You know the whats, now get a grip on the hows

9th February 2018 at 00:00
Our hoard of tried-and-tested teaching strategies has never been greater, but not knowing how to implement them is tripping up schools, says Sir Kevan Collins

There’s no doubt that schools today are in a better position to judge what is most likely to work in their classrooms than they were 10 years ago. We have access to more robust evidence about which strategies are effective and, as the evidence base has grown, so too has teachers’ appetite for it.

Since its launch six years ago, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – the organisation I lead – has funded more than 150 evaluations of teaching and learning strategies. We do this not only to identify promising programmes and approaches but also – just as importantly – to find out what doesn’t work.

Many of our findings challenge some common educational assumptions; who’d have thought that texting parents would improve student grades, but that pupil cash incentives would make little difference?

We report all of our findings in full and in public – whether the results are positive, negative or neutral – so that schools and policymakers can use them to help decide which new strategies to implement (as well as which ones they should consider stopping). But generating evidence can only get us so far. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how great an educational idea or intervention is on paper – what really matters is how it manifests itself in the messy, day-to-day world of schools.

In fact, one of the key characteristics that distinguishes effective and less-effective schools, in addition to what they do in the classroom, is how they do it. We see this in the findings that come from the EEF’s trials. While the main objective is usually to find out what impact a specific programme has had on attainment, we also want to understand why this has happened.

Independent evaluations

A good example is our evidence on the role of teaching assistants (TAs). Previous research had suggested that the ways in which they are often used in classrooms, for example, as substitute teachers for low-attaining pupils, does not boost learning outcomes. Indeed, their effect on disadvantaged pupils has been found to be negative. With £5 billion spent on TAs each year, there was a clear need to find out how to make better use of them.

We funded trials of a number of TA-led programmes, with TAs delivering structured sessions to small groups or individual pupils. The independent evaluations found these approaches to have a marked positive impact: the programmes resulted in an additional two-to-four months’ progress for pupils. In short, it’s not whether schools use TAs that matters – it’s how they use them that’s key.

But doing “what works” well is easier said than done. There are many barriers in the way of implementing new programmes and approaches effectively in schools: the bombardment of new ideas and initiatives, limited time and resources, and the pressure to yield quick results, to name just a few.

As such, it can be too easy to overlook the critical steps needed to maximise the chance of success. Creating the right conditions for implementation – let alone the structured process of planning, delivering and sustaining change – is a hard grind.

Best chance of success

Yet good and thoughtful implementation of a new teaching and learning strategy can mean the difference between its success or failure. It really is that stark. With so much at stake, it is crucial that schools give their innovations the very best chance of success by working carefully through the who, why, where, when and how of managing change.

To support schools to do this, the EEF’s latest guidance report – published today – focuses on successful implementation. It offers six evidence-based recommendations that can be applied to any school-improvement decision, with programmes of practice; whole-school or targeted approaches; and internal or externally generated ideas.

The report has some interesting messages. For example, it suggests that while schools should take on fewer simultaneous projects, they should set aside enough time to carefully reflect, plan and prepare for implementation. The report also focuses on how schools can create the right environment for change, from supporting staff to getting leadership on board.

“Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere,” educationalist Dylan Wiliam has famously noted. Implementing effective practices to the best of our ability is fundamental to yielding from the promise that our increased access to evidence affords. There is a great prize on offer: a consistent, well-led and empowered teaching profession that provides better outcomes for all learners, and, in particular, the most disadvantaged.

Sir Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation

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