11 learning myths debunked
What the evidence says works in the classroom.
We all want the best for our children’s education – whether that’s saving our pennies for a Chromebook or selecting a school boasting open classrooms. Yet many initiatives to boost learning aren’t as effective as you might think.
We examined evidence for common classroom and school-wide tactics to see what does – and doesn’t – promote children’s education.
What's less effective
1. Bring your own device (BYOD)
Theory: To advance learning, students are encouraged (or required) to bring computers to school.
Is it effective? It depends – frequent computer use means learning takes a nosedive.
... Merely introducing laptops to the classroom doesn’t make a major difference. It’s what you use them for and when you use them that does.
“I wouldn’t argue you shouldn’t have kids working on computers – just be aware merely introducing laptops to the classroom doesn’t make a major difference. It’s what you use them for and when you use them that does,” Professor Hattie said.
OECD research in 2015 found students using computers for a moderate amount of time in the classroom had better learning outcomes than those using devices rarely. However, children with very frequent computer use at school performed worse than both groups.
BYOD policies aren’t cheap – if 1200 pupils at a high school are all bought a recommended $500 laptop, that’s $600,000.
Another cost is class disruption: in a survey of secondary school teachers, University of Auckland researcher Jiansheng Cui found lesson time could be eaten up by technical issues or students requiring training on computer programs.
BYOD also hit the finances of teachers: “[who] spent their own money for professional learning and development, such as workshops [and] conferences,” he said.
2. Decile system
Theory: The decile system aims to get extra resources to disadvantaged kids. Academically, children from lower socioeconomic communities start school (and remain) behind their peers, so the government allocates additional funding to lower decile schools, which have higher proportions of these pupils, to address the lag.
Is it effective? It hasn’t helped disadvantaged kids to catch up completely – even worse, decile ratings led to widespread confusion.
In 1995, the Ministry of Education started rating schools into deciles – calculated from census data on the poverty levels of each child’s neighbourhood – to determine the extra funding required.
... The report demonstrated “the quality of the school is not affected by decile”. Yet parents appeared to believe the opposite.
Since then, no one’s really number-crunched the data to see how effective this targeted funding has been – except for libertarian think tank New Zealand Initiative. The group compared students’ NCEA performance across the decile system in a 2019 report. Its findings suggested the funding boost wasn’t fully achieving its lofty goal: lower socioeconomic students remained behind their affluent peers.
However, as Victoria University School of Education Associate Dean Michael Johnston said, the report demonstrated “the quality of the school is not affected by decile”.
Yet parents appeared to believe the opposite. A 2018 report, Our Schooling Futures, by an independent taskforce said the general public mistakenly viewed decile “as a proxy for the quality of teaching and learning”.
Since the system’s inception, a pattern similar to “white flight” has occurred – student numbers at decile one to three schools dropped 4% between 1996 and 2017, while numbers at decile eight to 10 schools increased 39%.
“This decile drift has meant that some students in lower decile schools have been caught in a spiral of disadvantage. As rolls fall, resourcing and funding is reduced and it becomes difficult for schools to attract staff,” Our Schooling Futures said.
The report highlighted New Zealand directed fewer resources to disadvantaged students than other countries (3% compared to the OECD average of 6% of all school funding). Dr Johnston said this funding should be increased once work was done to understand how it could be most effectively used.
Minister of Education Chris Hipkins has ordered further research on equity funding and said the decile system might eventually be replaced – but only with an alternative that’s “fundable and workable”.
3. Grouping by ability
Theory: When students in a class are of similar ability, teachers can better target the curriculum, ensuring no child falls behind or is left unchallenged.
Is it effective? Not really – and lower-ability pupils can be left behind.
Compared to the rest of the world, New Zealand schools were more likely to ability group or stream students, Professor Hattie said. Yet there’s little support for any benefits. Combining the results of more than 500 scientific papers, Professor Hattie found the policy had a “very low” effect on academic achievement.
