The uses and abuses of educational research

iStock_000005088343XSmallJere Brophy of Michigan State University suggests some general principles for interpreting and making use of educational research findings appropriately. Focusing specifically on research into “teacher effects” (how a teacher’s behavior affects student performance) he warns that data can be unintentionally misused unless its limitations are understood by educational administrators and teachers.

Brophy points out, that in the last 15 years, a large amount of research linking teacher behavior to student performance has been published. While a core of practical knowledge in this area is beginning to emerge, it has not yet been effectively interpreted and assembled into a useful bank of information for non-research oriented teachers and administrators. Brophy says that although research findings can serve practical purposes, there is, nevertheless, a real danger in interpreting research in too general or rigid a manner.

The practice of teaching, he contends, cannot be prescribed on the basis of research data alone because achievement gains (the focus of many research studies) should never be the only goal of teaching. Educational objectives, Brophy reminds us, should be formulated on the basis of moral, social and political values as well. No scientific evidence should take precedence over the thoughtful consideration of goals and priorities.

The study of teacher effects

Since most studies of “teacher effects” deal only with measurable, discrete behaviors, they are, necessarily, limited. They focus on the lower level skills such as memorization of facts. Few studies attempt to measure affective factors, higher level cognitive skills, or the quality of teaching. Current research in “teacher effects” tends also to clarify the difference between the least effective teachers and all the rest. Little information on differences between the vast majority of average teachers and outstanding teachers is available.

Brophy stresses that finding a relationship between teacher behavior and student performance does not imply that one is the cause of the other. Rather, any such relationship simply points out that these particular behaviors seem to occur together. What studies often do not take into account is that achievement may be caused by other factors as well, factors which may only be indirectly related to the teacher behavior that was the subject of the study.

Another weakness apparent in some studies is that the student population on which the study is based is too small to draw any reliable conclusions or is unusual and, therefore, not typical of the majority of elementary students in this country.

Research findings need to be carefully interpreted, and should not be translated directly into guidelines for practice. Brophy reminds us that there is often considerable disagreement about interpretation. However, research findings can indicate effective ways to achieve a specific educational objective.

The case for highly “interactive” teaching

A consistent body of data has developed around a few, well-researched teacher behaviors which show a strong correlation with gains in academic achievement.

Placing a high priority on achievement as a goal, with high but realistic expectations for student ability and teacher skill, and allocating most of the available time to academic tasks, is associated with high achievement gains.

Research also informs us that highly “interactive” teaching, in which teachers spend their time supplementing textbook materials by describing, demonstrating, clarifying, elaborating, questioning, and creating opportunities for students to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate their knowledge, leads to improved student achievement.

Classroom management techniques, such as whole class teaching, which enable students to spend more time on academic tasks, increases achievement. Techniques which structure information for students (organizing ideas and concepts and outlining objectives at the beginning of instructional units), have also been shown to increase memory and learning.

Foundation not prescription

If the emerging knowledge base is to be used wisely, Brophy asserts that further research should utilize current findings to develop educational diagnosis and treatment strategies. He recommends that teachers avoid committing themselves to any single approach. Instead, they should plan instruction by beginning with a clear set of objectives. Then, having surveyed existing methods and strategies, they should choose a “treatment of choice” for each specific set of circumstances.

Taken as a whole, these research findings, Brophy states, “have relevance and potential usefulness as a basis for developing prescriptions for practice, but valid use of the findings requires interpretation by educators who are knowledgeable about classroom functioning and mindful of the limitations and qualifications that must be placed on any guidelines induced from such research.” Furthermore, he says, that even reliable and valid guidelines need to be understood as general principles rather than as rigid rules.

The importance of research findings, he reminds us, lies in their potential use as a foundation of teaching principles, which encouraages a more systematic approach to applying professional skills and knowledge.

In general, Brophy contends, these findings validate the instructional practices which teachers, over the years, have developed empirically through intuition and experience. These studies also stress the importance of the teacher’s role in stimulating student achievement rather than in simply functioning as a classroom manager.

He recognizes that teachers must continually make compromises between quality of teaching and management benefits, especially in large or heterogeneous classes. Brophy writes: “Teaching well is a complex and difficult talk, demanding a blend of energy, motivation and knowledge of subject matter, pedagogy and students

.”Finally, Brophy cautions administrators about teacher evaluation practices. He believes that teachers should not have to conform to a standardized model of a ‘good teacher’. Rather, they should be evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness in choosing appropriate methods for accomplishing specific objectives. He asserts that all teacher evaluation needs to be specific to subject area and grade level.

However, he does describe qualities and characteristics which should be apparent in all teachers: enthusiasm, oral communication skills, positive student expectations, and effective management techniques. For evaluation to be adequate, the day to day continuity of events in a classroom must be observed. Small samples of behavior seen in disconnected observations are unreliable.


“Research of Teacher Effects: Uses and Abuses” The Elementary School Journal, September 1988, Volume 89 Number 1 pp. 3.

Published in ERN January/February 1989 Volume 2 Number 1.

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