Good intentions are no longer acceptable in Education

In medicine, doctors are striving to constantly improve the outcomes for patients through finding new treatments, drugs and combinations of therapies to find what works and for who. When new treatments are designed or invented, they undergo a series of trials before the interventions even reach the general public. Imagine if a drug company designed a new drug, released it onto the market (unlicensed) for children to use and these children became ill or died as a result of the drug… this does not happen for a reason.

Unlike healthcare, all children are compelled to have education. Government policy, new teaching trends or technology interventions are unleashed on millions of children yet very few people stop and ask the questions, “are these effective?” and “what evidence do we have to decide if these interventions are effective?”.

In my past experience as a teacher, before starting an academic career in research, I admit I had very little understanding of evidence. I have numerous examples of interventions deployed in my classrooms, either initiated at government level or through school improvement plans. A few notable examples include learning style questionnaires to design VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) tasks for individual lesson planning, brain gym activities, national teaching frameworks and booster materials, whole school deployment of interactive whiteboards and more recently class purchases of tablets. As a teacher I often trialled new strategies, such as using webinars for revision outside of school hours and flipping the classroom by creating online video tutorials. In a few instances, I used a pre and post assessment to measure the impact of the interventions in my classroom but evaluations of interventions in schools I worked in were rare.

In education, we seem to have good intentions and if we think something will work, we deploy it whole school for all children. Yet the notion of good intentions would not be used in medicine, so why is it used in education?

Fitz-Gibbon (2004) explains two examples where good intentions actually harmed children. Scared Straight was a programme based on the theory that if children showing signs of delinquency were taken to prisons to be told by inmates how horrible prison was, they would be deterred from a life of crime. Many subjective responses such as “it kept me away from crime” were given regarding the effectiveness of the programme, but through the use of a control group left untreated (randomised) it was found that the programme led to more serious crimes and increased recidivism in the treatment group compared to the control (McCord, 1978, 2001). A second example explains how the good intentions of providing counsellors to provide psychological debriefing immediately after a trauma and accidents. This seems a logical process to support patients’ wellbeing. However, two randomised trails concluded that this will do more harm (Mayou et al, 2000; Wessely et al, 1998).

In medicine, numerous examples exist where good intentions led to disastrous consequences. In the 1940’s and 50’s, premature babies were given pure oxygen (again, good intentions) yet during this time it was noted that there was an ‘epidemic’ of blindness among premature infants. It was also common for premature infants to be given prophylactic antibiotics, with an increase in brain damage and death recorded at this time. It was only through the use of randomised controlled trials that these consequences were identified and medical practice stopped delivering these interventions.

More recently, systematic reviews and meta-analyses (combining results of trials) have identified ineffective and harmful medical interventions, leading to doctors using evidence to inform prescribing of medications for patients.

Yet, in education many seem to be happy to stay with the concept of ‘good intentions’ and even if evidence is used to find out the effectiveness of an intervention, often inferior ways to determine the effectiveness are used.

What do I mean by inferior ways to determine effectiveness?

As I mentioned earlier, as a teacher I tried to evaluate a few interventions using a pre-test, intervention and post-test evaluation with any improvements attributed to the intervention. This design is commonly used in education, along with case studies with subjective responses from the participants of the intervention. However, after starting an MA in research methods prior to my PhD, I soon became aware of the serious limitations this design has IF the research questions were focused on effectiveness. I will briefly summarise a few key issues but this will be covered in greater detail in the next blog.

Let’s look at an example using technology, where a technology company explains that their new app increases pupil’s attainment by 30% for mathematics. The company used a pre-test, implemented the application on a class set of tablets and gave a post-test at the end of the term. The mean result for the class improved by 30% so this provides evidence of the impact of the intervention. The weakness of single group designs (i.e. no comparator group is used) mean that alternative explanations can be provided for the increase in scores. Here are a few:

  • Temporal change – this just means that self-learning will occur irrespective of the intervention. Any intervention or treatment mixed up with these temporal changes are difficult to disentangle if no comparator group (control) is used.
  • Regression to the mean – with extreme scores likely to change in the post-test regardless of the intervention.
  • Instrumentation threats – if the same assessment is used pre and post-test then familiarity with the test can result in an increase in the score.
  • History threats – during the time the application was implemented, the head of maths provided additional support to this class as it as a key examination class (extra in class support and homework booklet).
  • Mortality / Attrition– a number of students dropped out or missed the assessment so they were not included in the analysis. If students who struggled with maths missed the assessments, this could bias the results.
  • Sample size – the sample size included only one class of 30 pupils, this is insufficiently powered to make generalisations.

I could go on but I hope you can see that the claim of 30% improvement in attainment could now have a number of alternative explanations for the increase in test scores. In education, the counterfactual is knowing what would have happened if the intervention was not delivered and the only way we can do this to determine effectiveness is through the use of trials, specifically randomised trials.

The following series of blogs will be written as part of my role as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, designed to help teachers and educators become more critical with evidence and help support teachers design trials for interventions that they run. As part of my research at Durham University, I am using randomised controlled trials to determine the effectiveness of online cross-age peer tuition with group sizes 1:1, 1:2 and 1:4. I hope that through these blogs and webcasts (I am happy to deliver online training on various aspects of research methods in education via Microsoft educator network), I can help teachers ask the questions I failed to ask when I was classroom based.

My hope for 2016 is that education starts to move towards an evidence based practice, with teachers able to understand the strengths and limitations of different designs and question why trials are not used if the research question is regarding WHAT or WHETHER something works.


Wayne Harrison

ESRC Funded PhD Student

Durham University



Fitz-Gibbon, C.T. (2004). The Need for Randomised Trials in Social Research. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Vol 167, 1, 1-4.

Mayou, R. A., Ehlers, A. and Hobbs, M. (2000) Psychological debriefing for road traffic accident victims: three year follow-up of a randomised controlled trial. Br. J. Psychiatr., 176, 589–593.

McCord, J. (1978) A thirty-year follow-up of treatment effects. Am. Psychol., 33, 284–289.

McCord, J. (2001) Crime prevention: a cautionary tale. In Proc. 3rd Evidence-based Policies and Indicator Systems Conf., Durham. Durham: University of Durham.

Wessely, S., Rose, S. and Bisson, J. (1998) A systematic review of brief psychological interventions (“debriefing”) for the treatment of immediate trauma related symptoms and the prevention of post traumatic stress disorder. In Cochrane Library, vol. 4. Oxford: Update Software.


Online peer tuition as a transition intervention for schools


The transition from primary to secondary school in the UK, and its equivalent elsewhere, has been depicted as ‘one of the most difficult phases in pupils educational careers’ (West, Sweeting, & Young, 2010). There is almost a universal agreement in the evidence that the majority of pupils express some anxieties and concerns prior to the transition from a primary to secondary school, with issues ranging from the size of the school to peer relations  (Chedzoy & Burden, 2005; Graham & Hill, 2003; Shepherd & Roker, 2005). A long term longitudinal study investigating pupils experiences of the primary-secondary school transition in the West of Scotland clearly demonstrated the importance of a successful transition on later well-being and attainment (West et al., 2010). The study found at age 15, a poorer school transition predicted higher levels of depression and lower attainment; with similar results extended to the outcomes at the age of 18/19.

The evidence of the impact of peer tuition as an effective strategy is highlighted as part of the teaching and learning toolkit developed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The benefits are apparent for both the tutor and tutee, particularly cross-age peer tuition.  However, it is often not feasible for schools to deliver cross-age peer tuition as a transition strategy between different phases of schools, such as primary into secondary. Through advances in technology, it is now possible to combine cross-age peer tutoring with synchronous online learning to develop a practical intervention for schools.

A recent feasibility study involved 4 schools in the North East of England, with Year 7 pupils peer tutoring Year 5 pupils online in mental arithmetic strategies. Further information on this trial can be found here.Click here.

The research was successful in demonstrating the feasibility of online cross-age peer tuition as a transition strategy, with a number of themes emerging from the process evaluation interviews and focus groups with teachers, peer tutors and tutees. These included overcoming logistical barriers and familiarity with online communication for peer tutors and tutees.

As part of a PhD at Durham University, I am developing an aggregated trials model and cumulative meta-analysis for online learning. In simple terms, I am piloting an online peer tuition programme and repeating this with numerous schools (cohorts) to pool the results together. The study involves Year 8 pupils peer tutoring Year 6 pupils online in mastery mathematics skills (data handling). As the trial uses the same protocol, resources, assessments and design I hope to aggregate these results together similar to many examples in medical trials. This prospective take on aggregating small school led trials will allow an evidence base of interventions delivered in schools, using robust trial designs.

Figure 1: Aggregated trial using multiple data collection in schools

While I complete my PhD, I hope to write about research design and methods to support teachers become more critical in reading research. I cannot stress how important this knowledge can be, as I spent many hours implementing strategies in schools based on very little or non-existent evidence. Since completing an MA in Research Methods in Education at Durham last year, I now realise the importance of critically evaluating evidence and the limitations of different research designs. I hope the following blogs are useful, as part of my role of a Microsoft Innovative Expert (MIE) I will be designing and delivering online training for teachers to help you ask the questions I failed to ask as a teacher.


Chedzoy, S.M., & Burden, R. L. (2005). Assessing student attitudes to primary–secondary school transfer. Research in Education, 74, 22–35.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2015). EEF. Retrieved November 24, 2015, from

Graham, C., & Hill, M. (2003). Negotiating the transition to secondary school. (Spotlight ). The SCRE Centre, University of Glasgow.

Shepherd, J., & Roker, D. (2005). An evaluation of a “transition to secondary school” project run by the National Pyramid Trust. Brighton: Trust for the Study of Adolescence.

West, P., Sweeting, H., & Young, R. (2010). Transition matters: pupils’ experiences of the primary-secondary school transition in the West of Scotland and consequences for well-being and attainment. Research Papers in Education (Vol. 25).