“‘Imagine, you’re in your online game world, walking around looking for something to kill, or information, or healing magic or something actually relevant, and then some twat comes along trying to sell you a pair of imaginary trainers.’   She frowns.  ‘Kind of like life, I suppose.  Hmm.'”

Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

I mostly quite liked that paragraph, but I’m going to stretch it into an analogy for the place of research in many schools.  Imagine, you’re in the classroom, trying to work out how to teach a diverse group of students with a range of needs a complicated concept and then some twat comes along trying to sell you Brain Gym.  Then imagine that this comprises one of your five Inset days of the year, a huge investment in time and money; let’s not forget, it’s now school policy, so you need to be using it when the head drops in.

Research and education have had a fairly troubling relationship.  Problems include: the gap between teachers and researchers – most teachers are not engaged in or with research; much of the research that does reach the classroom is poorly understood and distorts or over-generalises from the original study; teachers are suspicious of change and research, choosing to see teaching as a craft to be gradually mastered in which research has little relevance.  For all these reasons and more, a stellar cast assembled at Dulwich College yesterday for ResearchED 2013.

My original thought was to summarise the talks that I attended.  Many of them were videoed, however, and a series of themes seemed to recur in the talks I attended, so I thought it might be more useful and interesting to discuss these instead.  I’ve sought to explore the connections between presenters’ ideas and added some thoughts of my own where appropriate.

1) The centrality of questions to educational research

As a history teacher this probably shouldn’t be an item on my list – every lesson and unit of work we design is based around questions.  However, it struck me that almost every session I attended highlighted the importance of formulating the right research question.  John Tomsett and Alex Quigley highlighted the importance of creating a question which is narrow enough to be answerable and important enough for staff to invest time and effort in finding this answer.  Laura McInerney took a question-centred approach even further, working from the example of David Hilbert, who suggested 23 questions in maths at the beginning of the twentieth century, which influenced mathematical research significantly, she sought analogous educational questions – with defined end-points, which can catalyse research.  An intriguing prospect – again, the narrowing she demanded forces us to look for more practical answers.

2) The (questionable) merits of teachers’ “educated intuition”

This idea cropped up repeatedly – the phrase being Alex Quigley’s and John Tomsett’s as they looked at a piece of research conducted at Huntington School which helped to confirm their prior practice and professional judgement.  The research remains a good use of time, they argued, offering evidence that the department’s choice of an oral feedback model is having a powerful impact on student learning.  Tom Sherrington spoke about his co-construction of learning with a Physics class – arguing that, while the results were excellent, it was also important and worthwhile in many other ways which accorded with his values: he offered impressive examples of students ability to run the many aspects of classes (collection of his posts on this).  He talked about universal truth as opposed to contextual truth: if he were seeking to tell others what to do, he would have to do more rigorous research; he’s not telling what to do, he’s finding out what works for him.  Toby Greany also spoke of the power of tacit knowledge – teachers are artisans who learn on the job – and don’t need to be researchers to do so.

I have mixed feelings about these ideas – especially in the context of a conference explicitly promoting research in education.  On the one hand, I accept the importance of a teacher’s intuition (more aptly, I think, experience) and the impossibility of researching every aspect of our practice: there are many things that just work!  On the other hand, Amanda Spielman talked about rigorous prioritisation – we have to remember, I believe that we can be doing good things and replace them with better things.  When teachers learn on the job, they improve very, very slowly: is this because faith in an artisanal model of teaching suggests that this process cannot be accelerated, save by teachers making their own mistakes?  Do we really believe this and can we honestly sustain this belief? Likewise, I question whether it’s true that the growth of qualities and skills in Tom’s students is immeasurable – I’m sure it could be measured (imperfectly, as with all measures) and such data, and the process of collecting it, might help him to improve his co-constructional approaches.  I wonder whether a veneration of our practice’s wisdom is not what got us into this mess in the first place: grades must go on books because it feels right and it’s always been done this way and damn the evidence.

3) The implementation gap

I’ve become more and more interested in how you get people to change, through a progression of reading the work of individuals such as Dylan Wiliam, the Heath brothers and Doug Lemov, so I pick up on this whenever I hear linked ideas.  Ben Goldacre referred to ‘journal clubs:’

Teachers in Shanghai and Singapore participate in regular “Journal Clubs”, where they discuss a new piece of research, and its strengths and weaknesses, before considering whether they would apply its findings in their own practice. If the answer is no, they share the shortcomings in the study design that they’ve identified, and then describe any better research that they think should be done, on the same question.

I think Toby Greany was right to note that it’s not enough to get teachers to read some journals – a good idea remains that until we apply it to the classroom and make it work for us.  Laura McInerney highlighted the need to bridge the gap between research and the classroom.  Tom Sherrington noted that the merit of teachers researching lay as much in their engagement in the process as the results which came about – the deeper understanding of their practice and classes, for example.  So how are we going to get more teachers engaged and involved in this process?  Laura’s seven questions would be one way to spark teachers’ interest in research could work, but the question remains?

4) What does success look like?

