We Have Overcomplicated Teaching: Research Ed 2016

I was overjoyed to be asked to present at Research Ed’s national conference last Saturday.

We have massively overcomplicated teaching. In my talk, I explored how we have overcomplicated it, why, why we need to go simple and how that would work, using examples from Michaela Community School.

I began the session with a series of questions, which readers may wish to revisit:

  • How many activities do you need in a lesson?
  • How often do the activities change in a lesson?
  • How many different ‘starters’ do you create?
  • How many different ‘plenaries’ do you have?
  • How many variations on tasks do you have?
  • How many slides do you have on a powerpoint?
  • How many resources do you print for each lesson?
  • How many ways are you expected to differentiate for children?
  • How many pages does your scheme of work fill?
  • How often have you changed schemes of work?
  • How often have you taught the same curriculum two or more years in a row?
  • How many intervention sessions have you run after school? Weekends?
  • How much feedback do you give children?
  • How much data do you gather? Input? Use?
  • How many CPD sessions have explored new ways of teaching children?
  • How many targets do you have to meet for your performance appraisal?
  • How many trips do you take?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to take a trip?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to log a behaviour report?
  • How many external agencies are working with your young people?
  • How often do children miss your lessons for interventions?
  • How do you get children to turn up to detentions, and what happens when they don’t?
  • How many action plans have you written?

I spent four years teaching thirty slide powerpoint lessons. Life in a dark room, filled by clicks and mumbles, was uninspiring for both the children and me. The failures of the past, not purely powerpoint-related it must be conceded, have led to what I called ‘intervention hell’ in the present, something that will be kicking in soon for many teachers, if it hasn’t already. We are drowning in data we don’t use. External agencies are taking children out of the one thing that will change their life: lessons where they are learning.

Schools are no longer seen as places of learning – in the expectation that we will educate the whole child, prevent radicalisation, encourage healthy eating, and teach financial literacy (among other initiatives), we are missing the crucial thing: kids learning stuff, passing exams, having successful lives. In 2015, only 53% of kids in the country achieved the old benchmark of 5 A*-C including English and Maths. 47% of kids didn’t even get five Cs including English and Maths. Schools are categorically failing to teach all kids effectively. Our role has been massively overcomplicated.

But the over-complication is not only the state’s fault. We too must accept responsibility. In the ‘missionary teacher’ or ‘martyr teacher’ paradigm, too many of us have decided to ‘sacrifice our lives on the altar of pupil progress’, to borrow a phrase from Joe Kirby’s Michaela debate speech. Working fourteen hour days, working weekends, working holidays (as it seemed nearly the whole room was doing or had done at some point) is categorically not sustainable. Who can do that for thirty, forty years? Our martyrdom has spawned an arms race, where ambitious teachers strive to outcompete each other. Add to this soup flawed accountability measures, spurious research (learning styles, anyone?) and the ‘teacher as entertainer’ model pedalled by teacher training organisations and SLTs up and down the country, and you have a recipe for disastrous burnout, as evidenced by the 50,000 or so teachers leaving the classroom every year.

Why is simplicity better? Three reasons spring to mind: sustainability, consistency, retention. Sustainability for teachers: simpler teaching means we can have lives and carry on doing the job we love for the long-term. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency for children: teachers who stay massively impact on the children. Having the same teachers year in, year out, is undervalued at the moment. (In a later conversation, I mused about school improvement. I think a lot of mediocre schools who achieve great results do so by being strong on two fronts: behaviour, and teachers staying. Behaviour is obvious – better a calm than a chaotic school. But teachers staying, as long as they are middling to excellent and not diabolically harmful to children, has a massive impact on consistency within the school and consistency for children.) And retention: teachers who want to stay in the profession is of obvious benefit to schools who spent enormous sums of money and time on recruitment each year.

How do we simplify teaching? I explored three strands: curriculum, pedagogy and systems.

