Why anecdotal evidence matters

I’ve recently had a couple of conversations with a few people about the need to take anecdotal evidence in teaching a little more seriously. I thought I’d share my reasoning here.There are a lot of buzz words and fads in education. Flipped learning, thinking hats, learning styles, the unforgivably aggresive red marking pen, educating the ‘whole child’, and so forth.

A lot of the fads that catch on often stem from published research – as you’d probably expect. Someone somewhere investigates something, finds a valuable insight / result, and shares it with the world. Growth mindset for example, has some pretty solid research behind it, and (cruicially) has had similar results from different researchers. However, as with all things education, the idea behind it seems to get whittled down to an actionable 5 word poster “the power of not yet” or some such, which detracts from the ways in which growth mindset is most effective – as part of an ensemble of approaches that fundamentally includes good teaching and formative assessment, alongside psychological motivation strategies.

On the other hand, often fairly poor research gets through the net, and ends up being picked up and hung on the mantlepiece as gospel. Thinking hats for example, are built upon a kind of ‘inside job’ research, and the outcomes conveniently benefit the research stakeholders. Group work research almost always includes caveats about how to make it work ‘best’ such as having pre-trained the students several times over, or comparing the outcome with that of a class where a feral dog has been let loose (“the results showed a marked improvement … it was the group work… not the dog”).

Often research is based around a tiny sample of just a single class (or half a class!).

An extreme example is this awful nonsense:

inspired by this ‘sound research

which upon close inspection reveals painfully poor practice:


Yes, six participants informed an entire legacy of bullshit strategy for learning times tables, which continues to make money. The researcher was a masters student. I could go on.


Anyway, back to anecdotal evidence. If you ask teachers about how successful group work (for example) has been for them, many will tell you it sucks. Many will tell you that it works badly most of the time, and that it relies on too many variables to be successful. This is anecdotal evidence. It’s not founded on any academic research, but it is voiced by many people ‘on the ground’, doing the job.

Who would you side with? The research into a handful of groups, or a few hundred teachers who each have 7 or 8 classes several times a week, year after year? Follow blogs, listen to teachers who are still teaching the dreaded 5 back-to-back lessons a day. They’re the ones who will help you survive teaching and its fads. They’re the ones who can put research to the test. Scrutinise what you’re told. Some research is excellent, and should be persued with an open mind. Some isn’t, and should be buried in the dirt.

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