The question of how teachers should teach is of course extremely important. A large part of the earth's population are pupils and students. Huge amounts of money are invested in education, which is also expanding globally. More and more people are being educated for longer periods of time.
Politicians and economists want to build education systems that are cost-effective. Students should learn as much as possible at as low a cost as possible. More efficient methods in the classroom increase productivity.
Seen against this background, we can understand the enthusiasm that met John Hattie's book "Visible learning" where the significance of 144 different factors for educational performance were analyzed. Tables provided opportunities to obtain a measure of the significance of each factor.
Far from all factors were about teaching methods. However, one conclusion in the book was that what the teacher does in the classroom is of great importance for educational achievemet. Thus, the question about how to teach came through Hattie's book perhaps even more in the spotlight than before.
Hattie's compilation is far from uninteresting, even if it has been subjected to substantial criticism. In an ongoing research project, we have been interested in research on teaching but in a completely different way than Hattie. (see link to the project's website below)
Instead of starting from the question of which teaching methods in the school that are effective, we took another starting point being interested in the research about teaching that seems to be valued by the research community.
Mapping of the research landscape
Our starting point was thus to analyze studies of teaching methods that are seen as important by the research community. We took the number of times a work was cited as a measure of its significance to the research community. It is of course possible to have views on such a selection, but we believe that the number of citations is one acceptable, if not perfect, way of capturing how widespread and significant an article is.
Since the research on teaching is incredibly extensive, we choose early on in the project to focus on research reviews of teaching methods The 75 reviews that were most cited in Web of Science during a 40-year period (10 from 1981-1990, 15 from 1991-2000, 25 from 2001-2010 and 25 from 2011-2020) were selected for mapping and analysis. All reviews were articles published in journals.
An article by Henrik Román and others (see reference below; the article won the award for best / most interesting article in the journal 2021) is a basic account of our data collection. This comprehensive article corresponds to approximately three standard research articles. Interestingly, we had a hard time to find a journal that accepted articles of this length. In the following, the key parts of the results and conclusions in the article are presented.
1) What are the methodological starting points for the reviews? Methodological starting points were operationalized as A) scientific tradition (functionalism (objectivism, consensus view of society), interpretive (hermeneutics, phenomenology), critical perspectives (focuses on contradictions, conflicts, power structures) and as B) format for the overview (e g meta-analysis)
2) What is the focus of the reviews?
A) The degree of generality (teaching in general vs subject-specific method / working method; limited to a certain age of students / the whole of K-12)
B) Which aspect of the teaching is in focus? (a) teaching as a social / humanistic activity; b) methods with more or less pronounced claims to be general; c) more specific aspects of methods / methods related to specific topics / content; d) methods where ICT artifacts are used.
3) In what context are the reviews produced? a) the authors' domicile, experience and disciplinary affiliation; b) journal arenas.
Results of the mapping
The article of course presents a number of results and these should be seen as a substantial knowledge contribution in terms of a hitherto largely unexplored area. It is not possible here to present the outcome of all these empirical analyzes, but the most important results can be summarized in five points:
1) The functionalist tradition dominates, but there are a considerable number of reviews that are more conceptually focused and / or have their roots in an interpretive tradition. Furthermore, the increase in the number of meta-analyzes during the period is not what we expected, even though a large part of the reviews are meta-analyzes.
2) Educational psychology dominates our selection of reviews and largely defines the area in terms of more general reviews and reviews with a focus on language teaching. In both of these areas, quantitative methodologies dominate, especially meta-analyzes.
Somewhat unexpectedly, reviews concerning teaching science (physics, biology and / or chemistry) are significantly more varied in terms of theoretical traditions and methodological points of departure than the more general reviews and reviews that focus on language teaching.
3) The focus of the reviews changes over time. The clearest example is the increased element of reviews of teaching with the help of ICT artifacts. Overall, reviews dominate which, via original research, evaluate new ways of teaching, as a contribution to both research, policy and practice. It is noteworthy, however, that the review authors usually draw rather cautious conclusions, pointing to many different factors that complicate the picture.
4) The reviews together concern a wide range of aspects of teaching from the very specific to overarching theories of teaching. An important distinction that we are interested in is that between subject-specific and general reviews. As stated above (see point 1), reviews in the mathematics / science area differ from reviews with a more general focus or those that focus on language teaching. The article describes and explains the differences as follows:
“In particular, the community of research on science teaching seems more classroom-oriented and more concerned with teaching as a matter of content, often placed in relation to social conditions. The larger interest among researchers on science teaching for treating teaching, learning and knowledge as social phenomena seems paradoxical. Still, this could be another indicator of the relative strength and autonomy of the natural sciences. Science is more prestigious than other academic disciplines, which may place science-teaching researchers and practitioners at an advantage compared to those engaged in other types of teaching, and manifests a traditional school curriculum hierarchy.”
5) The reviews are in English and are produced and presented mainly in an Anglo-American research world, where educational psychology dominates the field of educational science research. In terms of subject teaching, no subjects other than science, mathematics and language are treated. Teaching in these subjects also dominates in overviews with a general focus.
The study of reviews provides basic knowledge of a research area. What we have mapped are highly cited reviews of teaching methods in school and, as usual, further research is needed to see how general the patterns we have found are.
Such further research can be based on, for example, the following questions: Does the pattern apply to all reviews of teaching methods in the Web of Science? Would we get a similar result if we used citations in Google Scholar as a selection criterion? What does the pattern we have found compare with if we have analyzed research reviews in genres other than journal articles, for example in so-called handbooks? (For example the Handbook of research on teaching).
However, it does seem to be an important task to analyze research that is highly cited in the Web of Science because this database has a high status in the scientific community. A small part of all research journals are represented in the database, which has strict quality criteria that a journal must meet in order to be included in the database.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the article I have written about here is of a mapping nature. In the methodology, SMART, which is used in the project to map and analyze research, an important part is also to critically examine the research based on the overall question of whether the research community deals with the right issues in the right way. These aspects are developed more in other parts of the project.
Link to the project's website:
Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. and Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review of Education. https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3258)