With the curriculum, I focused on within subject choices, rather than whole-school curriculum. When planning the curriculum, instead of fourteen page schemes of work that no child will ever see (or arguably benefit from), make unit packs. All ‘worksheets’ can be in the pack. No need for a powerpoint – everything is happier when your curtains are open in the classroom, and technology is an added stress teachers simply don’t need in their lives. At Michaela, we use packs to cut workload, but also to benefit kids: the text is central. Kids are reading a vast amount across subjects, not just in English. We add recap questions to strengthen pupil memory, resource comprehension and discussion questions to prevent teachers thinking these up on the spot or the night before, and prepare model exemplars to guide pupils to where we want them to end up.

With pedagogy, I foregrounded the three arms of practice at Michaela: direct instruction, questioning, and extended practice. There is a huge gap between our pupils and their wealthier counterparts, and the gap is partly knowledge and partly practice. To close the knowledge gap, we teach with urgency. We never ask pupils to guess, but instruct upfront by reading text and explaining. We then question to check understanding, and recap to aid memorisation. To close the practice gap, we make sure when we’re not questioning and teaching, the kids are reading and writing. Kids are generally great speakers, great debaters and especially great at arguing; that’s not where the gap is. Our kids need more reading and more writing, so we make sure they do lots of that. We need to teach with urgency all the way through school – from reception to year 10, we teach like every second is vital (because it is). Hopefully that way we can prevent the intervention hell that is year 11.

I showed some clips of what direct instruction looks like, as it can sound massively off-putting:

 

Notice how interactive these lessons are. It’s certainly not a case of teachers lecturing at bored children. We can’t just talk at children – that much is true. We have to constantly question and check they have understood and remembered what we have taught.

Finally, I explored three systems to simplify teaching: behaviour, homework and feedback. Currently, I would imagine the majority of schools ‘allow’ teachers to set their own detentions. This is great for building teacher-pupil relationships, but I would argue the drawbacks outweigh this benefit. Teachers set detentions of any length they choose, so children can judge different teachers to be stricter or ‘easier.’ If a pupil doesn’t turn up, individual teachers have to hunt the child down. Too often, teachers end up chasing detentions that are multiplying, constantly trying to remember who has and has not turned up, and liaising with form tutors and parents to cajole the children into serving their time. Long-term, many teachers give up. I don’t blame them. The administration involved in setting, sitting, chasing detentions is too much. So teachers stop bothering.

Similarly with homework – and homework isn’t just challenging in terms of sanctioning non-completion. Teachers are desperately trying to think up new and different homework tasks, setting it, and then marking it. Again, all this administration is overburdening and discourages pupil completion (‘son, what’s your science homework?’ ‘No idea. Something about research? It might be due next Tuesday? Dunno.’) At Michaela, all teachers set the same homework on a rigid timetable. All kids are revising their subjects for the same length of time in the same way. Absolutely no confusion over what they need to do or when; no excuses. (We use knowledge organisers to set this revision.)

Finally feedback – I’ve written at length on this before, so I would encourage you to revisit my lengthier piece if you’re interested. The long and the short of it: don’t do it.

I ended with some advice for leaders. When you have a shining star working 14 hour days, it is tempting to let them get on with it. But that sets unrealistic expectations for others, and could set up unfair comparisons between them and other teachers. They are also too often using their time pointlessly: extra marking, making transient displays, or forty five slide PowerPoints with the requisite resources. Instead, have the conversation with them: could every teacher do what you are doing? Do you want a family one day? Will you be able to do this when you do? When you lead a department, would you want every teacher doing this? Thousands of teachers leave the profession every year – how do we make this a school where people want to stay? What is the impact of your excessive workload on others in the department?

Leaders need to lead by example, teaching rigorous content, actually teaching, limiting their activities, resources and feedback (I suggested teachers carry a red pen around with you when kids are writing, and use icons to set targets instead of laborious written comments). Leaders need to mitigate the impact of school systems on teachers: if you lead a department, you set a centralised detention for that department if your school will not (show the SLT it works).

There were a number of questions and comments following the talk. One common thread in these questions was: where is the room for teacher creativity with such a rigid system? I guess we don’t really value creativity as highly as consistency and workload at Michaela. Although there is plenty of space for creativity in delivery (see: Jonny Porter jousting, above), we don’t let teachers make whizzy jazzy PowerPoints or decide to teach their own thing in their own way. Michaela is not for everyone.

