Quality research is no guarantee of classroom success

Schools are littered with the skeletons of vaunted ideas that fall flat in the classroom, notes Alex Quigley, who suggests using the EEF’s implementation checklist
11th December 2020, 12:00am
Quality Research Is No Guarantee Of Classroom Success
Alex Quigley

Share

Quality research is no guarantee of classroom success

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/quality-research-no-guarantee-classroom-success

Even in the best conditions, getting new teaching and learning ideas to work in schools can prove devilishly difficult. With the new-found limitations of Covid, the challenge of making a positive change is clearly harder than ever. So are we destined to be stuck in our current state with no innovation in sight?

We could turn to "safe bets" - high-quality research that seems an easy win. However, the school-improvement graveyard is littered with the skeletons of ideas stacked with the promise of strong research evidence. You could cite assessment for learning (AfL) in that group, or the international favourite: growth mindset. For fans of cognitive science, you could explore the intriguing principles of spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice in the classroom.

Despite the promising evidence base, it doesn't guarantee success in schools.

We need to recognise that there is a typical trajectory for influential new ideas in teaching and learning. Everett Rogers' 60-year-old theory of the diffusion of innovation highlights that a small number of innovators typically lead the charge. It works like this:

  • With fidelity to the new teaching and learning idea, perhaps even working with the original researchers or teachers who have heartily consumed additional reading, early adopters experience some success.
  • Emboldened by early victories, they produce school case studies of that success and pass on the good news at conferences.
  • An article or two then distils the idea into a nifty story.
  • Suddenly, thousands of teachers are being taught about the echo of an idea. A training day trumpets a change, but the research evidence receives little more than a shiny PowerPoint slide or two.
  • School implementation of these ideas is often beset by too little training, tools and time. Teachers with thin training simply have too much on their plate to make a meaningful change to their teaching.
  • The great teaching idea diffuses and can dissipate altogether.

Evidence from the science of improvement and implementation in education offers us some much-needed help to avoid getting caught in this trap. In the recent EEF guide to implementation - Putting Evidence to Work - a focus on the "how" of making new ideas work sits alongside the "what". They offer useful major indicators for the quality implementation of a new idea:

  • Dosage: how much sustained training on AfL or cognitive science do teachers actually need? How long will they need to work at the new practice?
  • Fidelity: how closely do you need to follow AfL practices or cognitive science principles? Does what teachers are trying in the classroom match the original evidence?
  • Quality of delivery: how good is the quality of CPD and are coaches or mentors required to sustain positive changes?
  • Acceptability: what do staff really think of the much-vaunted changes?

Making a positive change can appear a mountainous task. Yet, by paying close attention to indicators of good implementation - the inevitable failures and some fulsome wins - we can better face the challenge of making good ideas work, even under the most challenging of circumstances.

Alex Quigley is a former teacher who now works for an educational charity supporting schools and disadvantaged pupils. He is the author of Closing the Reading Gap

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "There's no such thing as a 'safe bet'"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters