The 10 Most Significant Education Studies of 2021
From reframing our notion of “good” schools to mining the magic of expert teachers, here’s a curated list of must-read research from 2021.
It was a year of unprecedented hardship for teachers and school leaders. We pored through hundreds of studies to see if we could follow the trail of exactly what happened: The research revealed a complex portrait of a grueling year during which persistent issues of burnout and mental and physical health impacted millions of educators. Meanwhile, many of the old debates continued: Does paper beat digital? Is project-based learning as effective as direct instruction? How do you define what a “good” school is?
Other studies grabbed our attention, and in a few cases, made headlines. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Columbia University turned artificial intelligence loose on some 1,130 award-winning children’s books in search of invisible patterns of bias. (Spoiler alert: They found some.) Another study revealed why many parents are reluctant to support social and emotional learning in schools—and provided hints about how educators can flip the script.
1. What Parents Fear About SEL (and How to Change Their Minds)
When researchers at the Fordham Institute asked parents to rank phrases associated with social and emotional learning, nothing seemed to add up. The term “social-emotional learning” was very unpopular; parents wanted to steer their kids clear of it. But when the researchers added a simple clause, forming a new phrase—”social-emotional & academic learning”—the program shot all the way up to No. 2 in the rankings.
Parents were picking up subtle cues in the list of SEL-related terms that irked or worried them, the researchers suggest. Phrases like “soft skills” and “growth mindset” felt “nebulous” and devoid of academic content. For some, the language felt suspicious like “code for liberal indoctrination.”
But the study suggests that parents might need the simplest of reassurances to break through the political noise. Removing the jargon, focusing on productive phrases like “life skills,” and relentlessly connecting SEL to academic progress puts parents at ease—and seems to save social and emotional learning in the process.
2. The Secret Management Techniques of Expert Teachers
In the hands of experienced teachers, classroom management can seem almost invisible: Subtle techniques are quietly at work behind the scenes, with students falling into orderly routines and engaging in rigorous academic tasks almost as if by magic.
That’s no accident, according to new research. While outbursts are inevitable in school settings, expert teachers seed their classrooms with proactive, relationship-building strategies that often prevent misbehavior before it erupts. They also approach discipline more holistically than their less-experienced counterparts, consistently reframing misbehavior in the broader context of how lessons can be more engaging, or how clearly they communicate expectations.
Focusing on the underlying dynamics of classroom behavior—and not on surface-level disruptions—means that expert teachers often look the other way at all the right times, too. Rather than rise to the bait of a minor breach in etiquette, a common mistake of new teachers, they tend to play the long game, asking questions about the origins of misbehavior, deftly navigating the terrain between discipline and student autonomy, and opting to confront misconduct privately when possible.
3. The Surprising Power of Pretesting
Asking students to take a practice test before they’ve even encountered the material may seem like a waste of time—after all, they’d just be guessing.
But new research concludes that the approach, called pretesting, is actually more effective than other typical study strategies. Surprisingly, pretesting even beat out taking practice tests after learning the material, a proven strategy endorsed by cognitive scientists and educators alike. In the study, students who took a practice test before learning the material outperformed their peers who studied more traditionally by 49 percent on a follow-up test, while outperforming students who took practice tests after studying the material by 27 percent.
The researchers hypothesize that the “generation of errors” was a key to the strategy’s success, spurring student curiosity and priming them to “search for the correct answers” when they finally explored the new material—and adding grist to a 2018 study that found that making educated guesses helped students connect background knowledge to new material.
Learning is more durable when students do the hard work of correcting misconceptions, the research suggests, reminding us yet again that being wrong is an important milestone on the road to being right.
4. Confronting an Old Myth About Immigrant Students
Immigrant students are sometimes portrayed as a costly expense to the education system, but new research is systematically dismantling that myth.
In a 2021 study, researchers analyzed over 1.3 million academic and birth records for students in Florida communities and concluded that the presence of immigrant students actually has “a positive effect on the academic achievement of U.S.-born students,” raising test scores as the size of the immigrant school population increases. The benefits were especially powerful for low-income students.
