female teacher in the classroom

Should teachers know the settled science?

According to the latest education research, teachers are overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed by the need to know the settled science.

Research suggests that before the pandemic threw everything on its head, Australian teachers worked 1.5 times the hours they are paid to do and spent less than half their working hours in the classroom. 

If this isn’t odd enough, they spent most of their time on admin tasks. It is not as if they were preparing for the next class, even if parents might expect it.

Overworked teachers are expected to use research and evidence-based initiatives to improve school performance.

The Australian government wants a national evidence base to inform policy development and improve education outcomes in early childhood and school education; that is a long-winded way of asking teachers to be better with evidence. 

Here is what education researchers at the Monash Q Project say about using research evidence in the classroom

By reading and using the latest research, teachers can improve their knowledge and teaching skills concerning a number of everyday issues. These range from student well-being and school engagement to subject expertise and different teaching approaches, including online learning. But using research is complex and takes time to do well – time that teachers just don’t seem to have.

Let’s look at one of the benefits of keeping up with the latest research, subject expertise.

students making a presentation in the classroom
Photo by Jizhidexiaohailang on Unsplash

In 2020 there were roughly 25 million students at senior high schools in China.


Subject expertise

I started my undergraduate degree a long time ago when big hair, shoulder pads and Spandau Ballet were the cultural norms.

My environmental science degree that began in 1979 covered most of the core subjects from geology and sedimentology to sustainable development and included a lot of ecological science, which became my profession. 

Back then, ecology was still young and growing fast with all the associated pains. It was just getting its evolutionary biology credentials in place to better understand individuals, populations and communities as the subtitle of the standard textbook used to collate understanding of the subject.

Since those days the subject has grown in scope and especially in volume. We now know so much more about how organisms interact with each other and the environment. 

But I was fortunate during my career. My workday required that I keep up with the research on ecological topics. As a researcher and later as a science advisor, new knowledge must inch understanding forward to what is already known. 

But it is tough to keep up.

Back in the early 1980s, I wrote a review on the ecology of woodlice as a prelude to my PhD research. It got a nod from my supervisors partly because the review was thorough, citing over 200 references, each one hunted down in libraries or by direct correspondence with the authors.

Review work was a fundamental skill learnt right at the start of my research. The logic is to establish the settled science before adding to it. Knowing what humanity already knows helps from wasting effort reinventing the wheel.

Should I repeat that review today, nearly 40 years later, it would be very different in both output and process. 

Technology means I can search rapidly through the available research evidence. If I type ‘woodlice ecology’ into Google scholar and restrict returns to review articles—the articles that summarise the primary research similar to my 1980s effort—the search returns over 100 citations since 2018. 

Over 100 review articles suggest a lot has happened since my efforts at a summary of the subject. One is that ‘woodlouse ecology’ is now a topic split into many sub-topics worthy of review. It also suggests that the primary research publications, experiments’ descriptions, observations, and theory run into thousands of individual papers.

Such a volume of research material is daunting.

It takes at least 15 minutes to scan a research publication and to understand what was done, how and why—longer for reviews. So even with modern cataloguing (Mendeley, Zotero) and paperless office tools (MarginNote, Liquidtext, Readwise), I need at least 24 hours of non-stop reading to get across the content of those 100 reviews.

If I went to the primary sources, that might become 1,000 articles and at least a month of full 8 hour days if I work fast without a break.

This is just to establish the content.

Then I have to sort through and evaluate the conclusions of the research. Evaluation needs a reliable evidence hierarchy and a way of recording the relevance and quality of each review. 

Even if I use a database to assist with this consolidation exercise (Notion, Obsidian, Roam Research), several more days of work are required to review and decide on the settled science on terrestrial isopods.

Technology saves me time but the sheer volume of research on an obscure group of animals that not many people know about and have little relevance to humanity takes months of dedicated effort.

Today, a fresh-faced PhD student has a vast amount of reading to do just to scope the content of their subject, even one as obscure as woodlouse ecology.

a closeup of a woodlouse
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay 

Woodlice can detect daylength that allows them to reproduce in the spring and summer months when their young are most likely to survive.


Teachers do not have the time 

No surprise then that the Monash researchers found that teachers “did not have adequate time to engage with research” (76%) and struggled to “keep up with new research” (76%), doing it mostly on their own time. 

Assuming ‘keeping up’ with research means they read widely on the topics they teach they could only cover a fraction of what is known. And only one in four teachers find the time.

