Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Research

How to read a research paper

After Ben Goldacre’s intervention about the need for greater evidence in education,  I thought it best to speak to someone who reads a great deal of medical research for a living and knows a bit about the research process too. Paul Simpson is the Deputy Editor of PLOS Medicine and a former researcher at Cambridge and Birmingham. As I peppered him with questions over what should have been a very relaxing lunch about a year ago, he recommended that I read Trisha Greenhalgh’s ‘How To Read a Paper’. Targeted at medical and nursing students, it gives the basics  of evidence-based medicine, the issues to consider when reading research papers, and the arguments for and against an evidence-based approach.

I believe that the science of finding, evaluating and implementing the results of medical research can, and often does, make patient care more objective, more logical and more cost-effective…Nevertheless, I believe that when applied in a vacuum (that is, in the absence of common sense and without regard to the individual circumstances and priorities of the person being offered treatment or to the complex nature of clinical practice and policymaking), ‘evidence-based’ decision-making is a reductionist process with real potential for harm. p. xvii

One clear line of argument made by Greenhalgh’s is that the research used is ‘research on populations to inform decisions on individuals.’ As stated near the end of the book:

But as many others before me have pointed out, a patient is not a mean or a median but an individual, whose illness inevitably has unique and unclassifiable features. Not only does over-standardisation make the care offered less aligned to individual needs, it also de-skills the practitioner so that he or she loses the ability to customise and personalise care (or, in the case of recently trained clinicians, fails to gain that ability in the first place. p,236

This is an important point to remember as we think about using research in our classrooms/schools. One useful comparison is  student baseline data. The baseline scores give an idea of what someone with the same score might achieve, but it does not tell us about the individual.  Although not aimed at the education sector, with the growing call for research to inform/influence decision-making on pedagogy/pastoral care and well-being, it should be read, especially if you really want to ask some interesting questions at the forthcoming ResearchEd conference or your next inset day when a speaker is parachuted in and starts talking about the research papers they have used as the basis for their talk.

Greenhalgh provides a number of checklists to help you on your way and the chapters provide a variety of nuggets and fascinating stories. I found the diagram below to be particularly interesting.

Simple Hierarchy of Evidence

Simple Hierarchy of Evidence p.18

Note that anecdote, case studies and personal opinion are still useful despite the lack of quality when compared to other forms of evidence.

The book also considers the issues involved in applying research in the ‘real world’, recognising that possessing evidence is not enough because the difficult job of influencing/changing behaviour has to occur (your habits and that of other people).  The comparison with ‘eLearning’/ICT in schools is instructive. As many have pointed out (often in favour for research in education), all the new tech (iPads/IWBs/VLEs) in the world is not going to create change by itself.  If the use of research evidence in schools is not planned and thought about in a sensible way, especially when it comes to engaging colleagues and being realistic about timeframes, I can foresee that the ‘research champions’ and their projects for change may look like many of the ‘eLearning’/ICT projects in schools. Ignored, unloved and an easy target for when the next ‘revolution’ in education occurs.

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The Blind Men and the Elephant – the role of research in the history classroom

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”


The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”


The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”


The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”



And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

As teachers, we have a tendency to be on a ‘Grail Quest’. One approach or activity that will make such a difference that it everyone else will think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ when they see it (or hear about it). A new spin on analysing sources. A novel approach to significance. Technology as the saviour. The forces pushing and prompting us to go searching are immense, and the appeal is great, yet in our pursuit of teaching and learning salvation we can forget what caused us to start the search in the first place – our students and our context – and focus instead on the quest itself.

The latest ‘Grail Quest’ in education is the role of research and how it can guide us to the most efficient and effective practises. John Hattie’s analysis of educational research has gathered a lot of attention in part due to the emphasis on feedback in lessons and also because of his advocacy of ‘visible learning’. Psychologists such Carol Dweck on ‘Growth Mindsets’ and Cognitive Psychologists such as Robert Bjork on ‘Desirable Difficulties’ have indicated new ways to think about learning and student motivation. Other educators are focusing on the role of knowledge and using the work of E D Hirsch to justify a particular style of teaching (and sometimes to show that other forms are really damaging to our students).

