Intuition and research

There are a number of things which have been discovered over the years through research which are not entirely intuitive. In fact, many of the results that have been discovered are down-right odd.


  • If you pay people to perform simple, routine tasks, in general the more you pay the person, the better they perform. Oddly enough, if those tasks require even a bit of cognitive effort, extra pay reduces performance. What!? How does this apply to education? Well, first it seems that it would drive a nail into the coffin that we should give teachers merit pay (as opposed to just paying all teachers more) for improved student performance. It also suggests that other rewards, which are commonly used in education, may have the opposite of the intended effect; they may reduce performance.
  • If you tell children how to play with a toy, they are less likely to perform irrelevant actions with that toy; but they are also less likely to do anything novel with it, or discover anything beyond what you told them about the toy. One would think that if one knew how to use a toy effectively, you’d have a base of knowledge necessary to expand upon and to make new discoveries. It turns out; sometimes even a little bit of knowledge is too much.
  • In a pivotal study done in the 1980s, researcher Jean Lave sought to find out how successfully people applied math in their everyday lives. Her surprising answer is that people actually use mathematics reasonably reliably, at nearly 98% accuracy in the supermarket, for example. What is somewhat shocking is that when the very same people were given a pencil and paper test on the very same skills they had successfully solved in the supermarket, the percentage they got right dropped to 59%. The conclusion Jean Lave had was that the subjects were using strategies in the supermarket that they had developed themselves, but fell back into the strategies they had learned in school for the test.
  • What do you think would happen if you didn’t teach arithmetic at all to students? In a highly unethical study done in the 1930s, a group of students was given no arithmetic instruction at all until 6th grade. Instead, the students spent this time discussing things that came up in their lives, and some practice in measuring and counting. In 6th grade, the students were taught arithmetic. At the end of the 6th grade, this group of students (who came from the poorest parts of the district) exceeded their peers from the other schools in solving story problems, and had caught up in arithmetic. In other words, not teaching math for 5 years (and spending this time reasoning through discussion instead) improved their mathematical reasoning skills.
  • A longer work week does not necessarily lead to more productive employees. In fact, most often it reduces overall employee productivity. 40 hours a week seems about optimal (for maximizing productivity, if not morale). What are the implications of this research on education? Should we be looking at less time in school (or at least doing "work" like activities for students) rather than more?


What these studies show is that our intuitive sense of what may be true is often not true, or at least can be shown to be not true under certain circumstances. We must then shy away from relying entirely on our intution, especially when examining large-scale educational practices. We must do a better job in education in funding and supporting effective research in our schools. We also need to be less reactionary when it comes to approaches that don’t fit into our personal perspective on how certain things should be taught, and focus more on dialogue and research to satisfy our reactions.



  • David, thanks so much for these intuition “snippets”. They challenge the “sense” in the term “common sense”. For many, accepting some of this will take an extra dose of openness!

    The one that resonated with me the most was the “toy” example. As I watch my two boys grow up, I’m amazed at how creative they are when noone is watching! They adapt, explore, push things in different directions, and its exciting for me to see. I think that I’ve learned more about imagination in the past few years than I have in my entire life.

    It would be interesting to take just these few examples, and ask how we might alter the way we school children based on this new research.

    At the same time, I don’t think that the researchers involved in bringing these new perspectives forward would want us to take these as absolute truth. We need to continue observing, thinking and inquiring.

  • Richard Ajabu wrote:

    David asked, “Should we be looking at less time in school (or at least doing “work” like activities for students) rather than more?”.

    I have always been uneasy with the way the school system effectively “steals” a student’s personal/family time by either assigning schoolwork to be completed at home, or by not budgeting enough school time to complete school assigned work. I don’t think most people think of it that way; I suspect they just do it that way because that is the way it has traditionally been done. But it seems wrong to disrespect the personal boundaries of our students and their families in that way.

    I think that all school assigned objectives should be completed during school time, and a student’s personal/family time should be respected as their own resource to use as they choose.

    This way of thinking impacts not only traditional classroom scheduling, but flipped classroom scheduling as well.

    So if most students are currently required to do homework in order to succeed at school, then I support the idea of reducing students’ effective school-week by eliminating the homework portion.

    There is so much more to life than school or work 😉

    I have commented in more detail on the BC Education Plan website here(1). That comment may not be moderated yet; if that link doesn’t bring you to my comment, try these related comments here(2), here(3) and here(4).

    What do you think?

  • Richard Ajabu wrote:

    There appears to be an error in the “here(4)” link in my comment above. That link should be here(4). Sorry about that. Feel free to correct the original posting and delete this one if you like.

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