You know you’ve had a good conference when you leave with a sore head. That’s how I felt when I left the first ever researchED conference in Dulwich College yesterday. As all good things do these days, the day was the result of a twitter conversation brought magnificently to life by Tom, Helene and many others. The tag line to the conference was “working out what works” and the day seemed to focus on the big question of how to successfully integrate meaningful educational research into schools, something I’m very interested in which was what brought me all the way down from sunny Scotland. As ever with these things it will take a long time for everything I learnt and heard yesterday to percolate through, so in this post I’m just going to try and gather my thinking by summarising the sessions I attended and the thoughts they stimulated for me. Here goes.
Session 1 – Ben Goldacre: The need for a better infrastructure to support evidence-based practice in teaching, and how to get there.
I was really looking forward to hearing Ben speak, and I wasn’t disappointed. As a science teacher I really enjoyed his Guardian column and books and was intrigued to hear what his thoughts were on what the role of evidence in education should be. As I’ve already mentioned on this blog, I’m unsure that his focus on Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) is right for education. I would argue that I’m not a “dinosaur” as he would describe anyone who objects in principle to RCTs in education as I can see a place for them. I just think they’re very limited in what they can actually tell you in an educational context. However, I went along with an open mind to see if I could be convinced.
Ben coped remarkably well with an atrocious IT problem – his slides were only appearing intermittently much to everyone’s amusement. Despite this technical issue and a packed hall he was very engaging and persuasive. Perhaps his most convincing point was made through a Science teaching example which is already underway through the Education Endowment Foundation (which I’d never heard of). He made the point that companies who try to sell approaches at the moment are too easily allowed to make claims as to their effectiveness without the evidence being challenged. I can see the argument for any study into a pedagogical approach which is evaluated quantitively anyway would be improved by instead being subjected to a rigorous RCT process.
But I’m still not convinced that RCTs should be our focus as we work to bring research more effectively into schools. They are limited to measuring quantitative outcomes which prevents you from asking the crucial “why” and “how” questions. I also would rather see teachers as much more active owners of their research with a much deeper level of engagement than participating in a study which someone else “owns” and analyses.
Session 2 – Dr Frank Furedi: Scientism in the class room: opinion masquerading as research.
One of the things I was hoping for from the day was juxtapositions. When choosing sessions I was trying to choose people who might contradict each other, Dr Furedi didn’t let me down. I knew his session would be challenging given that I didn’t even understand the second half of his description of the session in the program:
The aim of this presentation is to question the instrumental turn of pedagogy – where the question of what works displaces that of what children need to know. It suggests that instrumentalism is inexorably drawn towards advocacy research and scientism and questions the rhetoric of evidence-based education policy.
Not only was his session challenging, it was incredibly engaging and thought provoking. He was one of those speakers who doesn’t use, or need, slides or any other form of visual aids. His ideas were so powerful and passionately delivered that I was hanging on his every word. It helped that he instantly and forcefully disagreed with Ben Goldacre’s keynote which had finished 5 minutes earlier. He even objected to the conference tag line stating that he hates the phrase “what works”! Dr Furedi feels that the application of science to domains where it doesn’t belong has created a dangerous culture of ‘scientism’. He argued that RCTs in education would be based on a deficit model of education where students are analogous to patients, which would distract us from the real questions in education. Instead he suggests we should be cultivating the skills of professional judgement and observation and that teachers should be putting a greater focus on developing their understanding of, and passion for, their subject specialism. He also argues that there is no such thing as “what works” as not only is every child different but teachers are different also. He described himself as a pedagogical pluralist suggesting that teachers need more freedom in choosing their teaching strategies.
As I’ve said, I enjoyed this session immensely. It was incredibly stimulating and a sharp contrast to Ben’s keynote. Whilst I agreed with a lot of what Dr Furedi had to say, I couldn’t agree with all of it. I could take his point on the dangers of RCTs in education, but I couldn’t understand why he went from that to suggesting that teachers should instead be largely cultivating their understanding of their subjects. That seems to me to go back to the idea that the best subject teachers are the ones who did the best in the subject. I’m not convinced that everyone who got a first in their Biology degree would necessarily be a better teacher than me with my 2:1. For me the logical conclusion is not to eschew teacher involvement in research entirely, but to focus it instead on approaches to research which are more engaging for the teachers, more closely entwined in the pedagogical process and have meaningful impact in the classroom: such as professional enquiry. At the very least though I’m inspired to go and explore some of Dr Furedi’s writing, which I’ve never come across before, and see where that takes me.
Session 3 – Dr Kevin Stannard, GDST: Overcoming problems with Educational Research
Dr Stannard’s presentation was a walk through of the issues facing educational research over the last couple of decades and where we should be going from here. His primary message seemed to be that whilst quantitative research in education has its place, it is a part of a much bigger picture. The danger he highlighted was that as policy makers are always in a hurry, they can’t deal with complexity. As a result a disproportionate amount of the funding for education research projects is going to large-scale quantitative studies which give quick, but simplistic, answers.
