What Works Can Hurt - Part One

The side effects education can have on students.
What Works Can Hurt - Part One

Medical products are required by law to disclose their intended effects and known side effects. When you buy a bottle of Advil you are warned on the label: “Ibuprofen may cause a severe allergic reaction,” and “this product may cause stomach bleeding.” Hence the warning label on Ibuprofen products.

However, it is unlikely anyone receives similar warnings about education products. Teachers and school leaders are not told: “This product helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever,” neither are parents warned: “This program can help your child become a better student, but it may make her less creative” or “School choice may benefit parents who are able to take advantage of the choices, but hurt those who cannot.” In addition, the public does not receive information about the adverse side effects of sweeping education policies supporting the marketisation and privatisation of public schools. 

The recent movement toward evidence-based educational practices and policies is only about gathering and verifying evidence for effects. It shows no concern for side effects. However, a careful examination of available evidence shows the side effects of education are as prevalent as in medicine and these findings are summarised below (Zhao, 2018). 

The Costs of High Test Scores: Side Effects of Education Systems

East Asian countries such as China, Singapore, Korea and Japan have consistently been top performers in international reading, math and science assessment programs such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), widely hailed as successful education systems to be emulated by others. However, evidence shows students in these countries do not enjoy school as much, express a less positive attitude and reduced confidence, experience increased anxiety and have less overall life satisfaction, compared to their international counter parts. These Asian countries demonstrate an increased need for more creative and entrepreneurial talents to be cultivated. It is possible the mechanisms that lead to excellent performance (based on testing a few subjects) can produce the side effect of reducing diversity, stifling creativity, discouraging independent thinking and inquiry, and inducing stress, anxiety, and other psychological and social issues.

Unproductive Successes: Side Effects of Instructional Approaches

Direct instruction by teachers has been found effective when quickly transmitting knowledge and developing rote skills. But it can stifle curiosity and creativity, conceptual understanding, and the transfer of information. While successful in the short-term direct instruction may be unproductive in the long term, leading to student’s loss of interest and engagement in the education program . 

I continue my discussion about the side effects of education in Part Two … 


Zhao, Yong. What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education Teachers College Press, June 2018

Please sign in or register for FREE

If you are a registered user on Neuroscience Community, please sign in