Yesterday, I was privileged to be on a panel with Tom Bennett, Margaret Mulholland and Ed Chapman at the London Festival of Education, discussing why and how evidence can be of use in education.  Here are four ways I think evidence can be used, and some places we might start.


How can we use evidence in education?

1) We can look for evidence of our impact

A beautifully simple example from Stephen Lockyer exemplifies this: he thought his students were moved to ask for a tissue by seeing the box at the front of his classroom.  Moving it out of their eyesight, to the back of the classroom, he measured how much longer a box of tissues laster.  The answer: at the back of the classroom a box lasted seven times longer.  With this in mind, he started sticking rulers to his board, to act as a reminder to use them.

Essentially, I’m repeating Hattie here – ‘know thy impact.’  But this doesn’t have to mean effect sizes and Randomised Controlled Trials.  As teachers, the simplest and most powerful way to use evidence in the classroom is to design tiny tests of the impact of our own actions.  So, I can design small (and not necessarily robust) ways to satisfy myself that changes to the way I introduce lesson objectives or my marking practices are having an impact.  It’s a small tweak, but a powerful one in how we approach making decisions about our classroom practices.

2) Avoiding poor choices and asking for evidence

School policies are often based on best guesses, instinct and what Ofsted are supposed to want.  Evidence has two functions here: teachers might quote evidence in support of alternative courses of action, or they might ask for the evidence supporting school policies.  A great example of this way of thinking is the Ask for Evidence campaign, which encourages and supports individuals to ask politicians for the evidence behind their assertions.

My own experience has been that fear of Ofsted eats evidence for breakfast – but it’s a start.  Individual teachers may not be able to change a policy – but they may at least implement it idiosyncratically.  I’ve written before about being instructed to share levels with students, reading the evidence, and not doing so.  More imaginatively, in the last couple of weeks I’ve visited two teachers who’ve found clever ways to follow the policy of sticking students’ targets on the front of their book while including a message which reinforces growth mindset (blog to follow on this).

3) Doing ‘cool things’ – improving our teaching using research

Unsurprisingly, research rarely offers unequivocal support for specific courses of action.  But there are studies which help us to do what I described as ‘cool things’ – they provide us clear advice to do things we might otherwise not have done, and evidence that students will benefit.

Within this category, I would include work like that of Daniel Willingham, who offers clear lessons about how we can help students remember – and therefore learn – what we teach; Dylan Wiliam’s work on Assessment for Learning – which comes with specific activities helping to exemplify the principles of AfL and, the slightly less straightforward, but equally applicable work on social-psychological interventions seeking to address students’ beliefs about themselves and their learning.

4) Research Leadership

There’s a limit to how far we can expect teachers to do the kind of reading and adaptation described in Point 3.  Although there is some usable, accessible research, there is also a good deal of important work which requires sustained reading yet provides no clear advice, or which demands the interpretation of a number of conflicting studies.  When I took on responsibility for CPD in my last school, I began working towards helping my colleagues become as interested in this kind of material as I was.  I revised my approach.  All teachers are busy; many have other priorities: pastoral care, their subject, leadership responsibilities and life beyond work.  Moreover, unsurprisingly many teachers are more concerned with the practical aspects of teaching – an hour reading research may leave a teacher little better off in deciding how to teach the next day – and can look like a dodgy investment as a result.

Lesson learned, I have become increasingly interested in the nascent ‘Research Lead’ role.  Tasking well-informed individuals with the time to read and think and the mandate to share their findings with their colleagues and influence the school’s choices can inject evidence into schools without expecting every teacher to do this themselves.  I’m intrigued to see the results of the RISE project investigating their effectiveness.

A couple of criticisms came up in the session as to the assault this represents on our autonomy and our professionalism as teachers.  I would demur – being better-informed justifies autonomy and builds professionalism.

Where do we start?

The sole question asked of the panel was ‘this sounds great – where do I find this research?’ it was met with applause.  I said the place to start was Twitter and blogs, and offered to make some specific suggestions.  They are not meant to be a definitive list, but they will, I hope offer a starting point:

Five great individuals – who regularly post interesting research on Twitter:

Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish), Roo Stenning (@TheRealMrRoo), David Didau (@learningspy), Nick Rose (@turnfordblog), Rob Coe (@ProfCoe)

Five great blogs  – which use/share/involve/synthesise/discuss interesting research in a readable, usable way:

Evidence Into Practice, Huntington Learning Hub, Learning Spy, Best Evidence in Brief, Love Learning Ideas

Five great books – which discuss research and offer ways to apply it; these are all books I have read, reread, and relied upon:

Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to change things when change is hard(review)

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; (not quite a review, but thoughts based on it)

Graham Nuttall, The Hidden Lives of Learners

Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment; (the root of most of the AfL I’ve done)

Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (my review – for historical interest – my current views are better represented by this post)

And I’d also highly recommend the ResearchED conferences in Cambridge and Brighton for Research Leads.

Thanks to Andy Day for helping me think through these ideas last week.

Image credit I Am Peas on Flickr.