’s working.  We need to start now.  And we need to make it part of our regular practice.

We need more data, not less.  It needs to be collected efficiently and routinely, used consciously and conscientiously, for the perpetual betterment of our schools.  People have said the use of data harms children; I argue the careful use of data is the best defence against a complacent or dysfunctional approach to schooling.

If we won’t tolerate the random best guesses of heart surgeons, why would we demand any less from those that teach?

(Photo: JD Hancock)

Results, Not Hours, Matter

A recent edition of Planet Money addressed a topic near and dear to the hearts of all teachers: the question of long working hours.  In lots of fields, but maybe especially in teaching, we equate long working hours with “doing a good job.” But there are lots of reasons to question this idea.  Steve Henn, a reporter on the show, explains with a story:

One of my favorite economists, Dan Ariely, tells this story about a locksmith. When the locksmith was new at his job, when he was an apprentice, he took a really long time to open a lock. And people saw him working away, struggling, really having a hard time. And often they’d end up giving him a tip. But then when locksmith got better at his job, when he got so good at his job he could open pretty much any lock in just a minute or two, then his customers started complaining. They were like, you want $200 for that? This took you, like, 30 seconds…

Maybe hard work is irrelevant. Maybe what should matter is what we create. Maybe companies should be measuring our output and not keeping track of our input. What would happen if you ran a company based on that idea? What would that look like?

The Scope of the Problem

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you: teaching requires long hours.  

The BBC reports that in Britain, teachers work between 55.2-63.3 hours per week, a number that includes teaching time, in-school non-teaching work, and work that gets taken home.  The Guardian more or less echoes this view, with teachers responding that they frequently work 8-10 hours a day, plus time during evenings and weekends.  And the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and ­Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers makes the case that teachers in that province work an average of 60.8 hours per week, 10 hours more than the general population of professional workers.

Any teacher has probably heard many a humble-brag along these lines.  The comment, “I spent my entire weekend marking…!” serves at once as a complaint, a brag, and a reinforcement of the narrative: good teachers work long hours.

I can recall, early in my career, a senior leader of mine telling me that the only way to teach well is to “skip watching the late show”; if you had an evening to yourself, you couldn’t be a very effective teacher.

What’s to Be Done?

Planet Money offers an interesting, if cautionary, tale.  They profile practices in the tech world where output can be measured, and tentatively conclude that the results of your work matter more than the time spent doing it.  Sounds reasonable, but as I’ve argued before, in many fields – schooling one of them – it is hard to develop an easy measurable metric for the value of a teacher’s work.

That need not mean we abandon the notion of valuing teachers by their results entirely; there are lots of ways we can reward effectiveness and discourage merely “spending time.”

How?  Three Humble Proposals:

1. Let’s change the conversation in schools.  Let’s reduce the number of times we praise faculty for merely being there, and find more and more interesting ways to reward the fruits of their labour.

2. Speaking of which, let’s move towards a more evidence-based practice.  We’re not going to be able to measure lots and lots of important aspects of a teacher’s day, but we can start looking for some.  The challenge of measuring our effectiveness is central to any improvement regime we want to make.  And evidence can come in lots of forms.  Let’s think broadly about this important aspect of perpetual betterment.

3. Let’s focus on what really matters.  I’ve written before about the need for priorities in schooling.  We too often think changing the carpet can achieve results.  The problem: these less-than-effective-efforts all take time.  Imagine we could simply stop doing some of the things that don’t matter much – how much time could we free up? 

Teaching will always be a difficult job – what’s required is infinitely complex.  But surely we can stop thinking that effective teachers are merely the ones who work longest, or who take home the biggest bags of marking.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

Testing, Testing…

Educational research is at once deserving and undeserving of its bad reputation.  Deserving because much of it has been weak.  But undeserving because the most unfortunate practices in schooling – teaching to various “learning styles,” for example – became entrenched because of a near-complete absence of research or critical scrutiny.  The problem of weak educational research is not to retreat to a position of less research, but more – and better – research endeavours.

That’s hard to do.  Teachers are busy and good research is hard.  But the good folks at NPR’s Planet Money recently cast light on a technique commonly used in some fields but not commonly enough used in schooling: A/B testing.