While immigrants initially “face challenges in assimilation that may require additional school resources,” the researchers concluded, hard work and resilience may allow them to excel and thus “positively affect exposed U.S.-born students’ attitudes and behavior.” But according to teacher Larry Ferlazzo, the improvements might stem from the fact that having English language learners in classes improves pedagogy, pushing teachers to consider “issues like prior knowledge, scaffolding, and maximizing accessibility.”
5. A Fuller Picture of What a ‘Good’ School Is
It’s time to rethink our definition of what a “good school” is, researchers assert in a study published in late 2020. That’s because typical measures of school quality like test scores often provide an incomplete and misleading picture, the researchers found.
The study looked at over 150,000 ninth-grade students who attended Chicago public schools and concluded that emphasizing the social and emotional dimensions of learning—relationship-building, a sense of belonging, and resilience, for example—improves high school graduation and college matriculation rates for both high- and low-income students, beating out schools that focus primarily on improving test scores.
“Schools that promote socio-emotional development actually have a really big positive impact on kids,” said lead researcher C. Kirabo Jackson in an interview with Edutopia. “And these impacts are particularly large for vulnerable student populations who don’t tend to do very well in the education system.”
The findings reinforce the importance of a holistic approach to measuring student progress and are a reminder that schools—and teachers—can influence students in ways that are difficult to measure, and may only materialize well into the future.
6. Teaching Is Learning
One of the best ways to learn a concept is to teach it to someone else. But do you actually have to step into the shoes of a teacher, or does the mere expectation of teaching do the trick?
In a 2021 study, researchers split students into two groups and gave them each a science passage about the Doppler effect—a phenomenon associated with sound and light waves that explains the gradual change in tone and pitch as a car races off into the distance, for example. One group studied the text as preparation for a test; the other was told that they’d be teaching the material to another student.
The researchers never carried out the second half of the activity—students read the passages but never taught the lesson. All of the participants were then tested on their factual recall of the Doppler effect, and their ability to draw deeper conclusions from the reading.
The upshot? Students who prepared to teach outperformed their counterparts in both duration and depth of learning, scoring 9 percent higher on factual recall a week after the lessons concluded, and 24 percent are higher on their ability to make inferences. The research suggests that asking students to prepare to teach something—or encouraging them to think “could I teach this to someone else?”—can significantly alter their learning trajectories.
7. A Disturbing Strain of Bias in Kids’ Books
Some of the most popular and well-regarded children’s books—Caldecott and Newbery honorees among them—persistently depict Black, Asian, and Hispanic characters with lighter skin, according to new research.
Using artificial intelligence, researchers combed through 1,130 children’s books written in the last century, comparing two sets of diverse children’s books—one a collection of popular books that garnered major literary awards, the other favored by identity-based awards. The software analyzed data on skin tone, race, age, and gender.
Among the findings: While more characters with darker skin color begin to appear over time, the most popular books—those most frequently checked out of libraries and lining classroom bookshelves—continue to depict people of color in lighter skin tones. More insidiously, when adult characters are “moral or upstanding,” their skin color tends to appear lighter, the study’s lead author, Anjali Aduki, told The 74, with some books converting “Martin Luther King Jr.’s chocolate complexion to a light brown or beige.” Female characters, meanwhile, are often seen but not heard.
Cultural representations are a reflection of our values, the researchers conclude: “Inequality in representation, therefore, constitutes an explicit statement of inequality of value.”
8. The Never-Ending ‘Paper Versus Digital’ War
The argument goes like this: Digital screens turn reading into a cold and impersonal task; they’re good for information foraging, and not much more. “Real” books, meanwhile, have a heft and “tactility” that make them intimate, enchanting—and irreplaceable.
