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What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education

17 February 2017 36,195 18 Comments

Published in Journal of Educational Change, Volume 18, Issue 1, February 2017, Pages 1-19.

Download Full Article in PDF (personal copy, please do not distribute).

This medicine can reduce fever, but it can cause a bleeding stomach. When you buy a medical product, you are given information about both its effects and side effects. But such practice does not exist in education.

“This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” No such information is given to teachers or school principals.

“This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative.” No parent has been given information about effects and side effects of practices in schools.

“School choice may improve test scores of some students, but it can lead to the collapse of American public education,” the public has not received information about the side effects of sweeping education policies.

Educational research has typically focused exclusively on the benefits, intended effects of products, programs, policies, and practices, as if there were no adverse side effects. But side effects exist the same way in education as in medicine. For many reasons, studying and reporting side effects simultaneously as has been mandated for medical products is not common in education.

In this article just published in the Journal of Educational Change, I discuss why education must learn the important lesson of studying and reporting side effects from medical research. Side effects in education occur for a number of reasons.

First, time is a constant. When you spend time on one task, you cannot spend the same amount on another. When a child is given extra instruction in reading, he/she cannot spend the same time on arts or music. When a school focuses only on two or three subjects, its students would not have the time to learn something else. When a school system only focuses on a few subjects such as reading and math, students won’t have time to do other and perhaps more important things.

Second, resourses are limited. When it is put into one activity, it cannot be spent on other. When school resources are devoted to the common core, other subjects become peripheral. When schools are forced to only focus on raising test scores, activities that may promote students’ long-term growth are sidelined.

Third, some educational outcomes are inherently contradictory. It is difficult for an educational system that wishes to cultivate a homogenous workforce to also expect a diverse population of individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial. Research has also shown that test scores and knowledge acquisition can come at the expense of curiosity and confidence.

Fourth, the same products may work differently for different individuals, in different contexts. Some people are allergic to penicillin. Some drugs have negative consequences when taken with alcohol. Likewise, some practices, such as direct instruction may work better for knowledge transmission, but not for long term exploration. Charter schools may favor those who have a choice (can make a choice) at the costs of those who are not able to take advantage of it.

American education faces many uncertainties today. But one thing is certain: we will see a slew of new policy proposals as states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act and whatever actions the new administration may take, in addition to the mind-boggling number of products, programs, and services already vying for the attention (and money) of parents, schools, and education systems. When making decisions about policies and products, we should ask for information about their adverse effects in addition to evidence of effects.

What works can hurt!

Article info:

Volume 18, Issue 1, February 2017, Pages 1-19

Download Full Article in PDF (personal copy, please do not distribute).

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  • Indrani Solomon said:

    True to every word!

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    […] Moeten we ook geen onderzoek doen naar bij-effecten in onderwijs? […]

  • Interesting read: What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education | From experience to meaning... said:

    […] my first chapter – already read by my publishers – has quite some in common with this new blog post and article by Yong Zhao: What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in […]

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  • It is the side effects that will kill you. | Coaching School Change said:

    […] can preview the article for a short time on Zhoa’s site here. Share this:TwitterLinkedInFacebookGoogle Posted on February 21, 2017 by yancyunger Leave a […]

  • Larry Kahn said:

    Just as, due to our unique differences, personalized medications will be quickly coming our way, we can only hope that we will truly be able to personalize learning for each student.

  • The Effects of Authority, Compliance, and Pathologizing Students – Ryan Boren said:

    […] third is great longform by Yong Zhao on side effects in education. But side effects exist the same way in education as in medicine. For many reasons, studying and […]

  • Articles of Interest February 17th, 2017 « National Creativity Network said:

    […] What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education Yong Zhao, Education in the Age of Globalization […]

  • What Works for What? | Freeing the Angel said:

    […] very interesting problem about education research, which hadn’t occurred to me until I read an article about it recently, is that we seem to have completely overlooked the possibility that interventions […]

  • Unintended Messages – Thinking Mathematically said:

    […] read an interesting article by Yong Zhao the other day entitled What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education where he discussed A simple reality that exists in schools and districts all over. Basically, […]

  • Spring said:

    I would agree with the author, every coin has two sides, so does the education policy, it is important to aware of each side of the effects. I remember Immanuel Kant has described antinomies in his book The Critique of Pure Reason, and there is a self-contradictory phrase such as “There is no absolute truth”, it may help to understand the third reason that the author provides. And it reminds me some facts and policies I have learned before, for example, the Chinese education focuses more on the “standard answer” in the examination, so that there is no space for training the critical thinking and creativity (related to the first reason). Moreover, the Arizona state implement the SEI model instead of the bilingual education based on the state situation, but there are some states like Texas still providing instructions to non-English speaker in their native language (related to the last one).

  • Three thoughts after 3E | Catherine Brentnall said:

    […] were related to unintended consequences of programmes and pedagogies. Yong Zhao has written about side effects in education, and the importance of studying and reporting their effects. And there were many interesting lines […]

  • Leadership at Every Level – Katie Martin said:

    […] Much like the crew of the USS Santa Fe, when one size fits all reform movement and top down mandates treat teachers as followers instead of leaders, they will, in turn, do what is asked and implement programs but may not be meeting the needs of the students and in some cases could have unintended consequences.   Consider these examples from Dr. Yong Zhao in his article What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education. […]

  • Eron McLean said:

    Interesting article on the side effects of education. We all know that anything that is extreme can be bad. Parents, teachers or care givers do get carried away sometimes in an effort to help children learn. I, therefore, agree that there should be enough care not to push learners beyond their limits as this can be devastating. On the other hand, there are some learners who will produce their best work only when they are seriously pushed.Humans are diverse and so those who teach must first study their learners in order to determine the most appropriate “dosage” to administer.

    I believe that sometimes students are overloaded with too many subjects. During the early stages of children’s education, schools should focus on the core subjects and leave the others for later. Once the core competencies are developed the other areas will fall into place. I have seen it done with a remarkable result.

  • There’s a new call for Americans to embrace Chinese-style education. Why that’s a huge mistake. – College News Week said:

    […] instruction, as I explain with abundant evidence in the article, “What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects of Education,” can indeed produce immediate gains and looks more effective in the short term than student-led […]

  • There's a new call for Americans to embrace Chinese-style education. Why that's a huge mistake. - said:

    […] instruction, as I explain with abundant evidence in the article, “What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects of Education,” can indeed produce immediate gains and looks more effective in the short term than student-led […]

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