However, when he dug into the data, he found classes in lower streams got a worse deal. These classrooms were more fragmented, less engaging and taught by fewer well-trained teachers.
Theory: Funny teachers boost engagement and rapport.
Is it effective? No need to worry if your child’s teacher maintains a stiff upper lip.
The archetype of the beloved teacher helping their students laugh – and learn – appeared to be a Hollywood myth. Professor Hattie’s review of all research into humour in the classroom found it only had a minimal effect: “It’s not a big factor”.
5. Open classrooms (also known as “innovative learning environments”)
Theory: Multiple teachers work with a larger number of students, structuring activities for individual children or small groups, so each learns at their own pace.
Is it effective? It all hinges on the teachers.
Open classrooms were particularly popular in the 1970s and 80s. Hundreds of studies have found they made little difference to academic performance. Students taught in open teaching environments had improved scores in creativity tests, but their peers in traditional classrooms edged them in achievement tests.
Teachers often reconstructed traditional classes within the new space “thus defeating the purpose”, Professor Hattie said. Converting “single-cell” rooms into open classrooms could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Productive team-teaching was critical for this investment to pay off, he said.
6. Private education
Theory: The one factor all private schools have in common is they’re independent. Free from government curriculum rules and budgets, they invest in innovative teachers and methods.
Is it effective? Private school students are high achieving – but you can’t put that down to the private schools themselves.
OECD data showed New Zealand private school students outperformed their public peers in reading. However, this difference shrank to zero once you accounted for students’ family background. In general, only well-off families can afford the thousands of dollars in fees private schools charge, so student bodies are disproportionately affluent. Whether at private or public schools, affluent students have a natural advantage in the classroom. By itself, the fact the school was independent had little effect, the research concluded.
7. Retention (or repeating a year of study)
Theory: If a student fails a subject, they repeat that year to master the fundamentals.
Is it effective? The evidence says no. At worst, pupils fall behind.
According to OECD figures, 5% of Kiwi students repeated at least one grade in primary or secondary school.
Yet, across more than 200 studies, this policy had – at best – a neutral effect on a student’s progress. At worst, it negatively affected achievement, according to Visible Learning Plus.
One of the scientific reviews, based on 63 studies, found retained pupils’ scores fell significantly behind their peers. More concerningly, this gap appeared to grow in the years after the child repeated a grade or class. Students held back attended school less often and were twice as likely to drop out, compared to students of similar abilities who progressed as normal.
OECD analysis suggested it’s a particularly bad idea for primary school students to repeat a grade. These children experienced poorer educational outcomes than secondary students who were held back.
8. Single-sex schooling
Theory: Single-gender classrooms result in improved behaviour and reduced stereotyping, and therefore better grades.
Is it effective? Not really – for either girls or boys.
In 2018, more than 92,000 Kiwi children attended single-sex schools, though the vast majority of pupils (more than 715,000) went to fully or partially co-ed schools.
One study testing the policy randomly assigned students and teachers into either a single-sex or mixed-sex classroom. Both girls and boys did no better in a single-sex environment – but brighter pupils thrived in mixed-sex classes.
Putting together all the research examined in Visible Learning Plus, single-sex schooling had a minimal effect on students’ academic performance.
On the subject of gender bias, separating children might increase this issue. US Claremont McKenna College emeritus Professor Diane Halpern said, according to research, single-sex school students exhibit more stereotyped thinking. “After graduation, virtually everyone will work for and with females and males. Students need to learn mutual respect and the social skills of interacting. They need to learn how to interact cooperatively and competitively and these are important things that are learned in school.”
9. Smaller class sizes
Theory: By reducing pupil numbers, each student gets more one-on-one time with the teacher. Smaller classes have fewer disciplinary issues.
Is it effective? The effect is pretty minimal.
Combining nearly a hundred studies, the Visible Learning Plus research suggested reducing the number of kids per class made teachers’ lives easier. However, this didn’t translate into significant learning gains: all studies consistently found only a small positive impact on educational achievement when class sizes decreased.