Like me, Dr Stannard believes that teachers shouldn’t be given research, but should be engaged in carrying out research. At the GDST they’ve incorporated this into their professional standards, which reminded me strongly of the inclusion of enquiry in the new GTCS Standards. The GDST now build their CPD programme around participating in research and support their teachers with the process and skills required. I really enjoyed the context Dr Stannard provided and appreciated that he seemed to be thinking in similar way to me…very reassuring.
Session 4 – Brian Lightman, ASCL: Using research-based CPD to seize the agenda
Brian spoke convincingly and authentically from his experience as a teacher, Head Teacher and General Secretary of the need to cultivate a research culture in a school. I liked his suggestion that rather than using the phrase “evidence-based practice” we should be saying “evidence-informed practice” as we shouldn’t be accepting research unquestioningly and without modification. He agreed that involvement in research must be voluntary and that teachers should be able to bring their own goals to the process as well as pursuing the school’s outcomes. I liked the phrase he used that “just because practice isn’t evidence based doesn’t mean that it’s not effective” which aligns I think with my belief that it’s worth enquiring into our own practice as well as evaluating the impact of applying the ideas of others in our context. He also argued for the need to be able to share uncomfortable findings if we’re going to successfully become a researching profession.
Session 5 – Daisy Cristodoulou: Statistical significance & theoretical frameworks: how can we discover the root causes of successful teaching & learning?
Daisy was arguing the case that whilst RCTs might be able to tell you if something works or not, they don’t explain why. She used the following quote to justify looking to cognitive psychology research to help give reasons for why we learn the way we do:
Medical science continues to advance as it becomes allied with ever more refined laboratory understandings. Its most striking and reliable advances have occurred since medicine became closely tied to biochemistry at a still more fine-grained level — the molecular. By analogy, it is plausible to think that progress in educational research, if it occurs at all, will follow this sort of pattern.
She then proceeded to use three examples from her experience as an English teacher where the pedagogical approach she had taken had been unsuccessful and the reasons for the lack of success are suggested in cognitive psychology research. These examples included:
- her attempt to teach ‘thesaurus skills’ which failed because the students didn’t have the necessary knowledge in order to be able to effectively use the synonyms that they found
- a past paper question text which none of the students could interpret properly because they didn’t know what a glacier was
- a module intended to teach apostrophe use in an engaging context which the students enjoyed but didn’t notice the apostrophe aspect of the module as people don’t notice and remember the familiar
She’s definitely convinced me to go and explore the cognitive psychology literature more closely and give this more thought. I really liked the way that she stated that despite the way the word ‘theory’ is treated in many staff rooms, that all teachers have a theory of the way children learn which they use to inform their practice, whether they realise it or not. It would be interesting to explore that more closely I think…I can see a CPD session which unpicked this a little…
Session 6 – Lunch! There was no lunch break in the programme so I had to miss a session to eat. I did get to meet and have lunch with a fellow teacher from Scotland, Lindsay Brown, which was lovely.
Session 7 – David Weston: Bridging the chasm between practitioners and researchers
David had informed us on twitter that if we didn’t attend his session then we were dead to him, so I went. It was fab. There was so much in it that I have no hope whatsoever of summarising it here. I’m really looking forward to the video from his session going online so I can watch it again! Not only was he very entertaining and engaging, he made many many fantastic points. Some of which included:
- a detailed deconstruction of the flavour of the month: effect sizes
- the many barriers facing effective research in schools
- the potential of enquiry as a model for practitioner research
I was very intrigued by this last point. His charity has actually set up the National Teacher Enquiry Network and membership includes access to support materials which look at first glance to be much slicker than my amateur attempt. Although the Teacher Development Trust has been focusing its efforts in England up to now, it is technically a UK-wide charity. I can see a real potential for the growth if the NTEN in Scotland as schools began to grapple with how to meaningfully support the new GTCS Standards. Exciting stuff.
And that’s it! So, what have I learnt overall? I think I’ve primarily had the ideas which I brought to the conference reinforced and strengthened. It’s encouraged me to continue with the path I’m on with the Collaborative Professional Enquiry model and given me ideas as to how I could enhance and strengthen this process. It’s so easy to become convinced that what you’re doing is right without going out and finding out what others are doing and thinking. Whilst researchED was challenging and engaging, I am somewhat relieved to be coming away reassured.
If you weren’t able to make it yesterday the organisers are planning to put all of the video content online, so keep an eye on their website for that. I’ll be rewatching some of the above sessions and checking out some of the sessions that I missed.
And if you’re a teacher in Scotland or the North of England, please let me know what you think of this idea.