But I would challenge questioners: sometimes what we enjoy doing most is not the best thing for the kids. And sometimes what we enjoy doing in our own classroom, going above and beyond for our kids, has an adverse impact on the others around us, not to mention our own workload. And finally, great content is exciting in and of itself! I wouldn’t choose to teach Julius Caesar – it’s not my favourite Shakespeare play. But I absolutely loved teaching it, because it’s Shakespeare! Same with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – not my favourite poem, but again, it is a great one, and so great to teach.

I was heartened by the people I met afterwards: it was especially lovely to hear teachers say to me: ‘I’ve done this for years and always been told I was wrong!’ What I’ve said is not revolutionary: many, many teachers have always known this. I hope Michaela can shine a light on what works for kids and teachers and allow these brilliant professionals to just teach, and then have a life. Some of what I said was not appreciated by some members of the audience; I had reports of some eye-rolling and tutting as I was speaking. I’d like to say: thank you. Thank you for coming to hear me speak, thank you for not walking out, thank you for taking the time to be challenged. Next time: ask a question, get in touch, tell me what you don’t like. It is wonderful to debate these ideas. I really think that in sacrificing some individuality and creativity we can deliver amazing results for pupils, and amazing work-life balance for teachers.

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Memory in English

On Saturday 7th November, I was delighted to present at Research Ed Literacy in Swindon. I was speaking about memory, and began by saying this is something I have only recently been concerned with. When Michael Gove some years ago suggested teaching children poetry by heart, I thought this was a terrible idea – what a waste of precious curriculum time! They have so much to learn, why waste time with this? I have, however, completely changed my mind on memory, and not just because of external imperatives – though, of course, closed text exams at GCSE has been the trigger for many of us in starting to prioritise memory.

Memory is important because if nothing has been remembered, nothing has been learned. I have an A grade at Physics GCSE, but if I sat the exam now I would fail completely. Can I really say I know Physics? I don’t think so. I’ve crammed Physics, enough to pass an exam, but I haven’t learned it. 

Cramming is not the name of the game; we are not computers storing endless facts. Instead, our brains collect these seemingly isolated facts and embed them into networks of perceptions, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And these facts, this knowledge, is vital to all we do; in reading comprehension, a knowledge of the subject matter predicts your capacity to comprehend a piece, as Eric Kalenze brilliantly pointed out in his session, with an incomprehensible piece on American football plays.

As Daisy Chrisodoulou points out, though, we often underestimate our knowledge and overestimate students’. She makes the argument that general knowledge is like oxygen: vitally important, but we only notice it when it isn’t there. Furthermore, the more knowledge we have, the more we can get: knowledge loves knowledge; or, knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks to other things.

English has, in the past, been seen as a ‘skills based’ subject; but the idea we can transfer skills across texts with no regard for background knowledge of those texts is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea that if we can analyse a maths problem, we can analyse a cave painting. For a full and enjoyable debunking of the skills argument, I refer you to James Theobald.

Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think about. Our job as teachers, then, is to ensure students think hard about our subjects. This links to Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’: we need to make students think hard, not allow them to sit back and passively let the ideas wash over them, leaving no trace of their existence. But we must be careful with this idea: school is already very hard; students are shunted from subject to subject, having to come to terms with up to six a day; there is no need to surprise students every time they enter our classroom (‘today – nouns! Tomorrow, ‘Oliver Twist’! Thursday, poetry!’) – this is just too difficult. We only need to put something in place that makes students think a little more. Don’t just read a passage, ask a few questions about it that students all have to think about to answer. That’s a desirable difficulty.

How do we build memory? In my initial scripting of the presentation I had written: ‘it’s not just rote learning of dry, meaningless facts.’ But actually, I disagree with my summer self – it sometimes is. In learning a language, I had to learn how to decline nouns, or conjugate verbs, and rote learning of those dry, meaningless facts suddenly became very exciting and meaningful in the schema of learning a language. Once those isolated facts were committed to memory, they could then link up with hundreds of other ideas. We’re keen to skip this stuff as teachers, because we know it isn’t fun; but school isn’t about fun, it’s about learning. And this is how we learn.

