12 studies of Christmas

Posted on 8 January 2019

Jonathan Haslam, Director, IEE

Each year, we publish the #12studiesofxmas. They’re not necessarily the most important research studies we’ve reported over the past year, but they’re the ones that have caught our attention. Looking back over previous years, there are some common themes that start to crop up again and again.

  • There are some relatively small changes that can make a difference and are probably worth doing. They’re sometimes around the periphery of what schools do, and so that can mean that they get forgotten.
  • Scale-up is difficult. Interventions that make a positive difference in small studies find it harder to make a difference at scale. This might be because larger studies tend to be more robust, but it might also be because the further away practitioners are from the source, the more likely it is that the “active ingredients” become diluted.
  • It’s difficult to make changes that improve the core activity of teaching and learning. Or at least, there are no approaches that are guaranteed to work.

That said, here are my favourites from this past year:

1.     Vision is important

A lot of people get excited about spending money on technology, but there’s one simple piece of technology that many children need to be able to access their learning. Glasses. Making sure that pupils can see properly in the classroom seems like something we should have mastered by now. Yet, particularly for poorer students, it can still be a barrier to learning.

More evidence in favour of free eye tests and glasses at school
The impact of wearing glasses on early literacy

2.     Age and ADHD

Children who are the youngest in their classroom are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than their older classmates. This review that we covered showed that this was the case no matter which country you live in, and a further study a few weeks later reinforced the findings.

3.     Fighting fit

A couple of disappointing results for interventions aiming to improve children’s fitness and reduce levels of obesity. Disappointing, because both were thorough, intensive interventions. If you’re thinking of doing something similar in your school, these studies suggest that making a difference won’t be easy.

Can schools help prevent childhood obesity?
Effectiveness of the Healthy Lifestyles Programme (HeLP) to prevent obesity in UK primary-school children

4.     Improving self-regulation

A review, and a couple of studies, showed that interventions to improve children’s self-regulation can be effective, particularly for younger children.

Self-regulation intervention improves school readiness
A wide range of approaches may help improve pupils’ ability to manage behaviours and emotions
Parenting app has positive impact on children’s development

5.     Shock result for attendance awards

I wouldn’t have guessed that rewarding good attendance would make future attendance worse, but that’s what happened in this study. The authors suggest some reasons why it might have happened. Researchers are sometimes criticised for researching things that appear “obvious”, but this is one reason why it can be worth doing. Similarly, are there initiatives that are introduced in schools that will “obviously” work, so there’s no point in evaluating whether they do? Maybe it’s best to check.

Surprise rewards for good attendance had a surprising consequence

6.     Live theatre

Another one I wouldn’t have predicted. Going to a live theatre performance was noticeably better than going to watch a filmed version of the play. Aside from that being a bit of a sickener for National Theatre Live, it’s nice to have a positive study about the value of experiencing human artistic endeavours.

The benefits of theatre field trips

7.     Getting to know you

Children who stayed with the same teacher for two years out-performed children who didn’t. I suppose it goes to show the importance of teacher-pupil relationships, at least in primary school. (In previous years we’ve seen research showing that moving to a more secondary-style approach in primary school, with specialist teachers of subjects, has the opposite effect.)

The academic benefits of pupil–teacher familiarity

8.     More effect size news

As we accumulate more studies, we can see that simplistic comparisons of effect sizes are misleading. Whether an effect size of, say, +0.4, is important or not depends on the study, the measures used, the students involved, etc. Maybe soon we will have some useful tables showing the kind of impact that is important in different situations. But not quite yet.

How much is enough?
Effect Sizes: How Big is Big?

9.     Class clowns aren’t funny

Studies that look at the social relationships within the classroom are always interesting. Those social profiles and networks are important when looking at the likely future of pupils, and what can be done to help them.

Class clowns are no joke

10.  An unfortunate record?

Ignoring for a moment the argument that all of the money spent on education is a giant experiment, the $575 million spent by the Gates Foundation to improve teacher performance is the most expensive trial we have ever reported on. And it had no impact on pupil outcomes. Future programmes aiming to make such wide scale change would be well-advised to read this before starting work.

$575 million programme has no impact on pupil outcomes

11.  IPEELL scale up

The original, smaller trial of this intervention had a huge impact. The scale-up had less (though still useful) impact, but it’s an interesting case study in how difficult it is to make a big difference across a lot of schools.

IPEELL writing intervention finds scale-up challenging
Why you must beware of enormous effect sizes

12.  Say hello to a New Year of success

This clever little study showed the way that first impressions can make a difference. For teachers and students who were struggling, introducing a process for getting everyone ready to learn at the start of the lesson paid real dividends.

Say hello, wave goodbye to behaviour problems

That’s it for last year. Who knows what we will find out this year? We’ll continue to trawl for interesting research to bring you. Please subscribe here to receive our fortnightly update and see what we have found. And if you are ever looking for research on a particular subject, please consider searching our archive at beib.org.uk. We are now closing in on 800 studies and reviews, each tagged with, hopefully, useful keywords, or accessible by the search function.


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