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Myth: Educational experiments disadvantage children who are not allowed to participate

Myth: Educational experiments disadvantage children who are not allowed to participate

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Myth busters

“It doesn't matter whether it is about pre-school, primary, or higher education. People feel it is ethically irresponsible if educational innovations are not offered to all pre-school children, pupils or students. We, the researchers, should not be allowed to experiment because in doing so we disadvantage the control group (those who do not participate).” This is the view of Kristof De Witte, professor appointed to the endowed chair of Effectiveness and Efficiency of Educational Innovations.  But this is strange, he feels, because this is what happens in class every day. “Teachers who try to help a weaker pupil get on by using special methods, introducing a tablet into their lessons, practising with extra maths assignments. You don't know beforehand if it will contribute towards better education. You have to test it.”

Doing thorough research into educational innovations requires the class to be divided into two groups: those who participate, and those who don’t, the control group. “In that way, you can accurately determine whether something works. If tablets turn out to be no more than expensive toys, there is no need to introduce them on a large scale. There are many things that have little effect. Take the computer programme that asked dyslexic children to follow a car on a screen. It was said to improve both halves of the brain working together and thus to increase language skills. Those children did indeed improve, they were better in language tests, but the control group, which simply continued with the ordinary lessons, improved just as well.”

The ‘Muiswerk’ software, on the other hand, which provides children with tailor-made sums as homework, does have effect, Maastricht researchers discovered. Weaker children scored better. Or the extra test training for teachers, which produced better tests, says De Witte. “The questions were more in sync with the course and teaching materials. Insight became more important. Pupils knew this, they started to study differently, and achieved better learning results.”

At the moment, De Witte and his colleagues are developing teaching materials for financial literacy. “Young people, but also many adults, know too little about it: what is a mortgage? What is the difference between fixed and variable interest? Borrowing money costs money. We will take advantage of the differences between young people - some will have picked up more at home than others - but teachers can tackle this in their own way too. We will look at what works best and what influence the knowledge gained by youths has on their parents. More than two hundred schools are going to participate.”

What De Witte wants to say is that evidence-based is of great importance when it comes to changes to education. It is not without reason that the UM has a master's programme of Evidence Based Innovation in Teaching (MEBIT) for professionals in education. “Their greatest frustration is that a lot of changes are enforced from above without proper investigation to see if it works.” Laughing: “At the start, they often have a problem too, conducting experiments that do not include all children. But that soon changes.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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