This article was first published in Teach Primary, an excellent magazine which you can subscribe to here.
Teaching is constantly flooded with groovy ideas that promise to solve education’s ills once and for all. One of the most recent is the suggestion that our practice should be better informed by research, in the same way that the medical profession is evidence-based.
This idea, however, isn’t that new. Way back in 1999, Professor Rob Coe launched his Manifesto for Evidence-Based Education, in which he declared:
“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.
But educational research is not without its problems. One of the most challenging is that in education, everything works. That is to say, whenever an intervention is tested, it has a positive effect. This means that we’re faced with a conundrum of choosing which option will benefit our children more, or to paraphrase Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam: to do good things in education, you have to not do other good things.
So how to decide on which ‘good things’ to do? Surely we can rely on experience or instinct to guide the way? Unfortunately, compelling evidence suggests that we may not be best placed to make that call.
Dr Rebecca Allen, Director of the Education Datalab, is more candid: “Actually, you probably don’t know what works best in your classroom.” An example is how our beliefs can be prejudiced by the common-sense position that children’s learning follows a neat, linear path; a notion that has been emphatically disproved by national data.
I was enthusiastically explaining all of this to an experienced colleague who politely listened to me rattle on before sighing, “That’s all very well. But how does this really help in the classroom? I mean –what can I do on Monday with all this?”
The objection is not unfair. With astronomical workloads, time is an ever-present elephant in the staffroom, shuffling uncomfortably whenever ‘a great new idea’ is announced. Ultimately, research should empower and professionalise teachers to make well-informed judgments and decisions in their classrooms.
With that in mind, here is a list of five things that you can do on Monday to help make your teaching more evidence-informed (without demolishing any work-life balance you’ve managed to cling on to).
After becoming increasingly frustrated with foolish ideas and nonsense claims in education, teacher and writer Tom Bennett launched ResearchEd (www.workingoutwhatworks.com). This grass-roots organization brings together teachers and academics at conferences across the country. Give up one Saturday and you can choose from a myriad of sessions exploring what works in the classroom, helping you to build your own ‘evidence toolkit’. Since classroom teachers often lead the sessions, the focus is on how to easily implement the findings from latest research.
- Action Research
After your next observation, why not identify a specific area of weakness and pose yourself a research question? So instead of an arbitrary ‘Use more videos in literacy,’
try: ‘Does the use of videos in literacy lessons improve narrative writing with low attainers?’ This approach forces you to consider what you are trying to achieve, how you will try and achieve it, and how you will know if you’ve been successful. If you have a year partner, they could become your ‘research twin’, trialling a different approach so that you can compare which worked better. There’s even a website where you can publish your action research and have it reviewed by other teachers and academics: http://www.praxis-education.com
- Journal/Book Club
Focussing on a single book or journal paper (many are available free online) can be a great way to expose staff to new ideas. I’d suggest you start with Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham or Make it Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark Mcdaniel. Both of these books are written by highly respected academics, and they changed the way that I think about teaching and learning.
- The EEF
Governments are often criticised for making policy based on ideology instead of evidence. Aware of this, the coalition government founded the Educational Endowment Foundation, an independent organisation tasked with finding out what works in education. They have published a ‘teaching and learning toolkit’ on their website (www.eef.org.uk) which ranks interventions based on available research.
Perhaps the best way to introduce yourself to the world of educational research is by joining twitter and establishing a ‘personal learning network’. Thousands of teachers produce high quality blogs exploring recent research, and a growing number of academics are also joining the popular social network. I’d recommend following @AlisonMPeacock @DiLeed @informed_edu and @researchEd1 as a great starting point, they all regularly share educational research which helps primary teachers be better informed of ‘what works’ and why.