What works may hurt: Side effects in education


Medical research is held as a field for education to emulate. Education researchers have been urged to adopt randomized controlled trials, a more “scientific” research method believed to have resulted in the advances in medicine. But a much more important lesson education needs to borrow from medicine has been ignored. That is the study of side effects. Medical research is required to investigate both the intended effects of any medical interventions and their unintended adverse effects, or side effects. In contrast, educational research tends to focus only on proving the effectiveness of practices and policies in pursuit of “what works.” It has generally ignored the potential harms that can result from what works. This article presents evidence that shows side effects are inseparable from effects. Both are the outcomes of the same intervention. This article further argues that studying and reporting side effects as part of studying effects will help advance education by settling long fought battles over practices and policies and move beyond the vicious cycle of pendulum swings in education.

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    Direct instruction (di) here refers to the general pedagogical approach characterized by explicit instruction. It includes both the lower and upper case dis (Rosenshine 2008).

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    The National Institute for Direct Instruction published a 102 page long bibliography of writings on Direct Instruction in 2015, each page containing about 12 entries (National Institute for Direct Instruction 2015).

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    Although What Works Clearing House found the effects to be small or indiscernible based on its reviews of two programs using direct instruction (What Works Clearinghouse 2006, 2007).


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Ken Frank of Michigan State University, James Basham and Jason Travers of University of Kansas, and Yechen Zhao of Stanford University read drafts of the manuscript and provided invaluable suggestions.

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Zhao, Y. What works may hurt: Side effects in education. J Educ Change 18, 1–19 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-016-9294-4

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  • Educational research
  • Methodology
  • RCT
  • Direct instruction
  • International assessment
  • Side effects
  • PISA
  • Educational policy
  • Educational reform