A/B testing is a way of comparing two possibilities to find out which one is better.  Clickbait websites like Buzzfeed will test out many different versions of the same headline.  Each new version generates data about what is most attractive to readers.  And within a few, or a few dozen, A/B tests, they have the most effective version.

Sure, Buzzfeed is a low-brow media outlet and schooling is an important social good.  But the model of A/B testing offers a form of accessible research model that nearly all teachers can use.

Imagine using A/B testing to compare simple-but-critical things like rubrics, assignment sheets, and classroom layouts.  Or more complex areas of practice, like writing instruction. One section of your course does peer editing, one does not.  Or instructional methods: cooperative learning versus a mix of direct instruction and guided practice?  What’s the difference in the outcome?

As well, A/B testing addresses the important question of magnitude.  Because our students get older, they will always appear more capable in June than they did in September.  Teachers often conclude that it was the effect of the class that caused the change.  It might be, but then maybe the students just got more capable as they aged a year.

In order to know, we need to compare one method of teaching to another to know which one worked best (as John Hattie famously pointed out).  A/B testing is perfect for such a program.  It allows us to see not just what worked, but what was optimal for student achievement.

Large scale educational testing is still critical.  We will always need the kind of authority that only large scale research endeavours can bring.  But A/B testing offers a model of in-school research, flexible enough to be scaled to a single classroom or a whole school, that keeps us engaged in the process of perpetual betterment that is so critical to the long term success of schooling and education.

If High Expectations Can Get the Blind to See, What Could They Do in Our Schools?

Arnie Boldt must know the value of high expectations.  Injured in an auger accident at the age of three, he lost his right leg.  This loss did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest athletes in Canada’s history, in a seemingly improbable event no less: high jump.  Over his career, he won seven gold medals and one silver in high jump, setting more records than this space has room for.

Invisibilia, NPR’s newest science-themed podcast, recently explored the remarkable case of Daniel Kish.  Kish, blind since the age of 13 months, trained himself to use the clicking of his mouth to echolocate objects in his environment.  Kish sometimes rides a bicycle to show the amazing capacity of his talent.  He has dedicated his life to teaching the blind to, as some might say, “see” through echolocation and lead lives with more possibilities.

These examples are remarkable outliers, of course, but they establish something of critical and generalized importance: our expectations shape our possibilities.  Expectations we place on ourselves and those placed on us by others.  When we convince people they cannot do something, it acts as a barrier to their achievement.  When we act as though great things are possible, they often are.

Nowhere is this more important than in schools, where our youngest members of society often decide what constellations of possibilities to explore.  Schools have a key role to play in fostering a mindset of possibility, not unlike the growth mindset for which Carol Dweck has argued persuasively.  It is in schools where young people decide to push themselves – or, too often, not.

High expectations are communicated in many ways.  Shopworn posters line many school hallways and libraries, exhorting students to reach their potential.  Good as far as they go, but likely more powerful are the underlying messages broadcast to young people in our language, in our actions, and in our subtle overtures.  A student who thinks a teacher does not care is likely to find reason to disengage, too.  But teachers can also act as Chief Encouragement Officers of their classrooms, raising possibilities for lifelong engagement.

The importance of expectation-raising is probably especially true for groups of students who graduate at lesser rates than average, enter university at lower rates, and find fewer doors open as adults.  Even if talent is distributed equally across all races, cultures, genders, and other categories, the experience of life shows some groups do better than others.  The difference in outcomes, both in school and in life, are surely sensitive to the kinds of expectations students have of the limits of their possibilities.

I don’t know Arnie Boldt, but as one of my professors used to say, I would love to meet the physical education teacher who first worked with him.  Even if the drive to jump came from Boldt himself, it would have taken an act of pure faith to foster his natural talent.

The lesson: if determination and grit and, yes, high expectations, can allow Boldt to high jump 2.08m (!) and Kish to echolocate his way to blind bicycling, what could be done with students in our schools?  And more troubling, what might not be done, what achievements and positive life outcomes might be missed, when we fail to set expectations beyond our students’ view of what is possible?

While more – much more – than high expectations are necessary to improve schooling outcomes, the most vulnerable groups of students in our schools desperately need adults to encourage the visualization of a future that right now seems improbable.  The capacity for human ingenuity cannot be known in advance; we shouldn’t behave as though it is.