Making children remember what you say can take many forms: Willingham says we are attuned to narrative, so we could make our lessons into stories – not too difficult in English, as we deal in stories, but not always easy to make each individual lesson story-like. He also says we remember what prompts emotion, but it’s really difficult to be sure all your children have felt the emotion you intended. Also, what if someone comes in a bit tired, a bit grumpy, or already very emotional? I don’t think emotion or stories are reliable enough to ensure we build students’ memory in the classroom on a day to day basis. What is reliable is quizzing: any teacher can quiz students about key ideas. When I visited Michaela Community School, in every lesson I saw at least 20 minutes of recap: unabashed testing of prior knowledge, from previous days, but also from previous units.

I shared some strategies borrowed from Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou: first knowledge maps, and then multiple choice questions, and explained how these were quick and easy to get recap into lessons on a daily basis.

In building students’ memories in English over the course of their study, I suggested two guiding principles: first, what are the hidden bodies of knowledge in the subject? The things we just know, that we now need to systematically teach to our students? I’d suggest these are grammar, and the literary canon (in a cruel twist of fate, I was scheduled at the same time as Katie Ashford, who has to be the most forward-thinking expert on grammar working in schools right now). We then need to sequence these ideas in the optimal way to help students see the links between them, and build up their knowledge incrementally, building in time for revisiting and interleaving the core concepts we want students to remember in the long term.

If it’s not yet clear, I need to explicitly say that there is not one original idea in what I have said. I’ve read a great many books, contained in the presentation, and a great many blogs, and had a great many conversations; I’ve stuck them together and worked at these in my own context. I’m not the ideas person. Despite this, I am so grateful that so many people came along, and were so engaging and so warm in their interactions.

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Memory in English

Research Ed 2015

There is surely no better way to begin the school year than immersing yourself in the genius of other educators. Compared with the last two conferences, though, this is the first I have attended every session, and not felt overly exhausted by the close – a testament, I think, to beginning the school year in a dynamic school with an exciting role, surrounded by supportive staff, but also to Tom Bennett’s astonishing capacity to gather together the best and the brightest to deliver and to dazzle.

Daisy Christodoulou: Life after levels

A long-time admirer of Christodoulou since reading her fabulous book, this session brought the theory and practice of life after levels to light. Noting that prose descriptors provide only the illusion of a shared language (after all, ‘Can compare two fractions and identify which is larger’ could apply as well to 3/7 or 5/7, 3/4 or 4/5 or 5/7 or 5/9), and ultimately ‘adverb soup’ she went on to share much wiser systems.

First, using the questions themselves, thus showing exactly what students can and cannot do, to provide clarity on exactly what they still need to master. Even better, use multiple choice questions, to probe student understanding more deeply by building in key misconceptions to the possible answers. Second, because of course we cannot get rid of essays, by ranking them instead of using spurious descriptors (as Christodoulou notes, we often get through half a class of marking and realise we want to change the first few – we are always, if only unconsciously, comparing essays for quality as we mark). This sounds tricky in practice, but I’m excited to explore ‘No more marking’, which presents essays to you to rank two at a time, before applying an algorithm to rank the lot.

Listening to Daisy Christodoulou is like listening to the future. I have often felt worryingly far behind where she is, but I am desperate to catch up.

Nick Gibb: The importance of teaching

Gibb, unsurprisingly, used his speech to provide examples of schools doing well as a result of government reforms. Along the way, he cited the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ as a start to move towards a profession where we are focused not on our preferred teaching methods, but on those which deliver outcomes for children. He noted that ‘for some, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence,’ and I hope this is not the case. Gibb went on to also say that ‘pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school,’ explaining that although uniform might have no impact on pupil attainment, we wish to retain it for another reason.

