What Works Can Hurt - Part Two

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

In the previous post, I introduced evidence that what appears to work in an education system, may not produce a successful outcome for all students. Some students performance might experience negative side effects, influencing their future prospects as a consequence. I continue my discussion about “What Works Can Hurt”.  

One Person’s Medicine is Another Person’s Poison: Side Effects of Teachers

Countries are encouraged to recruit top graduates into the teaching profession under the premise they will make more effective teachers. But research has found highly academically skilled teachers are indeed effective but only with high achieving students. For low achieving students, they might be detrimental. 

Context Matters: Side Effects of Programs

School choice has become a popular and highly controversial topic. Research shows that voucher programs benefit children whose parents are able to take advantage of these programs but hurts those who cannot. More importantly, evidence demonstrates voucher programs can be effective in some contexts, for example, improved achievement for some students from communities in Milwaukee and New York City, but disastrous in others. 

Why Side Effects Happen in Education?

Side effects from education can happen for a number of common sense reasons. First, time is a constant and when a school system only focuses on a few subjects, such as reading and math, students don’t have the time to focus on other and perhaps more important things.

Second, when school resources are devoted to the common core, it forces other subjects to the periphery. Activities that would normally promote students’ long-term growth are sidelined in favour of raising test scores alone.

Third, individuals learn, think and behave differently, and some educational outcomes are inherently contradictory. It is difficult to expect a creative and entrepreneurial group of people to ever evolve into a homogenous workforce. Rote memorisation is poles apart from conceptually understanding and learning information. Efforts to change the learning habits of individuals in favour of memorising facts, for instance, can potentially force some students to forgo the deep and extended exploration they require to conceptually understand and transfer information. 

Finally, the same products may work differently for individuals in alternating contexts. Some people are allergic to penicillin, while other drugs have negative consequences when taken with alcohol. Likewise, practices, such as direct instruction may work better for knowledge transmission, but not as effectively for long term exploration. School choice policy does not always work when meaningful choices are not available to students, as is the case in extremely remote rural areas.

No Panacea: Conclusion

An important lesson from modern medicine is that no panacea cures all disease without any side effects. To transform education into a scientific field of evidence-based practices, we need to accept that education products might prove more harmful, even while achieving beneficial outcomes. Parents, education professionals, policy makers and researchers need to take side effects more seriously because what works may hurt.


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