If you’ve been involved in education over the last few years, you’ll have probably noticed that the term evidence-based has become rather trendy. So trendy, in fact, that even politicians (the trendiest of all people) have begun to talk about it.
Professor Rob Coe, academic hipster, was talking about all of this long before it was cool – in 1999 he published a Manifesto for Evidence Based Education on the premise that,
“Education may not be an exact science, but it is too important to allow it to be determined by unfounded opinion, whether of politicians, teachers, researchers or anyone else.”
This is a rousing sentiment. As professionals, we should be able to point to something more than whim or habit for why we do what we do in the classroom. The (surprisingly) intense popularity of ResearchEd demonstrates how, sixteen years after the Manifesto was released, we are ready and willing to fulfil its aims and ideals. There is a slight problem. What exactly does an evidence-based classroom look like? And more importantly, how can ordinary, time poor classroom teachers translate evidence into changes in their environment.
This was the task that Rich Farrow and I set ourselves at this year’s primary ResearchEd conference. Without any secondary teachers slowing us down, we were able to achieve an awful lot, and we’re looking forward to giving an improved presentation in Leeds in a couple of weeks. In case you missed the session, or would like your appetite whetted for the Leeds version, here is the sort of things we talked about:
Evidence-based is slightly over-egging what is possible or even desirable. Evidence-informed is subtly, but importantly, a more appropriate label. So what kinds of evidence can inform our practice, or beliefs and our values as in the classroom. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
I’d like to stress ‘personal experience’ in this list, which some may baulk at. Surely anecdote is exactly what the educational research movement is trying to move away from? There are two responses to this. First, when educational researchers (including people like Doug Lemov) publish excellent practice in classrooms, they are very often capturing teachers acting on their personal experience. Secondly, what workds in education, along with the outcomes that we hope for, is heavily context-dependent, and the classroom teacher is best placed to navigate this. It may be that literacy results are through the roof for one class, but social abilities are poor, for example.
History of Educational Research
It’s worth tracing the history of Educational Research to understand what it can tell us (and what it can’t). Initially, the discipline as born out of the widely held belief that ‘schools can’t compensate for society’ (Bernstein, 1969). As a result, the field has historically been quantitatively heavy and complex, in a bid to show that schools can have a positive effect on children’s outcomes in spite of background factors like socio-economic status and prior ability.
Much of the research that we are given, such as that presented by Hattie and the EEF, relies on mystical things called ‘effect sizes’. Rich talks about how these are worked out and why this may not be appropriate now that we know that progress isn’t linear, particularly in primary school.
What can I do on Monday?
There has been a shift, then, from looking at system- or school-level interventions to what goes on in the classroom. This is important, because for evidence to be in the bloodstream of what practitioners do, it must be concerned with what practitioners do.
Alongside this, it is of immense importance to note that schools are complex and dynamic environments. It was for this reason that Ben Goldacre advocated the use of Randomised Control Trials when testing interventions, advice that the EEF has acted upon in its commissioning of research projects.
After talking briefly about how Rich and I attempted to weave principles from cognitive science (from Dan Willingham) and feedback (from Dylan Wiliam), we presented the teachers in the audience with a report from the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education study undertaken by the Institute of Education. This large scale, longitudinal study looked observed teacher and pupil behaviours in year 5 classrooms and grouped the factors present in the most effective classrooms.
In all likelihood, most of the teachers in the audience would already be doing what was suggested. But we wanted to discuss how, not what. There was rich discussion and challenge, with some criticisms that the study did little but describe already effective classrooms without explanation of how they got that way, or discussions on why one approach might be more effective than another.
What also became clear was that the idea of evidence-based education is heavily dependent on the age group being taught. What is effective in a secondary classroom may not be effective in a year 5 classroom, and what works in year 5 may be the worst approach to take in a Key Stage One environment. Much of the research that is discussed in secondary focussed, and as primary practitioners we must do better to challenge whether it is relevant to our setting.
We concluded with a few ideas for how we might proceed. One suggestion was to adopt a ‘research’ twin in school. Many primaries are lucky enough to have a year partner who will be teaching kids from the same background, the same curriculum in the same whole school environment. Lots of variables are similar. This provides a wonderful opportunity to try out different approaches. Of course, primary teachers do this all of the time anyway, and so we suggested a some small tweaks to the sort of language that we use to try and be more evidence focussed in our future practice.
We’d really, really like to thank everyone for coming out and joining in with our session, and for all of the feedback that you gave. You can watch the talk online here if you’d like to. We very much look forward to meeting more wonderful teachers in Leeds. If you don’t have a ticket for that yet, you can book them here. It’s only a fiver, but you should still ask your school to pay for it.