The question in the title is intentionally a bit provocative. Active teachers usually work with several different methods / working methods and many researchers believe that the search for a sacred method-Grail is fruitless.
This does not lead us to relativism. On the contrary, a number of working methods in school have been eliminated because studies have shown that they have not kept their promises, for example the idea that gross-motor training facilitates early reading and writing learning. Furthermore, different working methods have varying support in research. There are thus good reasons to delve into research on methods / working methods.
This is exactly what we did in the research project "Research on teaching - a mapping and analysis of research landscapes" (see link below). More specifically, as part of the project, we have mapped and analyzed the research overviews of teaching methods / working methods that have been highly cited in the Web of Science database.
Since the research on pedagogical methods / working methods is extremely extensive, we chose to analyze research overviews and not original studies. We call our own mapping and analysis an overview, i e an overview of research overviews.
The 75 overviews we have analyzed represent a number of different methods / working methods, from those associated with progressive pedagogy, over those that deal with the importance of different artifacts in teaching to more cognitively oriented research. A lot of the studies are meta-analyzes which provide numerical measures of the effectiveness of specific working methods.
In this blog, I want to discuss the question in the title and with the help of an analysis we have done show why it is so difficult to answer. But first something about how the analysis was carried out.
To map and analyze a research landscape
The approach, SMART (Systematic Mapping and Analysis of Research Topographies), used in the project is based on an interest in what researchers in a particular field focus on (see references and links below about SMART). This differs from the points of departure for the “what works” research which characterizes the evidence movement and which seeks answers to what is effective in achieving a certain purpose (usually but not always some form of knowledge achievement).
Based on the assumption that research that is highly cited is seen as important by the research community, systematic mapping and analyzes of such “high-impact” research are carried out. As mentioned, the research on teaching is extremely extensive and therefore we did not start from original research but from research overviews in our analysis.
The 75 most cited research overviews on methods / working methods in Web of Science over a 40-year period were thus mapped and analyzed. The empirical analysis carried out by Associate Professor Åsa Hirsh at the University of Gothenburg (see reference and link to the article where the overview is reported below) focused on the problems identified by the article authors themselves regarding what conclusions could be drawn about the teaching methods / working methods that were in focus for their reviews.
It should be pointed out that this analytical approach is very unusual when compiling research. Usually, through the compilation of research, guidelines are sought for how teaching should be set up and thus the fous is on what is effective. Interestingly enough, we came to that question as well but via detours after having started at a completely different point.
Three problems identified in the research reviews
Through a very careful analysis of the research overviews (see summary in article), Åsa found three recurring challenges which were identified by many article authors.
The first problem concerned the presence of moderating factors. Moderating factors are those that can be said to qualify conclusions about the use of working methods. Does it work differently for different teaching content? For different ages? For students at different levels? About 40 such moderating factors were identified in the analysis, which together give rise to an almost infinite amount of possible combinations.
The second problem that many article writers identified was that the approach required competent teachers in order to be realized. This can be said to be something of a paradox as it is perhaps above all less competent / experienced teachers who need clearer guidelines in the form of specific working methods.
The third problem, which is linked to the two previous ones and which was identified in several of the articles, is the well-known “research-practice gap”, i e the difficulty of transferring “findings” from research to school reality.
Interestingly enough, these problems tended to be recurring throughout the 40-year period. It was thus not the case that the research community had found a solution to the problems, even though there are suggestions on how they should be solved. Interestingly, the responsibility for the gap was often left to the research rather than to the teachers. The research was judged to be not enough didactic and too little carried out under natural conditions.
We found that there were actually two fundamentally different ways for us to relate to the outcome of the analysis. On the one hand, a more critical way that demonstrated the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the research due to the recurring problems. Maybe another type of research is needed in order to develop teaching?
On the other hand, it was possible to relate to the outcome of the overview in a way that was more focused on how the identified problems could be handled in different ways. This was the path that we for different reasons decided to follow in the article. In such a perspective, the problems can be seen as a result of a contradiction between the striving to find more general conclusions and the need for context-bound decisions that active teachers need to make.
In other words, while research strives to comment on the outcome of a way of working /a method on a more general level ("what works"), the use of a way of working/a method in school involves questions of "what works" for whom, for what knowledge content, under what circumstances, etc.
One solution to this problem that we discuss in the article is that research must become even clearer in terms of the circumstances in which a teaching method works. This means that the contexts in which studies are conducted must be described carefully. To reconnect to the question in the blog's title, we could expect a method / way of working to work differently under different circumstances.
In this way, there is an opportunity for those who want to use research results to be able to better see which aspects of the research context are transferable to the context in which the results are to be applied and which are not. Then it may be more possible to determine which aspects of a teaching method that are transferable to one's own situation.
A problem that we do not discuss in the overview but which becomes clear when analyzing research on teaching methods is that the outcome of working methods / methods is seldom analyzed in relation to a broad mission for the school involving more than knowledge transfer, e.g. social and democratic goal. Thus there is every reason to be very careful in drawing implications from the research on teaching methods to classroom teaching.
Link to the home-page of the research project:
Book in which the approach (SMART) used in the study described above is described in detail:
Nilholm, Claes. (2017) SMART – ett sätt att genomföra forskningsöversikter. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
/SMART – a way to conduct research reviews/
This article provides a (condensed) description in English of the approach:
Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. och 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 and Education. (ännu endast som web-publicering: https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rev3.3258)
The article described in this blog:
Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Forsberg, E. och Sundberg, D. (2020) Review of teaching methods - which fundamental issues are idenfied? Published on-line.