I love research! I love seeing how, why and when things work and for whom. It’s quite simply, amazing!
Prior to my career in education I worked in biological research, examining the biochemical pathways involved in immune suppression during chemotherapy. It was great. You ask a question, you lay out your experiment, control your variables and hey presto, you have a definitive answer: This causes this to happen and then this is the consequence. Clear cut. It’s pretty satisfying.
But education is not quite the same. People, schools, communities, we’re all different. You are rarely controlling your variables, certainly not all of them.
Which has raised a lot of questions and (rightly so) caused a lot cynicism about the whole field of educational research. I have endless discussions with non-teacher friends “What is a Research Lead?” they just don’t get the point of it: Everyone is different so why bother using research when you can’t get an answer that is ubiquitous?
Well, I come back to something I heard Steve Higgins say:
“It gives us our best bets.”
Poor CPD Provision
Over the years I have endured some numbing CPD. I especially remember one inset day, the school had paid for an expensive outside provider to deliver on tackling underachievement in pupil premium boys. Looking back, a better question was probably needed, but it was the opening gambit that really epitomised the “training day”.
“I’ve been asked to come here to talk to you about raising achievement in pupil premium boys. But, if I could do that I would be a very rich man, so that’s not going to happen.”
The day was a disaster, he was clearly ill-prepared, lacked knowledge, both of educational strategy and of the school’s context and was not fit for the job. But he was allowed to ‘train’ staff, collect a day’s fee and go on his merry way, leaving, at best, a group of staff none the wiser on how to tackle our school’s priorities or, at worst, people practising what he preached.
I’m still appalled that this was allowed to happen. Education and staff training is too precious to get wrong. Money, time and resources are all wasted to no avail. So, there must be a better way. Of course there is, that’s the Research Lead.
I recently saw this on a post from Russel Brand, now I am sure it was meant as some sort of inspirational quote, but, as consumers of evidence,we should all take this on board:
Because, what if you’re wrong? The stakes are too high.
I think it is fair to say that people enter into the education because they want to help young people. The trouble is, because of our background, family, education or even subjects studied, our views on how to best help our students are wide and varied. So, it is our job to look at the best available evidence to decide upon what is best for those that we serve in our context.
What worries me are a body of professionals who ‘believe’ what they are doing is right, just because. Give me the evidence you are right. How is what you are doing serving your students to have better outcomes? In our profession, we should not be self-serving, self-indulgent or self-righteous. We should serve our students to the best of our abilities, give them the best bet of success, and that means reviewing all the available research, not listening to one side of the story and being open minded to a range of views.
It is wiser to utilise time on something that has a body of evidence behind it, potentially decades of evidence, meta-analysis, robust challenge and peer review, than the thing the school up the road are doing and it probably looks good.
Now, there is a caveat to this, I would identify as a traditionalist. But, I am also open minded. I am open to discussion, I am open to being wrong. I am open to critically evaluating evidence that does not suit my line of thinking.
Critical consumer of evidence
Using research alone is not a silver bullet. We have to be a critical consumers of evidence, be cynical, be dubious, question everything! There is literally tonnes of research evidence out there, some of which may not be as reliable as others. Always look behind claims, check the reliability of studies, for example ask yourself:
- What is the cohort size?
- Are there any sponsors for the study? Who are they? Are they invested in the outcome?
- Does this study fit your context?
- How was the data collected?
Essentially you are sorting the metaphorical wheat from the chaff. Giving your school initiatives the best chance of success.
I firmly believe, whatever your stand point, whether you are a ‘trad’ or a ‘prog’, you should be investing your time in evidence. Not because you have a bias towards a certain school of thought, but our young people deserve to be given the best chance.
As educators we have a massive responsibility to the students in our care, and that can (and arguably should) involve questioning the educational status quo. Whether that be in your own classroom or on a whole school level. We should question all that we do, just because you’ve always done group work, for example, does that mean it is the right thing for your students? What is the evidence for and against usual practices, and most importantly, is there something more effective you could using your precious learning time for?
Improving CPD Provision
This is where being evidence informed and utilising Research Leads really does come into its own. We are really fortunate in our school; I am part of a Research Lead Team of 3: @MissJoT , @MissRegardless and I have taken an evidence based approach to our whole school CPD offering. Both in terms of its structure and its content. We have dedicated CPD to empowering staff in areas such as direct instruction, modelling, metacognition, memory and retrieval.
During this time we have seen a year on year upward trend in our outcomes. Of course, correlation and causation are not the same thing, however, it certainly does give us a platform to further evaluate what we are doing and build up further evidence of our approach.
Throughout this journey we have spent time looking at our school context and really working out what is appropriate for us here. We are really clear that we do not want to do things because they are fashionable. We do things because they are needed and there is strong evidence to support their efficacy.
We spend a significant proportion of time evaluating what we do and we are constantly refining our approach. This includes getting as much feedback from staff and students as possible.
It is fantastic to hear students talking about how much they enjoy their lessons, how they feel in control of their revision and impact this has their confidence.
I am not that teacher who posts on social media the “Look at what the kids got me” followed by preposterous amounts of cards, presents and “World’s Best Teacher” mugs (is that because I don’t get them…? I’ll leave you guessing on that one!) But, following a recent lesson on antibiotics and microbial growth a student said me:
“Miss, I love our lessons, this one was so interesting, you really know what you’re talking about, I’ve learnt loads.”
This was my lesson:
Nothing whizz or bang, just me, the visualiser, a picture and lots and lots of Q&A. And this a story replicated across departments and classrooms across the school. We are free to teach, to do our jobs and students can learn without interference from time wasting activities that look good for show.
Staff morale has also been impacted. We are regularly updated by their positives in lessons, meetings and interactions across the school. Staff report that they feel empowered to do their job and not constrained by ideology that is not fit for learning.
So, I come back to my initial statement: “I love research! I love seeing how, why and when things work and for whom. It’s quite simply, amazing!” And this is a standpoint I stick by.
Whether you are a Research Lead, have Research Leads in your school or not, we can all be research informed and use that to influence our own practice, influence those around us and help guide change.
We are in a fortunate position in shaping the future of our students, and it is imperative that we effectively utilise the how, why, when and for whom in our schools. Giving them the best bet of success. For all of us, it boils down to this
Is there anything more important than being informed?