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.


Wellington Festival

Having suffered from the genuine man flu all week, I certainly was not looking forward to a 5:40am wake-up call on a Saturday. Yet by the mid-morning I was already regretting not requesting a Friday off to have attended both days of the education extravaganza that is the Wellington Festival of Education. Here’s my round-up of the best Saturday I’ve had in months:


Being met at the train station by a courtesy mini-van was a lovely touch, and crammed inside a school van really brought on some nostalgia. Upon entering the hallowed gates of Wellington College, however, it was clear that this was schooling from a different planet: it was like entering some kind of National Trust facility; all manicured lawns and ancient turrets. A few friendly chats as we signed in assured me this would be one of those “share and have the chat” days. The relaxed atmosphere, strengthened by hay bales and plentiful coffee stands, made it feel more like a day off than I had expected.

Session 1: David Starbuck: Growing a love of learning in your school

Mocked mercilessly by my friends for insisting we arrive super-early for this session, I watched as the room filled to standing room only. I had really wanted to attend this session, as I’m a fully paid up member of the Mindset club; however much of the session was explaining what mindset was rather than how to grow it on a whole school level. If nothing else, though, the slick delivery of this engaging session assured me that sessions like this do help to convert teachers, and really – you have to get the teachers first. Starbuck was also good enough to provide some interesting resources from his own school on this topic, which I greatly appreciated.

Session 2: Alex Quigley: Twilight or Middlemarch?

I think this was the session I was most looking forward to. I’ve followed Alex’s blog religiously and been very inspired and influenced by his thoughts, yet never met him. This session was moderately interactive, but mostly Alex shared his new KS3 curriculum and the thinking behind it. Even though I’m sure I’ve seen it on his blog before, there was something about it up on a big screen that made me just think: wow. This is an inspiring curriculum. He explored some of the tensions in creating a curriculum: what makes a piece of literature “great”? How can we practically engage with literature in the limited classroom time we have? How can we foster subject knowledge in our departments? I especially liked such gems as teaching spelling through stories, teaching “She Stoops to Conquer” to year 8 to explore comedy, and the four threshold concept AOs – reading about this hadn’t convinced me, but in person (and again that massive screen) I really got it, and that is the beauty of hearing people talk about their ideas rather than just reading about them.

Lamenting after that I was hugely jealous of Quigley’s curriculum, a friend said: “just steal it.” I sighed. The thing isn’t actually the curriculum itself; it’s the deep knowledge he has of his school, the excellent relationships within a motivated department, and the skill he has in leading people to consensus that has resulted in this curriculum. More than anything, I felt like this was a curriculum made by a team, and you can’t just “steal it” and expect it to work. Alex reminded me I have far still to go in moulding a department.

Session 3: Kris Boulton: How a codified body of knowledge could make teaching a profession

I won’t hide that I really really like Kris as a human being, so my view on this session may well be biased. Beginning with the awesome words: “I’m just a teacher”, he proceeded to wow the room with his confidence and well-thought-out schemes. He began by pointing out that the very fact that there is a debate over whether teaching is a profession undermines it as a profession. The decision to come at the argument from the perspective of a parent of a child was masterful; we must always keep our key stakeholders at the forefront of any thinking we do on our profession. Through his talk, I was brought back to my first fretful year of teaching, not quite knowing what to teach or how – as Joe Kirby mentioned later, you study English at university, but you’re not teaching Foucault; you’re teaching how to read sometimes. A degree is certainly not enough.

One of the highlights of this session for me was the questioner who brought up sharing and developing subject knowledge in department meetings, something I have embarrassingly never even considered doing but will now be pursuing in full force (especially as my department adore English and all read plentifully in their free time – there is a vast well of untapped knowledge there to share!).

Session 4: Geoff Barton: The Habits of Literacy

 Mr Barton is the Headteacher of a wonderful school in my hometown, and is also a bit of a local (and increasingly national) teacher celebrity – I knew I would have to call into his session, if only to tell my Mum (a huge fan of his frequent columns in the Bury Free Press – bastion of local news). Barton began by exploring the word rich/word poor dichotomy, and explaining we needed to “make the implicit explicit” in order to help the latter develop the skills of the former. He also noted “language carries power”, and it is of course our duty as teachers to ensure this power is more fairly spread. He moved on to share some useful strategies: ask questions and give students a chance to “orally rehearse” their answers, explicitly teach students how to make their writing “not boring”, share great examples of great writing and talk about what makes them great, demonstrate the process of writing in all its messiness (I felt for the first time superior and not ashamed of my board-writing: so messy as to be almost-but-not-quite illegible), and naturalise the process of reading.

To say I was inspired is an understatement: at the close of this talk, my close friend both agreed we needed to quit teaching because we’d never, ever be this good. (After lunch we had cheered up and resolved to just try a bit harder.)

Session 5: Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford: Our School System is Unjust

Again here, I am going to flag up a severe case of confirmation bias: I am entirely on board with what Katie and Joe said on this front. This session was beautifully engineered, with Katie and Joe tag-teaming perfectly, and again starting with the children. The premise of this talk is that students from wealthier backgrounds have a double-advantage: they are supported at home to be school ready, and then go to better schools. There were some strong words about the training provided by Teach First, which didn’t surprise me but did interest me – on being asked as a block of audience “do you think Teach First prepared you as well as possible to start teaching?” I was too shy to be the only person putting up my hand, but I definitely should have. Admittedly, I did try to supplement the training by reading a lot of books (as both Katie and Joe did, I’m sure), but part of me feels that the only way to be a great teacher is to do it a few hundred times. Yet Joe’s argument against this might be that children are too important for us to try, fail and reflect – we must get it right the first time around for them. Hard to argue with that.

The conversation segued into some exploration of what texts to teach – Joe mentioned being told to teach Cirque du Freak, and rebelling in year 2 to teach Oliver Twist instead. I empathise with this, as similarly I was uninspired in my first year (I might even have taught Skellig, but I’ve blocked that from living memory) and went on the following year to photocopy the entirety of Animal Farm in a desperate bid to be a better teacher. I’d actually argue it’s easier to teach richer texts – have you tried analyzing the language in the AQA GCSE language paper? There’s nothing there.

Session 6: Gary Wilson: Boys will be brilliant

You might know that I have only ever taught in girls’ schools, so my attendance at this session was part of an effort to up-skill myself in the other. Wilson began by noting that Scandinavia is the only place in the developed world where boys achieve on a par with girls, which is of course shocking. Noting that only a barely believable 4% of the teaching profession is male and under 30 (and the majority of those in secondary schools), Wilson remarked that we cannot wait for male teachers to join en masse and lead by example. Explaining how he had taken a group of “at risk” boys and engaged them in peer mentoring in local primary schools – but cooking, reading and dancing with the primary school boys – Wilson heightened my awareness in the other part of schooling – we’re not only there to get results. We have a greater duty to these children. Much of what Wilson said concerned combating sexism and labeling of “troubled” boys, and made a lot of sense.

Other highlights:

  • Reuniting with an unexpectedly large crew of teachers from my last school, and remembering why I loved working with them so much.
  • Meeting my first Leadership Development Officer (Teach First Mum) again, and her telling me I hadn’t changed (“at all”).
  • The Mr Whippy van at lunchtime.