'We've done this before, sir'

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Robin Bevan discovered that 35 per cent of maths taught in Year 7 had already been covered in primary school

The composer Arnold Bax said that we should try everything once - "except incest and folk dancing". Some teachers would probably add educational research to that list. But I can honestly say that the discovery, creation and application of research in the classroom are at the heart of my daily work.

I get genuinely excited when new insights are gained about real school problems, remedies are tested and refined, and both the quality and enjoyment of education are increased. It is even better when research highlights what is effective and, conversely, what is unproductive in a teacher's workload. You really can then "work smarter, and not harder".

A good example is the research that is shaping the development of my school's mathematics department. Large-scale studies elsewhere have identified a decline in pupils' maths performance, or lack of progress, on transfer to secondary school. The extent of the decline varies but seems to affect up to four in 10 children.

The explanations offered are complex but tend to centre on inadequate curriculum continuity. We had a hunch that this could be scrutinised, measured and then improved in simple, practical ways.

Our project, at King Edward VI grammar school in Essex, was designed to measure the extent to which this lack of progress stemmed from "redundancy" in the Year 7 mathematics curriculum: time spent teaching what is already known. The study revealed that levels of redundancy in otherwise successful lessons can be up to 35 per cent. Although this is high, pupils appeared to have been socialised into accepting the teacher-directed repetition of material.

My maths colleagues were genuinely surprised. In some instances, our tests showed that individual pupils were about to undertake a four-week module on a topic where they required no teaching at all.

The value of such research, however, depends upon the actions that follow from it. The maths department has, in response, reconstructed the Year 7 scheme of work. All pupils are now given short, diagnostic tests before each module. The results allow more focused teaching for the whole class and well-planned differentiation for small groups.

Across the school, we regularly use published studies - such as the well-publicised research into "assessment for learning" - to make decisions about how we teach and assess. And many of my colleagues are pursuing small-scale projects to gain new insights into their areas of work.

There is something quite delightful when a colleague with 30 years'

experience secretly admits to trying something new - and finding that it works! Our new teachers also gain immensely from entering a school with such a focus on research: learning in their induction year from approaches that are more often reserved for MEd students. We now have colleagues investigating topics such as:

* How to improve boys' engagement with English literature, using visual approaches and ICT.

* How colour-blindness makes an impact on boys' experience of the curriculum, since many resources use colour in explanations.

* How to develop the skills required for effective extended writing at A-level.

* How more active approaches to revision improve examination performance.

* How pupils respond to ideas of "truth, beauty and proof" in mathematics.

Many teachers have found their research to be a vital tonic. They are thrilled to be able to select their own area for development rather than being told. They delight in applying their professional expertise in collaboration with colleagues across the school - rather than being undermined by "one size fits no one" strategies.

This illustrates the power of the research-informed school. We know what works in professional development, and have based our school policy on sustained, self-selected, collaborative learning with teachers reporting their findings to each other. The process of innovation is becoming evidence-based, and proceeds on the basis of continuous, reflective evaluation, not blind implementation and delivery.

No one here pretends that one tightly focused educational research project provides all the answers to every question posed by practitioners. Our claim is a softer one. Each project that infuses the work of practitioners allows teachers progressively to modify their practice.

A typical teacher will teach 1,000 lessons in each year of employment. If the insights of educational research give rise to marginal changes spread over 10 years of 20 teachers' work, then 200,000 lessons will have been enhanced. I'm persuaded!

Robin Bevan is deputy head at King Edward VI grammar school in Chelmsford, Essex


Robin Bevan's research has been funded through Best Practice Research Scholarships, and more recently with a fellowship from the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (www.tlrp.org). Details of the Year 7 maths findings (www.standards.dfes.gov.ukntrplibpdf893403), and a separate study concerning gender and mathematics (www.standards.dfes.gov.ukntrplibpdf893391) have been published by the National Teacher Research Panel (www.standards.dfes.gov.ukntrp) of which Robin is a member

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