“Teachers who’ve worked out how to be very good in classes of 30, then go into classes of 15 and do the same thing. And that’s not what’s needed,” Professor Hattie said.
Reducing class sizes was an expensive undertaking, he said. “Often, you don’t get a choice of how to spend funds – either you get small classrooms or you don’t. But if that money was used to further develop the expertise among our teachers, it would be a much better use of those funds.”
10. Summer holidays
Theory: Students need time away from the classroom to relax and recover.
Is it effective? Nope, long breaks mean students regress a little.
The Ministry of Education is typically in charge here – its rules dictate state schools must have a summer break between five and six weeks long.
The “summer slump” is real: Visible Learning Plus found lengthy summer vacations had a negative, though very small, effect on students’ learning. One research review found this loss was more pronounced in maths compared to reading and language skills. In comparison, summer school had a small positive effect on achievement.
11. Team or co-teaching
Theory: The class benefits from the different strengths of each teacher and pupils receive more individual attention.
Is it effective? Again, it depends on the teachers.
Putting all the research together, team or co-teaching had a small positive effect on children’s educational achievement. However, Professor Hattie found the working relationship between teachers was key. Team teaching was ineffective if teachers simply taught “sequentially,” he said.
To be successful, teachers needed to “work together about their impact, about evaluation, about what’s working in the classroom” – a system of peer feedback and collaboration that could be extended to the entire school, Hattie said (see “Teacher self-evaluation and feedback”).
What's actually effective
12. Early language skills
Theory: Speaking to your pre-schooler prepares them for the classroom.
Why it’s effective: Children with stronger language skills are better prepared for school.
A UK study of more than 9000 children found two-year-olds with lower language abilities scored lower than their peers on language, reading, writing and maths when they started school at age four or five. Another study estimated children from lower socioeconomic communities had spoken 2.5 million words by the time they started school, compared to 4.5 million for children from more affluent backgrounds.
“Up to age eight, it’s all about language. When you look at the evidence of the kids who start behind in school, it’s the poverty of language that makes the difference,” Professor Hattie said.
His research also found parental aspirations for their children strongly influenced academic achievement.
How parents can support it: “It’s interacting with them; it’s building up their vocabulary. Three-year-olds ask ‘why?’ all the time. That’s the right question – answer them,” Professor Hattie said.
13. Personal bests
Theory: With a personal best, children always have an appropriate goal to strive for.
Why it’s effective: Stretch goals help children do better.
If you ask a child what grade they’ll get on an upcoming test, how accurate are they? Extremely, according to Visible Learning Plus. Children’s estimates were one of the best predictors of their academic performance. The downside was these estimations might become self-fulfilling prophecies: with students only performing to the expectations they had of their abilities.
To avoid this, schools could introduce personal bests – tailored targets teachers and children chose together. Professor Hattie said New Zealand teachers were “world firsts” in this approach.
How parents can support it: By regularly setting personal bests, even if your child has teacher-set goals. These goals could be beating their most recent test or essay mark or investing more study time on a subject. Parents and children could anticipate factors, such as extra-curricular activities, that might interfere with children achieving a personal best and how to deal with any issues.
14. Teacher self-evaluation and feedback
Theory: Teachers also need to learn – by tracking what works and what doesn’t for their classes.
Why it’s effective: Feedback from students and peers helps teachers hone their skills.
Of the 250 influences on student achievement Professor Hattie evaluated, these evaluative skills topped the list. He encouraged teachers to ask themselves what progress they wanted to see from each child in their classroom over the course of the year. This was a personal challenge: “if you have tiny, small expectations for what a year’s growth is, unfortunately you’ll be very successful,” he said.
Many New Zealand teachers already challenged themselves with “very good and high expectations” and evaluated their performance, Professor Hattie said. The profession needed to identify excellent teachers and ensure others could learn from their expertise, he said.
Visible Learning Plus is a 2017 scientific study of learning initiatives published by University of Melbourne Education Research Institute director Professor John Hattie. It combined reviews of 80,000 scientific studies on education, involving 300 million students.
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