How many times have you ended up with a cake that doesn’t look anything like the picture in the recipe? More often than not, your disaster will have nothing to do with the ingredients and a lot to do with not quite following the instructions. The same is often true when we use research to lead change in schools. We read a report and decide this is what we need but fail to recognise that the final report is just the picture of the cake. The recipe itself is the important part.
Robust, high-quality evidence has become an essential tool for any senior leader and it is right that research underpins many of the decisions you make. But, although we should be faithful in our adoption of evidence, we must be intelligent in how we adapt it to our situation. We should approach the research with a researcherly disposition – asking not only what we are going to do but how, when and in what order we are going to do it, and how we will know if it is working.
When adopting a new approach, it is tempting to roll it out as quickly as possible. But you need time to perfect your recipe. School improvement is littered with examples of practices that have been widely adopted without being effectively evaluated for the positive and negative implications.
We need to know whether the new practice will work better than the current one – is it worth it? Using a “check-list” style of evaluation is an easy way to begin answering this question. It might look something like this:
• Identify the pupils who may benefit.
• Identify an assessment that will give you a baseline measure.
• Establish who, what, when and how.
• Test all students using this baseline.
• Divide the students into two groups. One will receive the new process first (group 1); the other will act as your comparison group (group 2). Try to make the groups as equal as possible and ensure their starting points are the same.
• Deliver the change to group 1.
• Assess the children in both groups.
• Calculate the progress made by the two groups and compare.
• If group 1 made more progress, everyone changes. If both groups made the same amount of progress, decide whether implementing the change is worth it by asking all involved. If group 2 made more progress, group 1 can go back to what they were doing before.
• Share your findings with everyone.
Approaching research in this way helps to grow our contextual school evidence base. We are always learning what works for children, in what ways, in which situations. And knowing what doesn’t appear to work is equally important.
Developing our individual school recipe books and learning from one another’s recipes helps us be efficient, effective and ensure that there is value for money in the decisions we make.
Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust