May have harmful side effects



Last week I played a game of squash with an old friend (okay, we’re both old).  Now, having not played for a couple of years, I knew my body would feel better during the game than it would the next day. If you’re familiar with the term ‘squash butt’, you understand.  Upon return to the court after a layoff, the next day the feeling in one’s derriere is general soreness. The rest of my body was also hurting a little. I don’t usually take medication but as I gently massaged my right cheek I gave some consideration to popping a couple of Ibuprofen before heading off to work. I decided against it. The reason I didn’t take the anti-inflammatory medication is that all medication come with both effects and side effects. The effect of Ibuprofen is to minimize inflammation of damages muscles, the side effects include irritation to the lining of the stomach. Weighing the two, I favoured my tummy over my sore muscles. I’ve pondered this decision countless times over the years when I have push beyond my fitness level through a variety of activities. The decision always comes down to weighing the desired effect against the known side effects. With medicine, we are informed of both. By law, side effects are included on the label. In education, where I spend most of my waking hours, effects versus side effects are not so clear. This was brought front and center for me last week when I read Yong Zhao’s article “What works may hurt: Side effects in education.”


If you are not familiar with Yong’s work, I recommend you spend some time considering his contributions to our field of education. He speaks with passion and clarity. This latest example has dominated my thoughts for the past week. Once you read the article, I suspect you will begin to see education through a different lens as well. For me, I have begun to reflect on education pedagogy and practices with specific consideration to the intended effects as well as the unintended side effects. Yong makes a case for how competing interests in education are often just opposite sides of the same coin. He argues, for example, how studies supporting the benefits of direct instruction can be at odds, and yet evidentiary, for studies that promote open learning. The desired effects of one approach often yield side effects that reinforce the other. He calls on researchers to study both the effects and the side effects of educational practice.


When I take a look around at the school system i work in, the examples supporting Yong’s assertions are everywhere. In fact, I haven’t found an initiative, practice, or policy that does not have very clear effects and often equally clear side effects.


Most classroom management strategies are employed to help establish order, compliance, and a quiet place that permits uninterrupted focus and increased time on task. That is the desired effect. The side effects of good classroom management is that they often limit creativity, eliminate impromptu collaboration and restrict student ownership of learning in favour of a more teacher-centered experience. Discovery approach to mathematics has the effect of allowing students to explore concepts and follows the constructivist approach to learning through inquiry and problem-based activities. This can be very effective. However, the side effects can include poor mastery of basic computation skills, increased frustration and lower sense of confidence among learners. Policies that promote common pedagogy and assessment have the effect of increased consistency and accountability within the system. The side effect is often decreased commitment and buy-in from teachers and reduced student engagement.


Zhao encourages the education field to include side effects as part of the research process. I couldn’t agree more. Most interventions in education have a positive outcome. Initiatives, strategies, programs of all stripes can be effective. Try something new, with some planning and purpose, and you will most likely see some good results. However, most of us fail to consider the side effects. In medicine, what heals can also kill. In education, we owe it to our patients to take a hard look at both the desired effects and the side effects before we apply our new medicines. If the side effects are more detrimental that the intended positive effect of the practice, then we should put the approach on the shelf and look for a better, less harmful approach to address the needs of our students. Current practices too should be reviewed with an eye to the side effects. The medical field has, over the years, stopped doing procedures that were very effective, in favour of less-intrusive procedures with significantly less harmful side effects. We should adopt this approach in education as well.


I would love to spend an entire professional development day with teachers pouring over an array of strategies and practices with an eye on identifying harmful unintended side effects. Which practices have side effects worse than the benefits of the intended effects? Which of our practices have the most successful intended effect with the least harmful side effects? We don’t often think of our practices in education as being harmful, but we should.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his famous Ted Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” was probably the first to point out so clearly how the side effects in education can be so harmful. The answer to the question he posed a decade ago is yes, schools do kill creativity. School systems in our province have been trying, ever since, to change that. Most of the initiatives have tried to come up with ways to keep the positive effects of sound schooling practices while changing, adjusting, or removing the practices that have the side effect of killing creativity. This has proven to be most challenging. It seems that creativity is one of least encouraged skills in our industrial model of schooling. As such, one of the side effects to educational practice throughout our K-12 system is the squashing of creativity. Is this a necessary trade-off as part of a mass production system of public education or can we embrace creativity within our largely impersonal system, without compromising the many effective strategies and practices that lead to other deep and authentic learning?


I am curious how you view the effects and side effects within our education system? What practices does your system currently employ that might have more adverse side effects than beneficial intended effects? What practices do you use that have the greatest effect with the least harmful side effects? 


One comment

  1. You must identify the harmful side effects and provide additional “Creative” classes that counter those harmful side effects.Alternate the structured classes with more creative classes. It would be more fun for the students and I believe they would look forward to the mix.In the “old days” our teachers did this to a certain extent. A structured Science class would be followed by a less structured lab. A structured English class followed by a lively debating class are examples I remember.

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