Get Carter, part 2: How do we reform teacher training in research?

29th July 2014 at 19:34

Back in the DfE today to give evidence to the Carter review into initial teacher training. Every time I go they stamp my loyalty card; one more visit and I qualify for a free ride on David Blunkett and a caramel macchiato. 


Another day, another Justice League of worthies. There was so much ITT firepower in the room you could have started a Teach First fusion reactor. The Carter panel has suffered criticism for being unrepresentative of the institutions that it seeks to reform, but today saw a Privy Council of Grand Maesters round a table: University ITT heads (Oxford, the Institute of Education, Durham), major research institutions (Bera, NFER, EEF, Teach First) and me, wearing my researchED tricorn.


And we were here to discuss an axe I grind so heartily it begins to resemble a staff: research in education, and the best ways to train new teachers in its wizardly ways. Evidence based education is this year's must-have toy, like roller skates or Tracy Island, but unlike other fashionable accessories to our practice, this has real potential to change the game.


You're a big man


There's a fascinating discussion to be had in this area, and I was glad to see that we had it today. Bera produced a good report with the RSA recently that proposed that teachers be trained to be research-literate in ways never seen before, and I applaud that. In fact, it was a tattoo that beat frequently across the two hours (two hours! One hour is never long enough. After two, I'm eyeing up the fire alarm).


Now I'm always cautious about this approach. Every time someone wants to fix one of society's ills, they turn, lazily to the classroom. "Lessons on anorexia/flossing/cause of the week!" is a familiar and brainless suggestion to make in a curriculum stuffed like a martini olive. So too in ITT. A point I return to is that many training routes are short and packed as they are: 36 weeks, effectively, from civilian to veteran (and they complain that 2 years of Teach First is too brief...). What can you do in that time? Barely boil an egg.


But you can plant a seed. You can encourage good habits. You can tell Daniel-San to wax on and wax off and let life take it from there. In some ways, PGCEs can't be assessed after a year – like fruit trees, you don't judge its crop six months after planting. You count the buckets years down the line. So too with the research skills that can be important in creating a great teacher. (Note that I say "can", not "must". You can be perfectly splendid without a single leaf of research troubling your lectern. The are armies of teachers across the world and history who are testimony to that). But what research literacy can provide is three fold:


  1. A force field against bullshit. Lord knows we are tethered goats in the T-Rex pen of education. Over the years I've been sold so many bags of magic beans I could make a hill high enough to climb to the top of the bloody beanstalk. Would we have had Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences, Thinking Hats and SOLO taxonomies, if all teachers had the language to critically discuss the justifications behind such things? I don't think so.
  2. The positive side: working out what works; where the parameters of scientific enquiry are relevant and where they are not. How I speak to my classes is deeply resistant to evaluation by RCT, for example. The best use of phonics is not.
  3. Teaching teachers to become research literate is a gateway skill to accessing CPD and driving one's own professional life, like reading and writing are skills to access every other academic pursuit. It could be the most empowering thing we do as a profession, if we seize it. Imagine: a quiet revolution of teachers too smart to say yes to snake oil and naked advocacy. Imagine them becoming senior staff and LEA advisers. Arise, my army of lovers.


But you're out of shape


And, of course, there is Ofsted, that great stone monolith of judgement, ready to fall on us at any moment. But how evidenced is Ofsted? What data exist that its judgements drive improvement? What evidence base informs its use of grading lessons, and now whole-school teaching. How evidenced is that? I believe that an increasingly research-literate profession would start to evaluate those evaluations far more critically, and even defy or drive them. And that really would look like an actual profession, and not a stick-driven, data-obsessed body of conscripts.


This is the part of the Carter review I was most interested in. I think that the most work needs to be done in the area of research, because it's still a movement in its infancy. But that also means the most good can be done. I'm sometimes accused of uni-bashing, but that's uninformed, and simply untrue, possible only if you black-marker all my caveats out and see any criticism of the status quo as an attack on the whole. Please, we need a more mature discussion. Some higher-ed routes have, without question, been nurseries of weak research, or out-of-date research, or research that reflects the pet projects of the department. I still meet new teachers, utterly convinced by their ITT that VAK is actually a real thing, and children indisputably learn in groups. That simply should not be happening anymore. But, on the other hand, some have not. Some have been exemplary; real wombs of excellence. 


And I do this for a living


My six recommendations to the review are:


  1. Imbed a basic literacy about what research looks like in ITT, and the varieties of methodologies available to education researchers – including their limitations.
  2. Provide better guidance about best practice in teacher trainee research, rather than just saying, "go do research".
  3. Warn teachers of use perils of blindly conducting action research without governance from an established research body. Twenty kids in your class for two terms isn't research, it's a punt. Which is fine, but a punt isn't research.
  4. Encourage teachers to become research literate simultaneous to actually practising in a classroom. Real life often sobers us up when blind theory can obfuscate and intoxicate. And theory can illuminate experience.
  5. Encourage teachers to plan their CPD on a research basis, so that even after ITT, their powers of research literacy can be used to guide their futures.
  6. While acknowledging the nuance and subtlety of what research actually says (for example, the front page of the EEF teacher toolkit makes easy reading, but the devil is in the details within), teacher trainers need to present the big picture of what the best research points towards – and most of all, what it insubstantiates. Or fails to substantiate. VAK, for example, isn't definitely untrue, merely unevidenced. So there might be something in it. But as far as we know, there isn't. Teach that.


The DfE has been surfing the wave of evidence-based practice for some time now, and in my discussions with them I've never seen anything other than an honest, ambitious desire to find out what represents the best research in education, and disseminate it. With Gove gone, and an election around the corner, all hats are in the air again. Even the outcome of this review is uncertain. Will it launch like a rocket, or be quietly published and filed? Only time will tell if Morgan will be fey – or will we get Carter?