Tom Sherrington described being attracted to KEGS because it is a ‘research-engaged learning community.’  He highlighted the distinction between teachers being involved with research and in research and noted that one key asset he had was the staff have a critical mass who are interested and engaged in research – reading books, disseminating ideas.  Laura’s description of a teacher’s concerns helped to highlight the importance of maintaining the link with everyday teacher.  Do we want all teachers doing their own research?  Ben Goldacre noted how bad individuals’ research can be – too subjective, poorly-designed, not applicable elsewhere.

Here’s a brief wishlist and description of what success might look like:

An ‘information architecture’ where schools and teachers can easily access research.  I would like to have a database and be able to type in ‘questioning’ or ‘feedback’ and get access to everything, just like that!  Amanda Spielman described having a drawer full of debunking articles on things like learning styles and handing them out as appropriate.  Smart as her solution was, we can’t rely on individuals doing it in isolation – we need easy access to the latest papers.

Every teacher engaged with research.  This should be an expectation of teachers (school leaders and systems- more on which below).  Dylan Wiliam’s description of teachers running their own professional development and performance management by isolating an aspect of their practice, researching and improving it, has appealed to me as no other model of performance management has.  I would dispute Ben Goldacre and Toby Greany’s point that teachers need easy summaries of research; it clashes with what Ben said earlier – that teachers really need to know how to interpret research – a little research methodology and statistics would go a long way here.  These people have degrees – it’s not like they’re not capable of reading a proper academic paper!  Going back to the plan of creating a masters-educated profession seems a good idea here.

Research to contribute and influence school decisions and actions: how often does a school development plan, a performance management target or a lesson observation comment refer to research?   Ben Goldacre noted that people can only get away with big claims (you should have done X in your lesson, our school will only improve if we do Y, for example) if they aren’t challenged on it.   At every level of school function, ‘What’s the evidence?’ needs to be our litany; for teachers looking at their department’s development plan and for senior leaders dealing with their school improvement partner.  Not that research offers clear answers to everything: Amanda Spielman spoke of the process ARK went through of sifting and reviewing the range of research and the need to be able to debate its significance and applicability.  Not for individuals to show one study and railroad their plan through, not because the evidence holds ‘the’ answer but because without a robust discussion of what it does and does not show.  But so that we are making considered, thoughtful and well-informed decisions about our actions

Obviously, for all of this, we will need…

5) Time

Everyone agreed time (and money) spent in research was worthwhile.  A relatively minor study, of two matched classes, over I think nine lessons, with moderation and co-planning of lessons, cost £1000 in cover costs, noted John Tomsett.  He said it was worth it and i don’t doubt that this is true, noting in particular that this is a way in which teachers can come to believe in research findings – because they did it, the conclusion is theirs…  Tom Sherrington noted that KEGS pay for half of any of their teacher’s postgraduate study – because they believe it is worthwhile.

Time remains the key factor and, I think, the key limitation here.  Here am I saying the school development plan should cite evidence – as though senior leaders aren’t busy enough putting it together in the first place!  I sat and thought ambitious thoughts about the kind of studies I would like to do while John and Alex were speaking, but when John pointed to the £1000 figure, I tried to guess the amount of time they had freed up to achieve this and I reined myself in – I simply do not have the time available to create such a study well, and nor do my colleagues.  As long as teachers are teaching full timetables, only the most determined will make the time to even try to genuinely research their practice.  Toby Greany pointed to time as being the most cited reason for teachers not engaging with research (although he also noted that there was a sense in which most teachers didn’t want to either) and pointed to Shanghai and Singapore, where increased numbers of students in the classroom is traded for reduced contact time – he advocated four hours a day at most.  I don’t think creating more time alone is a solution (a hundred things could fill that time) but I do think if we are unable to carve out such time, engagement with and in research will remain very much a fringe activity.

Conclusions, such as they are:

I didn’t set out to come to any conclusions as such, merely to share some thoughts, but I suppose the bottom line is:

As teachers, we have a professional duty to improve.  Educational research, and applying it to our classrooms, offers a logical and sensible way forward.  We need to change some of the research and how it is conducted, to connect this to our practice more closely, and to implement these findings in whole departments and schools – not just among those who are most interested in these things.

An event like this is exciting, because it brings together committed, thoughtful people, doing fascinating things – and creates opportunities to increase and develop them further.  I suspect many interesting things will grow from the conference.  A massive thank you to Tom Bennett and his organising team for creating the conference. Thank you also to all those I was lucky enough to meet in person (some for the first time, some after far too long) yesterday.

Thus far this morning, Mary Myatt and Loic Menzies have written up their takes on ResearchED 2013.  I’ve deliberately not read these posts – partly in order to get this written before I have to go out today and partly to come to my own conclusions and reconsider later.

PS – I’ve written my own take on these things and done so swiftly and freely – which is pretty much the opposite of my usual practice – and sought to synthesise diverse sessions.  In the process, I have a fear that there a couple of things I may have attributed to one speaker which was actually said by another.  If anyone feels I’ve misrepresented their argument, please let me know and I’ll make a change.