'researchED Washington: If teachers want children to succeed, they have to look at the evidence of what works'

31st October 2016 at 21:36
research, success, america, classrooms, teachers, students
'In teaching, no intervention has magical, universal efficacy. But if getting better at what we do is something that presses your buttons, then it is demonstrably true that we need to attempt some form of systematic approach to what we do in classrooms, corridors and assembly halls.'

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There’s a beautiful idea carved on the wall that wraps around Washington’s mountainous Martin Luther King monument. It reads. ‘We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.’ Like many of the reverend’s eminently wise and meditative bon mots, it lends itself to reflection. In an accidental way it embodies my hope for teaching and the practice of education in the future - that we can create an international community of educators and spaces for those educators where the best of interpretive practice and the best of structured, communicable strategies are blended.

Which brings me to researchED Washington, a one day conference built by myself and the excellent, eternally enthusiastic Eric Kalenze, Minneapolis’s second most remarkable son. The idea of researchED is to engage teachers in educational research - what it means, and how it can or can't make a difference in the classroom. Saturday's conference in DC was several months in the planning, and the pay off seemed to zoom past in a instant, like a long queue for a fast ride in a theme park.

I’ve organised dozens of these now, but each one always feels like a first, often because the blend of speakers is so interesting and novel. No two events are the same, and because we naturally mine the rich seams of local voices first and foremost, the accent is always unique to the day.

I have to say, the talent was extraordinary, an embarrassment of riches. We had Seth Andrews, CEO of Democracy Prep, a chain of 27 schools based in Harlem; Ben Riley, mandarin of the Deans for Impact; Robert Pondisco, vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; the excellent Yana Weinstein; Sarah Thomas, Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools; Ulrich Bosen and dozens more. Teachers, principals, academic, policy makers, researchers, teaching assistants, all thrown into the robot coupe of face-to-face dialogue.

researchED days have several features that I think make them unique: one is the democratising cocktail of voices, where in one room you may have Obama’s advisor on educational technology, and in the next a Belgian in the middle of his PhD, next to a maths teacher from Canada. Everyone has an equal platform: one classroom, one slot, and let the audience land where it will.

Another key thing we do is ask all speakers to be prepared to discuss or defend their ideas with an evidence base. The networking and conversations I see at these days is like nothing on earth; by packing eight fast sessions into a conference we (notionally) try to guarantee at least one day-shaking idea will hit you by sunset, and in some cases, half a dozen.

I think education is often a little timid about looking to evidence. In some cases that’s because of vested interests, or the fear of one’s cherished narratives being exploded. More charitably, some people understandably feel that teaching has more in common with acting, comedy or art, more of an aesthetic activity than one amenable to metrification, or indeed a craft. I wouldn't argue that aspects of teaching aren't exactly like this. I mean, what algorithm would confidently predict how to make people laugh? There’s a relationship of ingenuity and spontaneity intrinsic to that moment, that audience.

But even allowing that, there are boundaries, or perhaps bands of probability. As our keynote speaker, the magisterial, magnificent Dylan Wiliam said in his opening barn stormer that deconstructed meta studies: "Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere."

There are few Planck’s constants in the social sciences. In teaching, no intervention has magical, universal efficacy. But some things tend to work more in certain contexts than others. Some things are more or less likely. If you're looking for certainty, then good luck saddling that unicorn. But if getting better at what we do is something that presses your buttons, then it is demonstrably true that we need to attempt some form of systematic approach to what we do in classrooms, corridors and assembly halls.

For me, the special sauce of researchED days is that we respect the experience of the educator in the field, as well as the investigator in the farmhouse. In my mental Venn diagram, where these two great enterprises overlap is the most interesting space of all, and that's what we try to lay our scene.

It was worth carting over a suitcase of canvas bags and pens for. It was worth the weeks and nights we spent hopscotching across time zones with Eric to pull it together. More than worth it. It it felt like the beginning of something very special, especially when Ken, an attendee told me that ‘it was the best teacher event he’d ever been to in x years, and he’d been waiting for it for ages.’

I know how he feels. The first half of my school career was spent wrestling with terrible junk edu-science, until I realised that a lot of what we took as gospel was well-meant bunk, and that better ways were out there to be debated and disputed.

Incidentally. Washington is a glorious city. I’ll take two. Thank you to everyone who gave, gave and gave so generously of their time and experience.

And I can’t wait until we do it again.

Some highlights:

-Seth Andrews, an apparently nuclear powered man who compressed more ideas and content into his slot than an online encyclopaedia. He’s launching an extraordinary application that promises to conduct near-instant RCT trials on almost any decision made in school, practically in real time. Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic, and he may well have been talking about Andrew’s marvellous machine- I wait to see it go alpha in earnest.

-Dylan Wiliam (of course), the most mis-spelled, mispronounced Professor since Charles Xavier. In 40 minutes he blew 100 minds with his fluent, perfectly comprehensive grasp of the reality of education compared to the ambitions of research. A speech that was worth the airfare alone.

-Meeting (as you always do at researchED) people from Twitter but in three-dimensions; the word made flesh. The tweet incarnate. There was a distinctive gang of Canadians- and that is probably the first and last time you’ll hear Canadians described as a gang. I think the collective noun is a ‘Bear Claw’. Wonderful people with perfect manners, and ambitions for a Canadian researchED, or researchEHd if you will. Sorry. Watch this space.

-American beer with Americans afterwards, and Ben Riley explaining to me why ‘football’ (or ‘American Football’ as it is correctly known) wasn’t just effete rugby. Unsuccessfully, I might add. 

Find out more about the work of researchED here.

Tom Bennett has been a teacher in the East End of London for ten years. Currently he is the Director and founder of researchED, a grass-roots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof

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