Using these authors and the wealth of research is undoubtedly useful. It makes you reflect carefully on your own assumptions and what you are doing with your Y9 lesson on the Corn Laws on a Thursday morning. The danger however, with drawing upon these sources is that many of us appear to become nothing more than advocates for a particular approach. Armed with this new knowledge and the courage of our convictions, there is a danger of falling into the trap that the particular adopted approach is now the answer for all historical learning and educational problems. We seem to forget that it was a particular contextual problem that led us to wondering (and wandering).

One way to avoid the practise of groping around, seizing what is in front of you and using it as the basis for claims about teaching and learning is to do some research yourself. The academic Stuart Hall talks about comprehending the complexity of a situation so that you can make an effective change, and it is this desire for wisdom, rather than knowledge, that has made me by become a MSc student again (part-time). The desire for wisdom is practical (phronesis); comprehending the issue at stake will allow me to make an effective change for my students and the school. This is rather different to the argument that knowledge by itself can make a difference because as we can see from the blind men, poor choices can be made when based on (limited) knowledge.

Aside from all the reading, the best part of this process is getting to really think about Learning and Teaching with a group of other History teachers. The fact that we all come from different types of school and face unique challenges is fascinating and humbling at the same time. It offers a clear reminder that a particular approach is just that and does not speak truth to all contexts.

This post in its original form was on the ThinkingHistory site in January but commitments over the year meant that the following posts I hoped to write did not materialise. However, I’ll be picking up issues of research sporadically over the next academic year as I complete my fieldwork. I hope you’ll join me as I study my elephant carefully and deliberately.

The MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford is designed for currently serving teachers. For more information about the course and how you can apply, please click the link:

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What makes great teaching? A response to the Sutton Trust report

I was asked to give my views on the Sutton Trust’s report ‘What makes great teaching?’ for a newspaper this week. This is the original text:

It is a useful summary if you are interested in teacher professional development and have not come across the research before. The six components of ‘great teaching’ highlighted should not be surprising yet I cannot help but feel that the nuance will get lost and the paper makes this mistake amid all its careful considerations. It cites Deborah Stipek’s research on grouping students by ability and states that such practices are ineffective. Yet, when examined in detail, Stipek’s paper does not suggest that grouping by ability is wrong but rather it is the teacher’s perception of the group that leads to varied results, especially for students in low ability groups. If the professional training suggested at the end of the paper is adopted, it would disturb teacher perceptions and therefore the students in these ability grouped classes would be taught appropriately and make expected progress.

This inconsistency does not mean a rejection of the recommendations. On the contrary, I hope it is rightly received as a mechanism to ask some serious questions about student learning and teacher professional development in all schools. My challenge to the Sutton Trust and the academic contributors is to be better ‘choice architects’. Yes, they do indeed point to ways forward for schools and leadership teams yet why not go one step further by making the research base of the paper available for free so schools can improve their professional development programmes? If they did this, they would remove a substantive barrier to teacher professional development in schools and fulfil the ‘quick win’ they identify at the end on the necessity to spread awareness of research on effective pedagogy. I am sure that this action would go some way to reducing the Sutton Trust’s identified gap of a year’s learning between poorer students with effective teachers and those with poorly performing teachers.

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Conspicuous consumption

Of the minority of teachers/educators on Twitter, there is even a smaller group who often talk about ‘research in education’  go to  many conferences to reinforce their credentials as knowledgeable teachers.  They retweet, favourite, blog & critique ‘research in education’ and sometimes, they may even use it in their teaching. They appear to be nothing more than conspicuous consumers.

This year, I am starting a graduate research project on how a ‘Mind, Brain & Education’ approach to curriculum planning and teaching in History can help students. Utilising cognitive psychology, behavioural economics & notions of good History teaching, I hope to explore how a subject focused approach can actually raise attainment and support school improvement.

A tall order. Yet, as I am fond of saying to my students, doing is better than just talking.


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