Sometimes you can sum up a conclusion of a study with a simple: we don’t know for sure

There is a new working paper by the OECD on teaching strategies. By combining the data of TALIS and PISA the researchers hope to be able to give practical advice to both teachers and policy makers.

Check the abstract:

This report explores the relationships between mathematics teachers’ teaching strategies and student learning outcomes in eight countries, using information from the TALIS-PISA link database. First, the study seeks to understand the shaping of teaching strategies by examining the way teachers use different classroom practices and the prevalence of these strategies among teachers across schools and countries. As a result of this exploration, three teaching strategies are put forward: active learning, cognitive activation and teacher-directed instruction. Second, the report aims at identifying the teaching strategies that are positively associated with student skill acquisition. Third and finally, it analyses the contributions of the school and the classroom settings, the teacher background and beliefs, to the implementation of the teaching strategies found to be positively related to student learning outcomes. Results show that cognitive activation strategies and, to a lesser extent, active learning strategies, have a strong association with students’ achievement in mathematics. However, this association seems to be weaker in schools with socio-economically disadvantaged students. Also, teachers from the same school tend to share the same approach to teaching, which indicates that these teaching strategies are part of a “teaching culture” within the school. Teacher self-efficacy and teacher collaboration are shown to be the factors more often associated with the implementation of cognitive activation strategies and active learning. Following on from these findings, the paper concludes with a series of policy recommendations.

Ok, fine, but when I checked the conclusions in the working paper I did made me think: wait a minute:

It’s a long excerpt, so bear with me (bold by me):

Which teaching strategies are associated with improved mathematics performances? The findings show that, overall, a frequent use of the cognitive activation strategy, which stimulates student critical thinking, problem-solving and decision making, is associated with higher mathematics performances (see Section 3). This association is particularly strong in Australia, Latvia, Portugal, and Romania. These types of practices encourage students to solve problems in more than one way, explain their thinking on complex problems and be innovative in their work.

On the other hand, in most countries in this study, no positive association was found between teacher- directed instruction and student achievement in mathematics. A possible explanation for this lack of association is that teacher-directed strategies are more often used with low-performing students (Echazarra et al., 2016). However, it is important to note that the implementation of teacher-directed strategies should not necessarily be interpreted as something negative. Presenting clear instructions, or providing a summary of previous lessons, are an important component of a successful learning climate. Indeed, a previous study conducted by the OECD has shown that teacher-directed practices are positively associated with the likelihood of answering easy items on the PISA 2012 mathematics test (Echazarra et al., 2016). Since this study shows that, when teacher-directed instruction becomes the most frequently used type of instruction it may have unfavourable consequences on student learning, the issue may be for the teacher to find the right balance: when, in what way and with whom is it appropriate to use this type of practice?

Finally, the association between the implementation of active learning practices and student mathematics achievement does not show a clear pattern across countries. In Australia and Portugal there is a strong negative association between active learning and student achievement, while Mexico, Romania and Spain show a clear positive association. The reason for these differences might be that, even if teachers report implementing an active learning strategy, the way they implement it may vary considerably across countries. More research is need at the classroom level to observe and explore the difference in the implementation of teaching strategies that a self-reporting survey such as TALIS is not able to provide.

Finland and Singapore did not show a significant association between any teaching strategy and student mathematics outcomes. At the same time, Romania and Mexico are the countries that more frequently engage in these teaching strategies and exhibit a positive association with student outcomes when applying active learning strategies (both Mexico and Romania) and cognitive activation strategies (Romania only).

This poses the question: why are Mexico and Romania not among of the top performing systems? One possibility is that, although teaching strategies are a crucial element for improving student outcomes, they are not the only variable that matters in this association. Student outcomes are a complex product of student, teacher and school factors. This analysis has isolated a single variable – teaching strategies – but there may be other factors not taken into account by the model use here that may overshadow the overall contribution of teaching strategies in the aforementioned countries.

Isn’t this a long way of telling us: we don’t really know?

The biggest insight seems to be:

Since this study shows that, when teacher-directed instruction becomes the most frequently used type of instruction it may have unfavourable consequences on student learning, the issue may be for the teacher to find the right balance: when, in what way and with whom is it appropriate to use this type of practice?

Correct, and this is something that both cognitive psychology and educational sciences have been showing over and over again.

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2 responses to “Sometimes you can sum up a conclusion of a study with a simple: we don’t know for sure

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