Leadership and Management

Analysing research on the extent to which learning benefits from close levels of individualized intervention… and lessons for our own research models.

A more thorough and academic blog than usual, focusing on two pieces of research and their findings on learning and interventions; and an analysis of how these research papers differ in their approach and what that can teach us about our own research models.

There are many examples of research available on the theme of learning and its relationship to intervention, but for this analysis of research and how it impacts on my own working theory and practice, I have selected to consider, and refer to throughout:

Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) ‘Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong- an exploratory study’, Educational Research, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 445–56.


Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) ‘Systematic reviews of educational research- does the medical model fit?’, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 527–41.

Since first encountering these two articles, re-reading them and considering them fully in light of my current role (Executive Headteacher of two schools with a reporting line below me of SENCOs, inclusion leads, teachers and support staff), coupled with previous experiences working as a SENCO in various schools including a split-school site, my understanding of the content and the implications contained therin has significantly developed. Not least because my understanding of terms and concepts such as ontology, epistemology and paradigm has increased through additional reading and dialogue with expert colleagues both at my place of work and online through the CPD opportunities offered via #EduTwitter and conferences.

Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) talks frequently about ‘social science’ and, with the backdrop unveiled above, I am readily appreciating this term differently, especially in light of positivist and interpretivist paradigms. Ontologically, positivism, and associated methodology, with its concern to establish causal or statistical relationships necessarily reduces people and their behaviours to variables. Interpretivists argue that people and their behaviours cannot be limited in this way and are considered more open-endedly. This understanding enabled me to see tensions in the Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) article (see below), and to understand better the decidedly small-scale focus of the Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) article, because I could appreciate that differing ‘world views’ impacted significantly on how a researcher will approach a piece of work.

Bassey (1995) considers the focus of educational research to sit with teachers and education chiefs, and gives prominence to the relationship between educational research and practice which Bassey clearly considers desirable. Bassey contrasts this with what he calls research on education, and I feel that these considerations match well with my evolving understanding of different paradigms. The two articles analysed here, demonstrate, I hope, these differing attitudes.

 Both articles set out their view of learning and learners along similar lines. Both consider learning to benefit from close levels of fairly individualized intervention (whether that be language intervention in the Gao, F. and Shum, M. article, or EBD intervention in the Evans, J. and Benefield, P. article) and both focus on the intervention as a tool to ‘unlock’ or ‘break down’ a barrier to learning so that the learner can become a better independent learner, rather than the intervention being the transmission of knowledge per se.

The Evans, J and Benefield, P. (2001) article does appear to give rise to some inconsistencies in this viewpoint, however. The overall sense that EBD is a barrier to learning that can be removed through intervention sits alongside a view that learning occurs when passed on or taught by the teacher. Remove the barrier, and that learning can take place. Removing the barrier, however, means allowing students to become independent learners and with that comes an implication that learning is more than simply receiving information transmitted to you – it is about learners independently making sense of their world. If this ontological standpoint is fully drawn, the tension between an interpretivist and positivist response to how the research problem and question is conceptualized and should be addressed becomes evident. The article recognizes that it discounts in its review examples of strategies or approaches that affect the whole-class but also impact on effective EBD intervention, suggesting that the view of learning is that it cannot or should not be incidental. This verges on making concrete a supposition of the authors that learners, even when receiving the same information / discourse from a teacher, take away very different aspects from it. Discounting such examples to focus only on the specific EBD purpose of any teaching and the quantative outcome upon the learner suggests an ontological perspective at odds with the above suggestion about learners being free to make sense in their own way. This potentially confused mix resonates with Birrell, G. (2014) who in recognizing that Evans, J. and Benefield, P. appear aware of these contradictions and potential weaknesses ‘have then proceeded to do absolutely nothing about veering away from the various quantative methodological operations underpinned by this world view!’ Birrell, G. (2014).

Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) present a view that learning is inextricably linked to confidence and self-esteem; raise these aspects of a learner’s learning dispositions, and you find the find the key to learning progress is presented. There is a suggestion within the article that it is relatively common practice in UK schools to provide EAL students with dedicated one-to-one support from a bilingual teaching assistant. Gao and Shum’s view point is communicated clearly in that bilingual teachers will use a learners’ first language to support and develop learning, drawing on a learner’s cultural background to help boost their confidence, self-esteem and independence as learners. The emphasis on recognizing that learners should be encouraged to make sense of learning in the light of their own cultural and personal circumstances represents an ontological and epistemological position that examines how people make sense of their situation, the problems they may face and how they overcome them. That Gao and Shum report on a small-scale piece of research with qualitative methods featuring as the main resource give further rise to this, and support their view that learners and learning is subjective and relative to the individual.

This acknowledgement of the importance of individualized learning fits with suggestions that the authors have adopted an inclusive view of learning, and it is possible to derive the fact that they thought that it was important that all learners in the classroom should have a positive learning experience, feel that their own heritage is respected, and have the cultural tools to access a range of opportunities in society. In collecting qualitative data – talking to the people they were interested in and asking for their perceptions on the significance of their role – which they then reported, is a reflection of the authors’ belief in this view of learning (and is made even more apparent.)

These tables summarise the similarities and differences offered up by the research analysed:

Similarities between the views of learning and learners in the two articles.Evidence
Learning benefits from close levels of intervention.Both articles consider the role of some sort of intervention and its effectiveness. Both articles appear to explicitly ‘open’ the debate and raise the status of the issue in its policy context.
Learners should have a positive learning experience. Both articles appear to offer their research as a driver for change for the better for learners.
Policy-makers can impact on learning. Whilst it is more readily obvious that Evan’s, J and Benefield, P. is aimed at and for policy-makers, by undertaking and publishing their research, Gao and Shum have begun the process of raising the status of the issue in its policy context.
Differences between the views of learning and learners in the two articles.Evidence
Intervention must be tailored to the specific issue – holistic approaches are irrelevant. This difference arises out of the authors’ ontological and epistemological positions; despite being more complex than this, in the interests of brevity and succinctness, that is who is research for? The practitioner or the policy-maker?
Learning cannot or should not be incidental. As above.
Effectiveness of interventions can be quantatively evaluated / measured. This is entirely to do with the choice of paradigm – Gao and Shum is interpretivist in contrast to Evans and Benefield who are positivist. 

The Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) article appears to sit neatly within the interpretivist paradigm. The article describes its purpose as ‘small scale exploratory research’ and indeed focuses much of its conclusions on the back of discussions with just two bilingual teaching assistants. ‘Small scale’ is often a hallmark of the interpretivist, as referenced by the Open University (2013) which acknowledges that interpretivists often look at how people make sense of their world In this case, interviews and classroom observations were used to establish the sense made of their world by two teaching assistants and the teachers and learners they worked with. In addition, the subjectivity of any interpretations of data collected help to position this article within the interpretivist paradigm. The suggestions within the article that relationships between the teaching assistant, teacher and learner all impact on the role of the bilingual teaching assistant enhance the ontological position that role of each individual potentially impacts, and that is inextricably linked to the epistemological favouring of the ‘observational,’ i.e qualitative research using questions and exploring individual perceptions in order to give rise to conclusions. Indeed, the differing perceptions as presented in the ‘findings’ section of the article reinforces that this research is not attempting to ignore or by-pass such human influences. This, together with the aforementioned ‘small scale’ approach, appears to correlate closely with Gage’s (1989) suggestion that interpretivism rejects ‘the assumption of uniformity in nature – the assumption that phenomena would occur in the same way in different places and times’ since the article concludes with a recognition that the research is limited in scope and cannot imply or suggest that the conclusions ‘are necessarily representative of a wider context (Gao and Shum 2010.) In fact, it is difficult to suggest from the article that such a generalization is even a goal of the authors, thus supporting Schofield’s notion that ‘qualitative researchers have traditionally paid scant attention to the issue of attaining generalizability in research, sometimes even disdaining such a goal.. (Schofield J.W 1990.)

By contrast, Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) nestles more firmly within the positivist paradigm. The article examines the ‘fit’ of a medical model to educational research, and seems to suggest that it can indeed rely solely on quantitative methods and analyses. The article advocates a systematic review – that is ‘an explicit research question to be addressed; transparency of methods used for searching for studies; exhaustive searches which look for unpublished as well as published studies; clear criteria for assessing the quality of studies (both qualitative and quantitative); clear criteria for including or excluding studies based on the scope of the review and quality assessment; joint reviewing to reduce bias; a clear statement of the endings of the review. (Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) pg 529.) The distinction can be drawn between this type of review and what Slavin (1995) refers to as a ‘narrative’ review; the former being open and explicit about the scope and evidence, the latter being more ‘open-ended’ and less clear about the methodology for their reviews. Indeed, Hammersley (2001) pg 544-6 posits that a positivist model of systematic review must ‘employ explicit procedures in selecting and evaluating studies: relevance criteria must be identified, and all studies meeting those criteria are to be included in the review and evaluated in terms of whether their designs meet the specified validity threshold.’ This, again, tends to suggest a very considered, but very linear, approach which I believe underlines the positivist view. The consideration of EBD interventions as the focus of the review appears to sit uncomfortably alongside the absence of qualitative data, an issue explored on page 539. If case studies and small-scale interpretivist approaches could conceivably ‘illuminate why particular [EBD] interventions are effective’ then to relegate such practice to being of secondary importance is note-worthy and the implication being that the researchers’ ontological and epistemological position does not include social and stakeholder responsive commentary on EBD intervention as a significant one.

The article causes the reader to wrestle with this apparent unease throughout, ultimately acknowledging its awareness of the limitations whilst simultaneously remaining true to the positivist paradigm. And whilst claiming to be anything but dismissive of teacher ‘craft knowledge’ and bottom up strategies, the tone is somewhat different – and clearly sets itself in the position of offering itself up to policy-makers as a means to effect change.

My own experience to date with undertaking research is firmly very small-scale action research, well within the definition of action research offered by Kemmis, S. (1998). Action research which I have undertaken has nearly always been informal, and to take one such example, I altered my pedagogical approach in the classroom in order to monitor the effect upon student achievement. My approach included self-reflection, written diary notes, commentaries and evaluations of lessons and pupil interviews. I was concerned only with my own practice and the improvement of it. In effect, positivist notions of rationality, objectivity and truth were rejected in favour of interpretative ideals (see Kemmis, S. 1998). Only becoming explicitly so in the recent undertaking of this analysis and review of research, it is clearer now that I am interested primarily in the distinctive nature of people’s beliefs, attitudes and resulting actions, the way people interpret and make sense of their world, and the fluid nature of relationships between people as the starting point and driver for any research and approaches to research I should I be so inclined to take. I also return to Ball’s suggestion (Ball, S. (2011)) that research should not necessarily lead to some kind of proof or truth, but instead should concern ‘complexity, uncertainty and doubt’ (a recurring theme in his works,) and has prompted me to consider the ‘fluid’ nature of educational research in both response and outcome.


Bassey, M. (1995) ‘On the kinds of research in educational settings’, in Hammersley, M. (eds) Educational Research and Evidence-based Practice, London, SAGE Publications pp. 141–50.

Ball, S. (2011) ‘A new research agenda for educational leadership and policy’, Management in Education, vol. 25, no. 2, [online]. Available at http://mie.sagepub.com/content/25/2/50

Evans, J. and Benefield, P. (2001) ‘Systematic reviews of educational research: does the medical model fit?’, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 527–41

Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) ‘Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong: an exploratory study’, Educational Research, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 445–56

Gage, N. (1989) ‘The paradigm wars and their aftermath, in Hammersley, M. (eds) Educational Research and Evidence-based Practice, London, SAGE Publications pp. 151–166.

Hammersley, M. (2001) ‘On “systematic” reviews of research literatures: a “narrative” response to Evans and Benefield’, British Educational Research Journal, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 543–54.

Kemmis, S. (1998) ‘Action Research’, in Hammersley, M. (eds) ‘Educational Research and Evidence exploratory study’, Educational Research, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 445–56

Schofield, J.W. (1990) ‘Increasing the generalizability of qualitative research’, in Hammersley, M. (eds) Educational Research and Evidence-based Practice, London, SAGE Publications pp. 181–203.

Slavin, R. E. (1995) Best evidence synthesis: an intelligent alternative to meta analysis, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 48, pp. 9–18.

The Open University (2013) ‘Exploring and Examining Research’, [Online].

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