More worrying was that teachers also said that they lacked the necessary skills to understand the research. At least half of the teachers didn’t know where to look (55%) or how to interpret findings (64%) or judge the quality of research (49%). 

These are disturbing numbers.


Where to look—in reviews

As the woodlouse anecdote tells us, time constraints make it impossible to look for evidence from the source. 

The primary literature (the research papers describing the experiments and observations of scientists) runs into the thousands for even a narrow, well-defined subject. 

A topic like ‘healthy diet’ or ‘climate change adaptation’ or ‘fertiliser efficiency’ would run into tens of thousands of articles.

It is way more efficient to search for published reviews of topics. This is quickly done through a constrained search using Google Scholar and would usually list a more manageable number of peer-reviewed publications.

But a list is just the start. What happens next is more important.

How to choose among the many articles which ones to spend time understanding.

This is really the ‘where to look’ problem.


How to interpret research

Reviews are an excellent place to start because they are designed to achieve interpretation. Done well, they take a research question and sift the available information for its level of inference—how real and relevant it is.

Skills in interpretation are 

  1. asking a good question—what exactly do you want to know 
  2. Placing the question into context—why do you need to know the answer

Good questions are precise. 

If the question is too broad, it is hard to gather the information and pick the relevant details.

If the question is deep, then there is a risk that, as yet, there is no evidence available to provide an answer.

Assuming the question is answerable because it is pitched at a level that will draw on research evidence without exhausting the reviewer or the evidence then comes the context.

What is the reason for asking the question?

Capturing the context is the key skill necessary to interpret research evidence. What do you need to know and why must be clear before any review can make sense or be useful.

However, knowing the context is not enough because not all evidence is equal.


Quality of research

Some researchers are world-class and produce outstanding science. They ask good and relevant questions, follow the scientific method to generate evidence and are iterative. They follow evidence with more questions to probe deeper.

These researchers tend to be good scholars—they know their stuff. This means they are not just smart, but they have read widely on and around their specialism, talked with fellow scientists in their field, and also have a deep knowledge of history. They know who the past giants were and how to stand on their shoulders.

Quality research reflects these traits.

It is thorough, explains how the scientific method is used, has great experimental design, uses statistics intelligently and can be described mathematically. Research results are easily put into context so it is easy to see how they advance knowledge.

An experienced observer can pick these qualities right away.

There are also tools to assist.

Evidence hierarchies are used to rate the quality of research based on the approach used to generate the evidence.

Here is the one we use for our evidence reviews.

alloporus environmental evidence hierarchy

It would be great if quality assurance were just about figuring out the research method because all researchers are world-class. 

They are not.

Not all researchers know what they are doing. Some ask dumb questions, fail to apply the scientific method correctly, misunderstand statistics, allow errors to persist, or some combination of these mistakes.

So quality varies because of human frailty.

Photo by CX Insight on Unsplash

Around 8.7 million graduated from Chinese higher education institutions in 2020.


How much subject expertise does a teacher need?

It is both unnecessary and unreasonable to expect teachers to be subject experts. Indeed they should be broader than deeper for most science disciplines with a sound understanding of the scientific method and the skills of the healthy sceptic.

But if I had only the content knowledge of ecology I learned in my undergraduate years, then that would not be enough for modern science. A whole ecology-related discipline of biodiversity has emerged since I graduated, not to mention all that woodlouse research.

It is enough to know the key advances in the subject, especially where this involves the arrival of new niches, theories and controversies, plus a generous set of examples or case studies to make the content interesting.

Fortunately, there are review journals that specialise in summaries of this type. Trends in Ecology & Evolution works for the ecologists.


What sustainably FED suggests

Most parents want a positive, high-quality education experience for their school-aged kids. They want them to learn and be prepared for higher education or the workforce. Presumably, they also want them to be up to date.

Shortage of time and skills means only a third of schoolteachers regularly use research (37%) or university-based guidance (30%) in their teaching, even though they know that “using research well matters when it comes to doing a good job and supporting their professionalism”. Although only a third managed to use research regularly, nearly three-quarters of teachers surveyed believed research use was “critical to being a good educator”.

It is unrealistic and unfair to ask teachers to be across all the latest research or even the settled science. The volume of information that is now readily accessible makes keeping up a huge challenge. 

We could help with some skills to interpret better what is available and become healthy sceptics.  And then they could pass those skills on to their students.

Skills to sort the facts from fiction are what all parents should want for their kids.


Hero image from photo by Max Fischer on Pexels

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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