Tom Bennett explores what the recent EEF findings mean for teachers and research- and offers a researchED perspective
So, I’m in the taxi on my way to researchED Melbourne, an event we’ve been planning almost since last year’s researchED Sydney in 2015. Jet-lag and host jitters are making stormy seas out of my groggy Pom cortex, but my mood, like my fives and my drama, is high. Like a junkie I rock out my phone, because six quid a megabyte still isn’t enough to deter an addict and never will be.
'Teachers do not have time to learn about research evidence, studies find,’ says an article online. Edugeek Twitter has already found it. ‘Depressing reading,’ says one. And on the surface it is. The EEF funded two pilot programs (Research into Practice and Ashford Teaching Alliance Research Champion programme) to look at the ways schools can engage with research, and what impact it has. The findings were actually pretty predictable (but no less important for that- good research is designed to challenge what we think is intuitively true): research champions (get with it daddio, all the schools too cool for themselves are calling them research leads these days) can help cascade research into schools, but find it harder to make the jump into the classroom; teachers need time to engage properly with research in schools; senior staff are important brokers for these cultures; properly done, teachers can start to see the benefits of research, and attitudes towards research can change. I couldn't disagree with any of that. The headline was more gloomy than the research, I think.
James Richardson’s commentary seems to bear this out. A chief analyst at the EEF, he notes that:
It would seem that structured and bespoke support for teachers, focusing on specific actions for implementation and in-class support is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for making sure research has an impact. Importantly, the independent evaluations noted that the engagement of senior leaders in Research into Practice was critical to its success; they noted that time constraints affected teachers’ ability to commit to the Research Champion model.
It’s important to note that the two studies are pilots; feasibility studies for further investigation, not conclusive research projects:
Pilot programmes are designed to test the promise of an idea and the feasibility of trialing it on a larger scale. Their reports have no effect sizes or security padlocks so we don’t expect to draw robust conclusions by evaluating them. But this can make their findings and messages difficult to communicate.
So these studies are an interesting and useful commentary; the devil, as always for educators, is to stop pretending every piece of research is either the definitive last word on a subject, or worthless. Since starting researchED I’ve found that this has become one of the most difficult hurdles. I call it the Magic Mirror; once a piece of research is released from the slab in the lab, it turns into a monster. By the time it reaches the practitioner it often barely resembles the subtle, nuanced think piece it started as. Ask Dylan Wiliam. What happened to his sensible research into formative assessment is the reason he's now bald.
The Irony and the RCT
And the irony is that with researchED we’ve seen an extraordinary appetite for research engagement that is unparalleled in my time as a teacher, and I suspect at any time before that. Our national conferences, with anything up to 1000 people on the day, sell out long before the curtain rises. We’ve just had to close ticket sales on researchED Oxford Maths and Science, and researchED York for the same reason. Most of our events in the UK sell every ticket, and some have waiting lists for months. Melbourne had hundreds of educators and teachers, as did Amsterdam, Sweden, New York….It might be that some teachers aren’t engaging with research, but clearly, many others are.
The elephant in the classroom will always be workload, and for most teachers, research engagement is a distant goal after many matters more practical. That’s no surprise. In an average teaching day my capacity to brush up on Johnson and Johnson or cognitive load is also pretty minimal. Which brings me to five baseline observations that I’ve made:
- Most teachers don’t have time to engage substantively with research
- Many teachers can’t see the point (and I don’t blame them; my own unfamiliarity initially led me to sceptical rejection of all research as pointless)
- A lot of educational research isn’t actually aimed at teachers
- Most teachers are unfamiliar with the language of research, or how to assess research
- Research, like everything else, is frequently used as a political cudgel; ‘do this because the research says.’ Teachers often mistrust it, but lack the language to critically interpret it.
Which leads me to seven further observations derived from my work with researchED:
- Some teachers are very interested in research; and many researchers are very interested in talking to them about what they do
- Putting these groups together is very easy to do because they are essentially an online dating match
- These groups may be in the minority of their communities, but they are vocal, digitally literate and energetic, which gives them a disproportionately loud voice in public forums
- When we survey attendees, they routinely score their ‘takeaway’ very highly for utility, and similarly their intentions to use this takeaway are also high (this is self-reported, and impact isn’t assessed, so there’s nothing hard about this evidence, but it’s interestingly consistent)
- From the relationships and conversations I develop through the researchED communities, my experience is that research literacy in these super adopters is increasing, and that they cascade it back into their schools. The higher the formal position of the super adopter, the greater the whole-school impact.
- Attendances are increasing at our events, and we’re running more and more to cope with demand
- I notice that the research conversations at our events are becoming more mature, as many adopters are also early adopters and have developed complex relationships with research and research generators.
This relationship can’t be forced. You can’t make someone a research champion or lead; you can't force a school to be research engaged if they don’t have time, inclination or a baseline of understanding of what research represents. researchED people are often outliers, mavericks, freaks and geeks, prophets, hermits, punk rockers, agitators, reactionaries, uber-trads and neo-progs. They are the coolest nerds I have ever known.
So what do we do now?
Happily I have another list for you:
- Teachers need to be formally and critically exposed to research earlier, preferably in ITT (which was one of the recommendations of the Carter report) so that they have a basic grounding about what research means, where they can access it, how to appreciate it, and how to critically assess it. That way the language is imbedded intheir whole careers
- Schools should pay some attention to being research aware, by advertising the post of research lead, funding and securing protected time for it. As the EEF pilot suggests, it’s important that teachers are shown ways that it can be relevant to their classrooms. If it remains an abstract, it will never change anything.
- Teachers who are interested in pursuing it further should be supported in doing so: allowing them to attend research conferences, or hosting their own; forming journal clubs; continuing professional development focussed on clear professional needs; forming partnerships with existing research institutions, or taking part in large scale research with existing projects.
- If teaching is ever to be seen as a true profession, it needs to be more engaged with evidence and less terrified of having its cherished assumptions challenged.
Teaching is a profession heavily reliant on craft, or practical wisdom. But like everything it can be augmented by evidence, and that evidence can take many forms; RCTs, case studies, literature reviews and so on. These all have their strengths and their weaknesses, and there is nothing to be feared from understanding this. The intersectional soil where craft and evidence meet is where the flower of professionalism will bloom. I’m so proud of my colleagues in teaching, and colleagues in other educational communities for what together we’ve been able to achieve through researchED; and with zero capital, and no profit. We’ve done it with no money at all, breaking even as we roller coaster along. People who cared about education made it happen because they wanted it to happen. We’re fuelled by ambition, hope, and a handful of either fairy dust or pocket sand.
I reckon the headlines will start to get better. I have no evidence for that, but plenty of faith in teachers.