Working out what works?

The title of this blog is almost exactly the same as the website address of ResearchEd, Tom Bennett’s education site, festival and behemoth. ResearchEd has mushroomed in the last couple of years, and the many hundred teachers that packed the rooms of Tom’s School were testament to his energy in putting educational research somewhere near the heart of the education debate.

Only the question mark at the end is added by me. I attended ResearchEd 2014 last week, and found the whole day confusing and ultimately rather unsatisfactory. Maybe this is at least partially the point – education research is so full of complexity, counter-intuitive findings and uncertainty that I would have been foolish to expect the opposite. However, I spent several hours at Raine’s Foundation School, and I don’t think I took away anything that could be used practically in a classroom.

I deliberately stayed away from the usual suspects – Smith, McInerney, Didau etc. I have heard them speak before and felt that it was healthy to diversify. I did listen to Dylan Wiliam (he’s the conference equivalent of crispy pork belly – if it’s a choice on the menu, you have to make it) and he made most sense on the day, explaining why teaching will never be a research-based profession. The usually reliable Rob Coe followed him up, in part as counter-argument, but he seemed miffed that so many people had evacuated the hall post-Wiliam and failed to convince. I have seen the Sutton Trust Toolkit graph (plotting effect size vs cost per pupil for various educational strategies) on multiple occasions now, and much of it makes sense and tallies with my experience. Points that go against our instinct are useful discussion starters, and it’s always wise to approach an educational conversation with an open mind.

I find it difficult to explain why ResearchEd was so frustrating. The quality of the presentations I watched were poor, but maybe I was unlucky. There was much reading from PowerPoint (one presented in Comic Sans) and several of the presenters had moved so far away from the classroom that I even felt their anecdotes were out of date. The presentations I watched in the afternoon didn’t really have a beginning or an end – it was as though I has stumbled upon lecture 5 or 6 of a 12 part series. The whole concept and title of ResearchEd appeared to be constrictive, with people skewing their presentations to fit in with the theme. This was quite unlike the Education Festival at Wellington College back in June, which gave speakers the freedom to present on far-reaching issues in education and was more inspiring as a result.

Many of the pertinent questions went unanswered: should teachers undertake their own research; should Schools employ a Head of Research (or Research Champion); can one apply with confidence research findings of ‘what works’, and if so, how does one look to embed this on a daily basis? These for me are the key questions, but I never felt that the conference got to the real meat. We skated on the surface and oft-quoted the phrase about things being a bit more complicated than that. The strategies that ‘work’ only work if done well, and if not done well, they actually have negative effects. I was also left wondering if many of the teachers who undertake their own research have simply reached that point in their career where they needed something else to occupy them; intellectually curious people looking for a project.

The aim of the conference is noble; all teachers should be interested in improving their practice. Finding out what works and committing to that. Teaching as a profession does need to improve, and the best way of doing that is to know what improvement looks like. Questioning what it is that we do, and how we can do it better, should be central to the profession. Teachers shouldn’t be made to feel under pressure from above (or anywhere) but striving for ‘good enough’ is under-ambitious and a culture of improving through training or otherwise is healthy. Teachers should be supported in their wish to improve, and an awareness of research is just one part of that. In teaching, all strategies should be evaluated in terms of time spent vs measurable outcomes. Using educational research to work out what works seems to be nigh on impossible, given the occasionally conflicting evidence and the possibility of positive and negative effects of the same area of focus. Dylan Wiliam talks about ‘loving the one you’re with’, and states that all teachers can improve, whilst taking care to note that it’s not because they are not good enough in the first place. I do agree with this, but I also feel that raising the quality of those who enter the profession in the first place is important. Teachers are not regarded with the same distrust and loathing as bankers, but it is not a profession with the status it deserves.

The characteristics of excellent teaching are hard to define, but a non-controversial short list should include subject mastery, ability to communicate that subject at all levels, application of consistently high standards for one’s pupils, a willingness to work hard and a level of intuition that is palpable. How much of this is innate and how much can be trained? To what extent can an interest in education research help to improve teaching in these areas? I suspect the answer is not much. Willingness to accept training is a key part of improvement and without mentioning growth mindset, an understanding that we can all get better and should look to do so is vital. You cannot expect the same level of performance from everyone, but appointing clever, talented people in the first place is always a good start. We should not be looking for minimum competence, but to appoint teachers that will have a positive impact on those around them. Sharers, not hoggers; subject experts, not those a few pages ahead of pupils; confidence, not arrogance; making people feel better, not worse; making people’s lives easier, not harder; giving people the support they need to improve, not setting targets without showing teachers how to attain them. 

I’m not sure it could ever be possible to evaluate the impact of ResearchEd on those that attended, but it did very little for me. I’m delighted that so many of my colleagues across the country display an interest, but you’ll get a lot more from a nice summer day at Wellington College.


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