I read Heather’s blog post about problems with the EEF with some interest yesterday, not least because I have also been frequently dissatisfied with the kinds of studies that they run. It is not that I am against large-scale studies in education, but rather that the language used to frame these studies is so broad, generic and vague that there is very little chance of being able to come to a meaningful conclusion from these studies.
No where is this more obvious than in those studies that look at improving pupil reading.
Reading is often assumed to be a generic skill, but what we should take from the work of people like ED Hirsch is that reading is in fact highly domain-specific. The fluency and accuracy with which I read a particular passage is closely linked to how familiar I am with the content of the text. I can skim through a book on history curriculum design very quickly because I know a lot about it and the key terms, ideas, concepts, references and so on are already familiar to me. If I were to read a book on baseball, however, I would struggle, as I know very little indeed about the sport. Have I suddenly become a worse ‘reader’? Of course not. I am simply operating in a different domain.
So a large-scale study that looks at whether an intervention improves pupils ‘reading’ as a generic skill is always going to struggle. While there might be certain techniques which could feasibly improve reading ‘ability’ in a general sense, we are probably chasing ghosts if we are trying to look for interventions that improve pupil ‘reading’ as a generic skill. If we want them to read broadsheet newspapers better, than we should teach them the ideas and concepts that occur in those papers. That would make an interesting study. Otherwise, we are just wasting the time and money of lots of people.
And this is why Heather’s point about the importance of the intellectual design of a research projects is spot on. It doesn’t matter how good your methodological design is: for a study to be worthwhile, we need to think far more carefully about what exactly we are looking for as an outcome, and this requires us to go well beyond vague ideas such as ‘reading ability’.