'I begin all lesson planning by asking myself: is this truly the best? Because that's what all students deserve'

Reading the best education researchers and writers has transformed what I do in the classroom, says this teacher, blogger and speaker

Eric Kalenze

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In recent pieces for TES, I’ve promoted the idea of teachers taking control of their own training by using education research. Having been through this journey myself, I know first-hand how educators can improve both their performance in class and wider professional impact by applying independent research.

Later this month, I am helping to organize researchED, a conference that will bring together hundreds of teachers and academics to explore what difference research can make to life in the classroom. (For more info, see http://www.researched.org.uk/event/researched-washington/.)

One regular speaker at researchED in the UK, where the conference originated, is Jo Facer, a seventh-year professional currently serving as Head of English at Michaela Community School in London.

As well as presenting at conferences, Jo also shares her experiences and insights through her blog, Reading All The Books. In this Q&A, she explains how she got started with educational research and the power of sharing ideas with fellow professionals.

How did you start using education research to improve your teaching and who were your early inspriations?

I trained through Teach First [similar to Teach For America in the US], and after three years was feeling fairly dissatisfied with both my career and my teaching practice: both were stagnating.

I was lucky to be introduced to Joe Kirby, a teacher and writer, who needed volunteers to help with a new book for trainees, and met others who introduced me to writers like E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham, who I had never heard of.

Pretty much every idea I have had has been come to from discussion with one of these individuals, or stolen from one of these individuals.

After you were introduced to these education thinkers, how did you transfer what you'd learned into the classroom? 

The transition into my teaching took some time, as the people I started reading don't always provide concrete examples of what it should look like. 

For instance, I realised after reading Hirsch's Cultural Literacy that I absolutely had to prioritise teaching, to steal Matthew Arnold's words, 'the best that has been thought and said,' but it was up to me to figure out what this meant.

Where before Hirsch I would teach media texts, texts which weren't the best, or just using video clips because I felt they ticked some kind of curriculum box, Hirsch's arguments made me re-consider. And kids do deserve the best. So now, I begin all lesson planning by asking myself: is this truly the best?

Another practice I took directly from these studies was making daily use of the testing effect, which Willingham and others have written about. I begin every lesson with a series of low-stakes micro-tests: a spelling test of between three and ten words, a vocabulary test of around five words, a recap from a prior unit of about five questions, and a recap of the current unit.

The tests only take about ten to fifteen minutes, but their frequency ensures the pupils commit the learning to memory much more quickly and durably by giving them retrieval repetitions.

In addition to the insights you were introduced to via research, did you find people who provided practical models for you to emulate and/or build upon?

Luckily, yes. I'll never forget walking into the Deputy Head's classroom in my second school and seeing him teaching with just a copy of the poem and a whiteboard pen. That was something I hadn't ever seen before, and the kids (a low-set group) were absolutely hooked. Seeing that model, then, made me start to re-think what I felt I needed with me to teach and I've now gone totally minimalist. 

Where do you tend to go for new ideas about practice when you're feeling 'stuck'?

There are some great writers on education. Anything Doug Lemov, Willingham, and Hirsch write, I want to read.

I’m frequently challenged and introduced to new ideas by blogs out there, too, like those written by my Michaela colleagues (e.g., Hin-Tai Ting,Dani QuinnJoe KirbyKatie AshfordLia MartinJonny PorterLucy NewmanOlivia DyerJess LundSarah ClearBarry Smith), but also enjoy those from non-Michaela teachers like Anthony RadiceJames Theobald, and blogs and articles by Tom Bennett.

You've spoken at several researchED conferences and maintain a blog to share your insights. Do you believe this is an effective way for teachers to broadcast what works to one another?

I absolutely love speaking at conferences. You meet so many people who come up to you at the end and say: ‘I’ve been saying this for years and thought I was mad/bad at my job’ by people who are going against the orthodoxy of education.

It’s lovely to meet these like-minded individuals and make them realize they aren’t alone. But I also love the people who come up to me and say “I totally disagree with you for all these reasons”, because then we can discuss, debate and argue.

Sometimes people tut and shake their head and then leave—that’s the worst. I want to know what those people don’t like, or how they are interpreting what I’m saying. Because 100 per cent of educators want to best help their pupils succeed, achieve and be happy—we’re all united in that.

I think there is a way we can all push our kids to achieve more, and I want to hear from both sides when I speak to this. And keeping a blog is great. We’re all so busy day to day, it is hard to think about what we are doing and why.

Eric Kalenze is an educator and author based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro. For more information see his book Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems or his blog A Total Ed Case, or follow him on Twitter @erickalenze

ResearchED is holding a conference at CHEC in Washington, DC, on 29 October, tickets for the conference are on sale now. Click here for more info on the conference program and tickets—and be in touch if you have any questions. 


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