An hour with the DfE: How should we improve the use of research in schools?

17th June 2014 at 13:32

"Hail Hydra," I whispered gently to the security guard at the DfE. He gave me a look that to anyone else would have simply looked like confusion, but that I knew was the ocular handshake of recognition. "Hail Hydra," it seemed to say. Somewhere, undoubtedly, a bell was ringing in a dark room. I was inside the DfE.

I'd been asked in to speak to a panel of policy people about research in education. Pleasingly, it was a conference meeting, with similar panels watching from other locations on large TV screens. I almost expected flickering holograms of shadowy figures sitting in Philippe Starck swivel chairs. Truth is sadly less novel than the fiction. 

Heres a summary of my presentation:

1. What is the current state of education research in schools?

  • Swampy. Most teachers get all their research in one big pill at the start of their careers, and then sod all after that, forever. This makes it pretty important that they get good research to begin with, otherwise they'll carry it around with them like a conjoined twin for the rest of their careers. Changing people's strongly held beliefs is a process as swift as reversing the Supreme Court. It takes a generation. 
  • The landscape is dominated by disagreement. There is no consensus between education experts, indeed, there isn't even consensus about what expertise in education looks like. Dan Willingham would disagree with Ken Robinson. Oddly enough, even a PhD doesn't confer bulletproof expertise in the field of education, merely fluency in the language. The roots of this problem originate in the differences between the natural and social sciences. 
  • Teachers are frequently research illiterate, and who can blame them? Who's got the time? When were they trained? If their tutor hands down research X like the Mosaic tablets, who's to blame them for cleaving to it? We aren't even consumers of research for the most part, we're force-fed. We're battery farmed. As far as educational research goes in schools, apart from some noble exceptions, chaos blossoms and anything goes, so long as a piece of research can be pimped out to support it. 

2. How should it be used?

  • Teachers need to be trained to be research literate, to sift the gold flakes from the silt
  • Schools should promote research through the use of research champions. We simply don't all have time to become research savvy, so smart schools will delegate this consciously rather than reactively. 
  • Big RCTs have a role, as long as we are conscious of the limitations of the form. 
  • Research should be absorbed in pockets throughout one's career, rather than as an enormous PGCE enema. 
  • Teachers and academics must become engaged in more face-to-face discussions, like researchED conferences, partnerships, research projects, etc.  
  • The language of schools needs to change so that proposed interventions are discussed in terms of  their real evidence base. Where there is none, this needs to be honestly admitted and discussed. Not everything in schools can be supported with an RCT. Our job is often craft and intuition, but often it is not, and these boundaries need to be explored. 

3. What could the DfE do? 

  • Keep funding the EEF. Future generations will gaze in wonder at the expense of it all, and gasp at the courage of taking such a long view. You can't blame ministers for eschewing slow, careful research in favour of big barnstorming headline-hammering policy, but it doesn't help us understand the real impact of long-term, slow-burning interventions. 
  • Support grassroots organisations like researchED that seek to tap into the teaching community's potential to transform itself 
  • Be discerning of whom you appoint to instigate change in this area; it isn't enough to appoint simply "an expert". Which expert? In what? 
  • Be careful what you fund. I went through a DfE-funded initiative called the Fast Track and it was *heaving* with Cargo Cult science, brain gym, VAK, NLP, the full nine yards of $hit. Be wary of next year's mistake (mindfulness, I'm looking at you here). 
  • Remember, always, that education is a battlefield of ideas and ideologies. Research in education is sometimes BBC 4, and sometimes it is BBC 3. The trick is to discern the parts of this curate's egg that are useful from those that are merely speculative and the vehicle of someone's hobby horse. 

4. Use of social media

  • Yes, by all means. The department of magic and teaching could use a face, but it would have to be a face and not merely a logo, otherwise it will just attract the ire and not the interested. Sam Freedman is an excellent example of how it could be done: polite, professional and patient. Very, very patient. 

The department is, I think, commendably reaching out to active users (read: junkies) of social media, and I applaud that, with the following caveats: we don't represent anyone other than ourselves; we aren't opinion-formers; we're a tiny minority of a huge teaching profession, most of whom never use Twitter (possibly to their benefit). Bloggers like me are a kind of cranky fourth estate. We're rough and we're smooth, but we're fast and we're keen. The conversation catches fire on social media while the papers are often struggling to catch up. There's potential in that for real engagement with the education community. 

And my hour was up. Nobody had pulled a lever and sent me to down a chute into a furnace. As I left, I passed the same security guard, who collected my lanyard pass. He leaned into my ear.

"Hail Hydra," he said.