Why You Might Not Want An Innovative School for Your Kids

If Hospitals Were Like Schools…

Imagine a visit to the emergency room that went something like this.  Worried you might be having a heart attack, you complain of chest pains.  Instead of using the usual protocols, the attending physician says, “Yes, thousands of other doctors have had good results using what’s tried and true, but it’s not my style.  I’ve developed my own way.”  A savvy patient would be worried; while this doctor’s approach might be better than the existing protocol, it is far more likely to be inferior.  Adopting a new approach in the absence of evidence is dangerous.  Yet, this is exactly what we force teachers to do in our schools – adopt idiosyncratic and untested ideas.

Or rather, it is what many would have us do.  If we are to keep improving our schooling outcomes, we need to keep what is working.  The imperative to innovate in our schools is seductive, but we run the risk of changing what already works in favour of untested hypotheses.  Looking back over the history of schooling, we can see a lot of under-evidenced reforms.  Multiple intelligences come to mind.  As do learning styles.  The history of schooling is too often the frequent adoption of fads unsupported by evidence.  This amounts to the worst of all worlds: ignoring the systematic evidence in favour of the gleaming one-off study.  Or adopting teaching models that have no empirical evidence at all.

Teachers who resist these ideas are often labelled as lazy or troublesome, or worse of all, acting without their students’  best interest in mind.  But educational reformers, consultants, and political actors often label experimental ideas as certain truths.  In fact, teachers are often wise to approach educational innovation with some skepticism.

Isn’t Educational Research Bad? Hardly.

Part of the blame rests in the common wisdom that educational research is bad.  Any field has its share of studies with spurious conclusions and shoddy methodology.  But we should not allow the bad to obscure the research that is productive and helpful.  The best of it examines studies in the same way medical researchers do; while achieving a double-blind study in schooling research is likely impossible, thorough meta-analyses of decades of research approaches the kind of systematic understanding we rely on in health sciences.

This is the view of Canadian-trained New Zealander John Hattie, whose work – most notably, his Visible Learning project – systematically analyzes educational research and provides welcome insight into the sometimes confusing results of studies.  Not unlike nutrition research, individual studies need to be understood as part of a longer story.  Some studies say one thing; others disagree.  Meta-analyses like Hattie’s bring together thousands of research results involving millions of students to provide a good, if provisional, answer to the question: what works best in the classroom?

That language is important.  The question is not: will students learn if a teacher uses a particular model of teaching, but will they learn more using this model than if we had used another?  If there are no gains to be made over existing practice, we harm our students.  By way of small example: Hattie’s work suggests direct instruction – a teacher-centred, traditional version of teaching –  is more effective than most other teaching practices. And yet teachers have been told for at least a generation or two that direct instruction does not work.

Schools Are Already Good, But They Can Get Better

Canadian schooling has excellent outcomes – the OECD PISA results are a testament to that.  This is not to say that improvements cannot be made; they can and should.  (Schooling outcomes for aboriginal Canadians, for example, demand urgent reform.)  But if schooling is to improve further, the answer cannot lie in adopting just any notion, no matter how interesting it seems.  We can hardly afford to scale up ideas that, while different, are not improvements over current practice.  In schooling, as in medicine, what is different should only be adopted if it is demonstrably better.

(Photo: Robb North)

‘Get Sober and Stay Sober’

The late Jacques Barzun was a hero of mine. I discovered two of his books, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, and Teacher in America, while in education school. He was a witty and firebrand salve to what I then saw as the well-intentioned silliness of much of the curriculum.  He argued for literacy, that reading was central to knowledge, and that complexity always trumped superficiality.

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t find myself wondering if my actions would please the old man.

While I think his arguments would carry more weight with empirical evidence (a project that, while imperfect, is gaining steam), I have not really lost my love for Barzun.  Of course, having spent years in the field and earned a PhD performing social science research, I think he would say I’ve become brainwashed – or, as he liked to say, brain soiled.

His frequent writing on teaching and learning revealed many passions. Two that persist in my mind are his hatred of verbal inflation (“teaching” becomes “education,” for example), and his insistence that schooling be concerned with clear, achievable aims.

In his own words, as perfect as always:

“Teaching is the art of the possible… Give up utopianism, get sober and stay sober, and think of all the released time at your disposal, clear of committee meetings and the reading of reports.  Think of all the restored energy, free from wild or platitudinous guidelines.  The serious energy crisis of our day is that with so much human effort expended, the nation gets so little work done – in business, in government, in the schools.  We are busy bodies and low achievers.” (Jaques Barzun, Begin Here, p. 109)

(Image by Adrian Pike)

Making Water Flow Uphill?

“In engineering, control exists in adjustment to natural law. It does not mean making nature do our bidding. We do not, for example, dig channels in the expectation that water will flow uphill; we do not put kerosene to put out a fire… with respect to physical phenomena, control involves the selection of means which are appropriate to the nature of the phenomena with which we are concerned. In the human field, the situation is the same, but we often dig channels to make water flow uphill. Many of our attempts to control behaviour, far from representing selective adaptations, are in direct violation of human nature. They consist in trying to make people behave as we wish without concern for natural law. Yet we can no more expect to achieve desired results through inappropriate action in this field than in engineering.” –  Douglas McGregor (1960), The Human Side of Enterprisep. 8-9.

How many school administrators, in their interactions with teachers, are acting as if they can make water flow uphill?  

How many teachers, in their interactions with students, do the same?

What would a science of performance, that took into account the human side of schooling, look like?

That Artful Science

One of the more important developments of the past generation in this and other fields is the insistence that we get better at what we do; further, to do so it would be a good idea to know more about the basic science behind our work; and that practitioners should be supplied with the fruits of that scientific research.  Sometimes this is called Knowledge Mobilization (or, in some fields, Research Translation, a not-dissimilar idea).  The problem: there has been only a tiny uptake of scientific practices in a lot of fields, chief among them education.

Daniel Willingham, a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist, represents what can be possible when thoughtful experts produce clear and usable guidelines for daily practice  His book, Why Don’t Students Like School? is a superb piece of work; it shows how research can meaningfully inform very practical decisions in schools, without being either overly diluted nor overly technical.

He is centred on a fairly conventional view of what schools are and what they can achieve.   He is not prone to fad; he insists on evidence for his claims.  As such, he has argued against a set of likely untrue ideas about cognition and learning – learning styles for one, bless him – and argues that many of the problems related to learning (particularly reading) are related to a clack of subject knowledge.  He provides a compelling and thorough account of the challenges of working memory, something that many teachers have been told is important but without much explanation.  His clarity and evidence is a welcome antidote to the esoteric products of many publishing houses.

Perhaps most admirable is his scientific worldview – without such a view, the other fruits would not be possible.  Just listen to how he describes the role of science in improving schools:

Education is similar to other fields of study in that scientific findings are useful but not decisive.  An architect will use principles of physics in designing an office building, but she will also be guided by aesthetic principles that are outside of science’s realm.  Similarly, knowledge of cognitive science can be helpful in planning what you teach and how, but it is not the whole story.


Not the whole story – but I see two ways that cognitive science can be useful to teachers.  First, knowledge of cognitive science can help teachers balance conflicting concerns.  Classrooms, after all, are not just cognitive places.  They are emotional places, social places, motivational places, and so on.


Second, I see principles of cognitive science as useful boundaries to educational practice.  Principles of physics do not prescribe for a civil engineer exactly how to build a bridge, but they let him predict how it is likely to perform if he builds it. Similarly, cognitive scientific principles do not prescribe how to teach, but they can predict how much your students are likely to learn.  If you follow these principles, you maximize the chances your students will flourish.


Education is the passing of accumulated wisdom of generations to children, and we passionately believe in its importance because we know it holds the promise of a better life for each child, and for us all collectively.  It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children… Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.

– Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, pp. 164-5



Why Changing the Carpets Will Not Improve Schools

Abbey Lanes https://www.flickr.com/photos/abbylanes/3335173723/

We all want (even) better schools.  But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much.  Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.

“We should have a later start to the school day”

“We have to teach 21st century skills”

“We need more creativity in our classrooms”

… And so on.  Some, or all, might be valuable.  None might be.  But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”

In other words, to use the phrase of John Hattie, which change has the best impact?

Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools.  Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…

one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.


Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive.  The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms.  But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn.  “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit.  That’s what you took away?’  The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47.  As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)

I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us.  Our best systematic research efforts are underway.  The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success.  And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher.  These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.

But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools.  We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size.  We have only so much time.

I’m Curious:

How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?  

Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1? 

And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?

What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.