Open letter - Plenty of evidence - but too little will to make use of it

2nd November 2012 at 00:00

Dear Mr Russell,

Would one accept in the 21st century a medical doctor who said: "I do not believe in medical science. I treat patients by instinct."? Or a pilot who said: "Forget all this nonsense about GPS and radar - I fly by the seat of my pants."?

Yet the educational equivalent is heard in some school staffrooms in Scotland (and, sadly, even more in university common rooms).

You must be overwhelmed with advice about classrooms, Cabinet Secretary. But is there an evidential basis for good practice in teaching? Some would say not. But I think there is.

A good starting point is the research of Professor John Hattie. The work (in essence the aggregation of many studies) has been going on for some 20 years now, and seems robust and increasingly influential across the world.

If Hattie is correct, he sheds new light on issues that have long been controversial - eg, class-size effects. A short (and simplified) exemplification of his messages is as follows:

1. Those schools in which teachers set high expectations are effective in what they achieve.

2. Concentrating on feedback (what we typically call Assessment for Learning) is very effective in causing large gains in student learning.

3. Reducing class sizes is largely irrelevant to achievement.

4. School development planning is often irrelevant to student learning.

5. Focusing on reducing disruptive pupil behaviour is highly effective in causing gains in learning.

6. Encouraging school students to tutor other students is good at increasing learning - for the students being tutored and for those doing the tutoring.

And if I made Hattie my starting point, I would add to that list: Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam; Fenton Whelan; Richard Elmore; Michael Fullan. All have soundly evidence-based things to say to Scottish education.

But how much of their work actually influences the professional development or practices of Scottish teachers? Black and Wiliam have had some influence. Fullan is quite well known, but mostly ignored. Sadly, the rest are far from being household names.

I tried out a draft of these ideas with a very senior figure in Scottish education. He replied: "Teaching should be a high-reliability and high- validity profession and we should be relentless in ensuring that our young people experience the most informed pedagogical practice. We have been far too tolerant of amateurism. (We need a) culture change at all levels, including both teachers and parents, many of whom see teaching as being mainly about personality, content knowledge and craft."

In short, Cabinet Secretary, if the practice of a Curriculum for Excellence is to be put on a sound basis, we need some work on that agenda.

Yours sincerely, Iain Smith

Iain Smith was at one time a Dean of Education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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