Research Ed 2014

There’s a kind of brutality about holding an education conference on the first Saturday of the first week of term. Last year, I had just begun a new job in a new school, and I remember half sleeping through a session in the afternoon before calling it a day early. Whole months blurred by thereafter. Not so this year.

John Tomsett, Alex Quigley, Rob Coe, Stuart Kime

My day opened with a session in the stunningly be-windowed Old School Hall with some helpful thoughts on research in a school setting. Tomsett noted that working in a school was not about research vs. evidence, but about the two taken together. He remarked that his school development plan consisted of only two aspects: 1. Improve the quality of teaching and 2. I missed, possibly distracted by the countless humans attempting to enter a room clearly squished to capacity. Quigley explained we need to move beyond guesswork, but that this was hard as schools are always changing – both internally, and externally due to political implications. As well as piloting a series of RCTs, Quigley’s aim is to put research in the hands of teachers, giving them time to look at and understand it. Coe and Kime relayed the challenges and expressed the need for robust evaluation. I admire what they’re doing, and am excited to see what the outcome is.

Dylan Wiliam

The creator of AfL was my next session. Wiliam began by reassuring teachers in the room that doctors do not always follow the evidence, with apparently 40% of GPs prescribing antibiotics where they know it will have no impact, i.e. for viral infections; to make patients feel better. Education research was, he explained, “messy.” Wiliam ran through the issues of RCTs, which essentially boil down to: you can’t control what humans say or do at every (any?) moment in time. The most helpful take-aways for me were his comments on the EEF’s teacher toolkit, which ranks interventions against the cost and the “effect size.” He noted that this only reflects how these interventions are currently used, and not their potential; if setting has an adverse effect on students (minus one month in learning), this could also reflect schools’ tendencies to place the best teachers with the C/D borderline classes, and neglect the higher and lower achieving classes. Wiliam said the best teachers need to be with the students who need them the most; students who need to go furtherst. I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly. Feedback, which ranks very highly for effect size, can, when poor, make things worse for children. Research of this kind can only measure outcomes; we really need to drill down into practice as a next step.

Philippa Cordingley

Cordingley spoke of her study into Teach First schools (which are, by definition, schools which are low achieving in exam results and/or serving economically deprived communities), and what made some schools “Exceptional.” In terms of exceptional, she explained many were “Ofsted Outstanding”, and others achieved more than 75% A*-C (including English and Maths) at GCSE level. I think it is worth bullet pointing the practices of exceptional schools, as explained in the session:

  • All teachers took responsibility for their own CPD and sought to improve
  • Teachers had deep expertise and knowledge of the curriculum, and saw this as more important than improving their pedagogy
  • Coaching/mentoring was incredibly structured and formal
  • There was a structured learning environment for teachers in improving their practice
  • Leaders in the school were aware of modeling themselves as learners rather than experts
  • They invested in teacher education
  • They had a single model of pedagogy which was clear to all teachers, and which all teachers bought into, and there was a shared understanding of what made fantastic teaching and learning
  • Performance management was rigorous, resulting in some persistent underperformers leaving and the other previously underperforming teachers improving
  • They were interested in working with the community
  • They worked hard to involve parents
  • Rather than focusing on behaviour, their focus was on improving teaching and learning; behaviour often improved after the teaching
  • Department meetings were where teachers talked about teaching
  • Teaching and learning practices were underpinned by theory and research

This might reflect my own confirmation bias, because all of the above sounds sensible, but the other findings sound a little muddy to me: group work was used more in exceptional school, except for in MFL lessons. More interactive learning methods (games, puzzles, websites) were used in the exceptional schools in all lessons – except English, where lessons were more traditional. I can’t quite square this data, and I began to wonder about how much of the research we could take at face value, given the small sample size. Nonetheless, some helpful ideas.

Michael Cladingbowl

The Director of Schools for Ofsted seems an affable chap, calm and pleasant. By no means an evil devil ogre. He spoke sensibly of Ofsted’s overall mission: to improve schools’ improvement, as per its statutary duty. He reminded us of the not-so-distant past, where 2.3 million children were in “mediocre” schools, which had often been that way for generations. He also remarked that “he history of inspection [was] littered with the corpses of those who have tried to do too much.” Clearly, much needs to change with the inspectorate, but in trying to do all things they may well succeed in none. He referenced the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills, noting “a sensible teacher does a bit of both.” Previously an English teacher, Cladingbowl was well aware of the power of language: the language of Osted, he remarked, had too often seemed to be the language of “warfare”. I greatly approved of his suggestion to view it instead as a “dance”, as I think that definitely sounds more fun. He noted that inspection must be designed to inspire curiosity and not compliance; teachers and indeed schools cannot be afraid to take risks. He hinted of the bright future, coming to a school near you soon (September 2015), where inspection would provide clearer evidence to parents, and inspectors would be solely contracted and trained by Ofsted. He mentioned that eventually (and there was a vagueness about the time period of this eventuality) there would be less focus on grades, and a change to thinking about whether a school is good enough, as well as “telling the story” about the data, answering the question: “why are the outcomes of this school as they are?”

Tom Sherrington

I was very excited to hear Tom Sherrington speak, as I’ve been an avid reader of his blog, where you can in fact read his overview of this session. Sherrington dug deep into several key areas of research, usefully glossing works as he went. He began with Hattie’s on homework: although the overall effect size seems small at 0.29 (0.4 is apparently the level at which an intervention has a meaningful impact), on closer inspection this is an average of the primary school impact (0.15) and the secondary, 0.64; so in fact, homework can be an extremely effective lever for student achievement. Later, Sherrington emphasised that we must take care that results are not just the average of extremes. He also warned that when research is presented as a “digest”, “soundbite” or “headline”, it can lead to bad decisions: the detail is crucial. He went on to mention Bjork on memory, considering that students retain more knowledge when their learning is spaced or interleaved. The implication for schools, he went on, is that they need to consider how much weight to place on this evidence: especially as this could lead to a complete re-working of the curriculum, we need to be sure. He then explored two pieces of research, and explained the pitfalls and drawbacks of each, reconfirming what William had said earlier about the messiness of education research, and dealing with humans in general. Although overtly aware of his own confirmation bias, I liked what Sherrington said, because I probably have the same bias. He referenced a rule in his new school about “green pens”, and noted that is we are to make certain pedagogy practices “law”, we have to have evidence and a degree of certainty in its efficacy to achieve the buy-in of teachers. The essential message: don’t take anything on face value: interrogate the detail.

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