Tim Oates: Other nations’ systems

This session focused on debunking many of the myths of other nations’ school systems. He opened with the assertion that we need to be exploring why some students are so much further ahead than our students, and closed by noting that we can’t adopt another system wholesale. Oates was scathing on a number of individual arguments, demolishing them with a mountain of evidence. On Singapore, for example, their case is often dismissed as their society is overly homogenous and their educational outcomes the result of high levels of private tutoring; yet Oates disputes both counts. He noted there was high social inequality in Singapore and large income variation, and yet their educational outcomes were outstanding (the subject of a worrying conversation later with Dani Quinn, who pointed out ‘if their educational outcomes are brilliant but there is still vast social inequality… Is our mission doomed?’). He noted that private tutoring usually exacerbates a gap between rich and poor, as the rich can afford the best tutors, and yet no such gap exists in Singapore.

Jon Brunskill: Moral psychology

Brunskill began by asking: what can moral psychology teach us about behaviour management? This fascinating session asked more questions than it answered, as we explored various moral dilemmas. He noted that children are often in the ‘pre-conventional’ stage of behaviour, where they believe the bigger the sanction the worse their act, and therefore behave well mainly to avoid such sanctions. He asked the troubling question of strict and successful behaviour systems like those at Mossborne kept students in this paradigm of behaviour, not allowing them to progress to the higher levels of behaving well because it is morally the right thing to do. He also questioned the idea that moral reasoning influenced moral action, sharing the Milgram experiment which involved participants delivering life-threatening shocks to others (luckily, actors) on the orders of men in white coats (also actors).

Towards the end, Brunskill began to unpick why some people act heroically, and explore some ways we as teachers can influence our students – I look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Amanda Spielman: marking and remarking in exams

I’m not sure I have enough knowledge of statistics to have kept up with Spielman on marking, so I won’t try to poorly paraphrase the bulk of this fascinating talk. When looking at exam marking, Spielman praised the move to electronic marking, much despised by many examiners, for allowing unusual behaviour (overly quick marking; late night marking) to be picked up and addressed more rapidly. She also explored the issue of re-marking, noting that while 99% of grades do not change, often more marks are picked up by students, perhaps as a result of the markers’ sympathy in knowing these students are desperate to move up a grade.

Katie Ashford: The building blocks of literacy

I was so excited to hear Ashford speak, as I’m a massive fan of what she is doing at Michaela Community School with her phenomenal reading programme leading to astonishing student progress. She began by speaking about some of the low expectations we have of students noting ‘I want you to feel bad’ about saying things like ‘it’s not realistic for him’ to achieve a decent GCSE grade. After engaging the emotions, Ashford moved quickly on to the practicalities of teaching children to read, advocating robust assessments (‘a “4b” isn’t going to tell you anything about what a child does and doesn’t know’), a strong phonics programme like Ruth Miskin’s, and fluency and comprehension interventions. Finally, she went into detail about her reading plans at Michaela to have students reading 100 classic texts over their time there (or, ‘100 books kids probably wouldn’t read if they were left on their own’). She also noted the importance of reading across the curriculum, which is something I’m going to think hard about in my current role – what are children reading in every subject, in every lesson?

Sam Freedman: The five big challenges for the next government

Freedman began by asking how far we had come towards a school led system, and ended by asserting that such a system is still preferably to top-down initiatives led by government, which can provide a short-term push but in the long term do not make for sustainable system improvement. While government can devise what students learn, it is probably best for schools to have control over how students learn. The five challenges boil down to one: capacity. He then outlined challenges in resources, infrastructure, teacher supply, leadership and expertise, going over much-talked-of challenges in teacher recruitment and shrinking school budgets, and offering some suggestions for resolving these (make schools direct an easier thing to apply for; scrap fees for PGCE courses). The most important quote for me was that ‘schools are panicking and burning out teachers way too early in their careers.’ This is not a system issue, but a school issue; it is the job of leaders to shield teachers on the front-line from the stresses and strains of accountability, or we will be left with no more teachers.

I’m still digesting the genius of the day, and have added about ten books to my Amazon wishlist. The message of the day seems to me that we need to be critical and think harder, but not necessarily work harder.

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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.