But researchers have often found weak or equivocal evidence for the superiority of reading on paper. While a recent study concluded that paper books yielded better comprehension than e-books when many of the digital tools had been removed, the effect sizes were small. A 2021 meta-analysis further muddies the water: When digital and paper books are “mostly similar,” kids comprehend the print version more readily—but when enhancements like motion and sound “target the story content,” e-books generally have the edge.
Nostalgia is a force that every new technology must eventually confront. There’s plenty of evidence that writing with pen and paper encodes learning more deeply than typing. But new digital book formats come preloaded with powerful tools that allow readers to annotate, look up words, answer embedded questions, and share their thinking with other readers.
We may not be ready to admit it, but these are precisely the kinds of activities that drive deeper engagement, enhance comprehension, and leave us with a lasting memory of what we’ve read. The future of e-reading, despite the naysayers, remains promising.
9. New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL
Many classrooms today still look like they did 100 years ago when students were preparing for factory jobs. But the world’s moved on: Modern careers demand a more sophisticated set of skills—collaboration, advanced problem-solving, and creativity, for example—and those can be difficult to teach in classrooms that rarely give students the time and space to develop those competencies.
Project-based learning (PBL) would seem like an ideal solution. But critics say PBL places too much responsibility on novice learners, ignoring the evidence about the effectiveness of direct instruction and ultimately undermining subject fluency. Advocates counter that student-centered learning and direct instruction can and should coexist in classrooms.
Now two new large-scale studies—encompassing over 6,000 students in 114 diverse schools across the nation—provide evidence that a well-structured, project-based approach boosts learning for a wide range of students.
In the studies, which were funded by Lucas Education Research, a sister division of Edutopia, elementary and high school students engaged in challenging projects that had them designing water systems for local farms, or creating toys using simple household objects to learn about gravity, friction, and force. Subsequent testing revealed notable learning gains—well above those experienced by students in traditional classrooms—and those gains seemed to raise all boats, persisting across socioeconomic class, race, and reading levels.
10. Tracking a Tumultuous Year for Teachers
The Covid-19 pandemic cast a long shadow over the lives of educators in 2021, according to a year’s worth of research.
The average teacher’s workload suddenly “spiked last spring,” wrote the Center for Reinventing Public Education in its January 2021 report, and then—in defiance of the laws of motion—simply never let up. By the fall, a RAND study recorded an astonishing shift in work habits: 24 percent of teachers reported that they were working 56 hours or more per week, compared to 5 percent pre-pandemic.
The vaccine was the promised land, but when it arrived nothing seemed to change. In an April 2021 survey conducted four months after the first vaccine was administered in New York City, 92 percent of teachers said their jobs were more stressful than prior to the pandemic, up from 81 percent in an earlier survey.
It wasn’t just the length of the workdays; a close look at the research reveals that the school system’s failure to adjust expectations was ruinous. It seemed to start with the obligations of hybrid teaching, which surfaced in Edutopia’s coverage of overseas school reopenings. In June 2020, well before many U.S. schools reopened, we reported that hybrid teaching was an emerging problem overseas, and warned that if the “model is to work well for any period of time,” schools must “recognize and seek to reduce the workload for teachers.” Almost eight months later, a 2021 RAND study identified hybrid teaching as a primary source of teacher stress in the U.S., easily outpacing factors like the health of a high-risk loved one.
New and ever-increasing demands for tech solutions put teachers on a knife’s edge. In several important 2021 studies, researchers concluded that teachers were being pushed to adopt new technology without the “resources and equipment necessary for its correct didactic use.” Consequently, they were spending more than 20 hours a week adapting lessons for online use, and experiencing an unprecedented erosion of the boundaries between their work and home lives, leading to an unsustainable “always-on” mentality. When it seemed like nothing more could be piled on—when all of the lights were blinking red—the federal government restarted standardized testing.
The change will be hard; many of the pathologies that exist in the system now predate the pandemic. But creating strict school policies that separate work from rest, eliminating the adoption of new tech tools without proper supports, distributing surveys regularly to gauge teacher well-being, and above all listening to educators to identify and confront emerging problems might be a good place to start if the research can be believed.