‘What Works’ in the Messy Landscape of Teaching and Learning

The title is borrowed from text in an excellent article that challenges our use of the “what works” phrase in relationship to teaching and learning. Biology professor Kimberly Tanner writes, “… trying to determine ‘what works’ is problematic in many ways and belies the fundamental complexities of the teaching and learning process that have been acknowledged by scholars for thousands of years, from Socrates, to Piaget, to more recent authors and researchers.” (p. 329) She proceeds to identify six reasons why the phrase hinders rather than fosters an evidence-based approach to teaching reform (in biology, her field, but these reasons relate to all disciplines). “Language is powerful,” she notes. (p. 329) We use it to frame issues, and when we do, it guides our thinking.

“What works” is incongruent with the nature of science. Her point applies more broadly. The phrase implies that “what works” is readily applicable to all contexts. It also conveys the sense that once you know “what works,” there is no need for further investigation. You’ve got the answer. There is no equivalent phrase or sentiment used in scientific investigations of the natural world. “Why should our evidence-based investigations and view about the issues in teaching and learning of biology be any different?” (p. 330)

“What works” ignores individual students and their brains as key variables. If the solution works, then it works for all students, or at least most of them. Lots of research now documents that “what works” for students depends on a host of demographic variables, including gender, language background, levels of family education, and ethnic identity. And then there is the individuality of student brains, which Tanner describes as “individual both in terms of architecture and information previously stored within.” (p. 330) “What if the right way to teach is not any singular way, but rather the use of a variety of teaching techniques intertwined to benefit a range of learners and their experiences in a heterogeneous classroom? What if the closest we get to ‘what works’ is to teach using all of the available techniques and not just one?” (p. 330)

“What works” assumes uniformity in instructor experience and skill. Also lurking within the “what works” assumption is the premise that it “works” for all instructors. Interestingly, when a technique is tried and it doesn’t work, blame is usually affixed to the technique, not the instructor. For example, “group work” is labeled a bad technique rather than being recognized as a technique that was used ineffectively. The success of instructional strategies, especially complex ones, depends on the experience and skill of the instructor. Any given technique may work, but not all instructors may be able to make it work, given their teaching skill and experience.

“What works” requires defining what is meant by “works.” This problem with the phrase has two parts. The first is that the definition for “what works” is largely left to the user. Typically “what works” means the strategy or technique promotes learning as measured by test scores and course grades. Tanner points out that grades may improve, but the technique may have had no effect on student motivation or interest in the discipline.

The second definitional problem with the “what works” phrase and accompanying thinking is evidence that supports the effectiveness of a particular solution is based on short-term measures, again mostly grades. “‘What works’ for short-term performance in a course … may or may not be the same as ‘what works’ for deep conceptual change and long-term retention, yet we have little to no evidence beyond a single semester time frame.” (p. 332)

Building a common language about the substance of the “what” in “what works” is not trivial. There is no common lexicon for instructional strategies. We toss strategy names about, assuming we all define them similarly, but in execution, even simple strategies such as think-pair-share look very different. If that’s true for comparatively straightforward techniques, imagine the variation involved in complex strategies such as problem-based learning or in whole approaches such as learner-centered teaching.

In sum, Tanner explains that “at some level ‘what works’ arises from a desire to give scientists [and the rest of us] a shortcut to effective teaching, but there may not be any shortcuts.” And what should we be saying and thinking in lieu of this phrase? “We can perhaps refocus on what has been shown again and again to be the path to effective teaching and learning: the development of reflective instructors who are analytical about their practice and who make iterative instructional decisions based on evidence from students sitting right in front of them.” (p. 329)

Reference: Tanner, K. D. (2011). Reconsidering “what works.” Cell Biology Education, 10 (Winter), 329-333.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.2(2012): 6.