If you can't stand the research, get out of the classroom? - RSA

If you can't stand the research, get out of the classroom?

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  • Education
  • Teaching

In Dan Willingham’s superb book ‘why students don’t like school’, one of his provocative conclusions is that ‘the mind is not designed for thinking’. The problematic combination of effort, uncertainty and mental availability leads us to be, in John Hattie’s words, ‘highly selective about what we pay attention to’. Although Willingham is pragmatic and optimistic about solutions to this issue, his Realpolitik starting point is salutary and useful. If, to use Robert Coe’s definition, pupils are learning when they are ‘thinking hard’, their capacity to dislike and avoid learning things should hardly surprise us.

A similar analysis could easily be applied to the question of ‘why teachers don’t like research’. Of course there are structural, system-wide barriers to teachers’ engagement with research, and more could be done to incentivise the profession. However, this doesn’t wholly explain an overall teacher culture whose daily detritus, whether on staffroom walls, classroom desks or ‘to do’ lists, rarely lets the research light in. Time is an enemy of most good intentions, but I don’t think that if all teachers suddenly conjured, say, an extra hour a week to spend on professional learning, they would flock to the altar of research engagement.

With all this in mind, I went to my first researchED conference on Saturday. The beautiful baby of teacher blogger Tom Bennett, researchED is a thriving teacher-led movement. Frustrated by the wavering attempts of both Government and the Academy to connect teachers with research, and the variable quality of the stuff that cuts through, researchED’s curators are doing it for themselves through sell-out conferences and online conversations.

Although the researchED posse is a little dominated by the more traditional end of the teacher spectrum (and I don’t blame the organisers for this), the conference reminded me of Creative Partnerships at its best, when teachers and others engaged deeply with and in grounded research to inform the programmes they were designing.

I was there to discuss the findings and emerging recommendations from our Inquiry with BERA into research and teacher education, but really wanted to ‘learn from the converted’; to gain an understanding of why the teachers gathered on a Saturday in Birmingham were the exception rather than the rule, and whether this mattered. As I asked the teachers at my session: ‘why are you weird?’ One participant tweeted, ‘I feel like the lone nut’, then talked about his isolation as the only person in his secondary school who had heard of John Hattie. Another talked about the fear factor when her senior leadership team were promoting evidence-free interventions (yes, brain gym got another deserved kicking, although I tried to remind people that progressives and constructivists don’t have the monopoly on snake oil).

The BERA/RSA Inquiry’s interim report and follow-up conversations has convinced me that the development of all teachers’ ‘research literacy’ does matter, and made me increasingly optimistic that progress can be made. Research literacy (which does not require all teachers to be researchers) matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.

What are my grounds for optimism? When I left teaching fifteen years ago, we were just getting to grips with data, and how attainment data should inform classroom decisions. Now, this is a universally accepted attribute – in virtually every teacher’s job description. The depth of this cultural change struck me at a recent RSA Academies INSET day, when food technology teachers (perhaps not the usual data suspects) were having sophisticated data-led discussions. England is the most data-rich education system in the world. This gives us an incredible foundation to become both data-driven and research-rich during the next decade. Small nudges, whether from the passionate people who are researchED,  the Education Endowment Foundation, or  government rhetoric and requirements, for instance to demonstrate an evidence-informed approach to pupil premium spending, could combine to make a huge, rapid difference. We hope that our Inquiry’s country-specific recommendations and system-wide ‘design principles’ can also contribute when launched next month. I am also aiming to broker a productive partnership between researchED and BERA. A clever alignment could catalyse some common ambitions.

You can find links to an impressive multitude of blogs at #redb on twitter. Here are my thoughts from a fantastic day that might help maintain the researchED momentum.

1) People who can sound shrill and overconfident on twitter and blogs are much more prepared to engage critically with issues when face to face – yes, I mean me too. This means that, for all the social media and clever online engagement solutions emerging, the sometimes-visceral nature of events such as researchED matters deeply to the key task of creating a little more (if never total) long term consensus about schools and learning.

2) Progressive educators need to join the researchED fray. It would also be terrific to bring theory and research into practical learning and arts learning into the Research-Ed conversation.  As part of this process we need to read, and to some extent reclaim, elements of cognitive psychology to inform our thinking.

3) On the other side of a confusing fence, the teachers and researchers who are using cognitive psychology to justify and explore pedagogies should embrace some developmental and behavioural psychology too. Even within the range of cognitive outcomes they focus on, it’s still worth exploring, for example, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck, and some of the other theories summarised in our recent report into behavioural insights and education.

4) We need a common, cognitive bias-free commitment to nonsense-detection. Andrew Old should be as angry about Toby Young’s recent evidence-lacking Civitas pamphlet as Debra Kidd is. Together, we should be on commentators’ cases.  The Education Endowment Foundation or new Education Media Centre could take on a national rapid-reaction ‘health warning’ role whenever anyone plays fast and loose with evidence.

5) Compared to ‘official’ research conferences, researchED speakers are often prepared to ‘present before they are ready; the ‘mad idea’ of 'mapping the complexity of concepts' is a great example of this. Could ResearchED create a light touch, formative alternative to the classic ‘peer review’ process that stimulate an ongoing critical dialogue which aims for ‘just in time’ improvements to research efforts, rather than ‘just too late’ destruction?

From the promotion of girls’ education in the 19th Century to the more recent Start Right early years campaign, the RSA has a wonderful history of supporting important movements for change in education. The researchED phenomenon could be just as crucial, and we’re up for helping it sustain success in any way we can.

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  • We also need to decide whether or not education is an exclusively cognitive activity. It seems to me - and I am a physics/maths graduate - that there is something disturbing about a portrayal of education as all about pure logic and objective truth. Even in physics there is considerable disagreement about whether an absolute truth exists and in the humanities and arts its surely more to do with emotion, spiritual and moral values. These are not cut and dried right and wrong knowledge domains. Furthermore, the limbic system affects the cognitive centres of the brain so even if we are sticking to the cognitive aspects of learning it is bogus to assume it is unaffected by the emotional centres. That would be like a physicist saying air resistance is not relevant in dynamics problems because experiments in the lab give a neater theory without it.

  • I have to agree with the previous comment. Data of what for whom? The structure needs reform to take us into a world that schools are at present retreating away from. Research about a Victorian/industrial model is not the answer. There is another movement out there of those of us who want to change the basis of how schools work and give pupils the essential skills of creativity, collaboration and problem-solving that they will need in order to compete in a global village.

  • Interesting. But I am not sure the wealth of data generated in schools currently is actually very useful. Data-driven is good as an aspiration, but isn't necessarily the same as evidence-driven (it is too easy for the data to be meaningless - sometimes the drive to generate 'data' results in data being generated for the sake of it). A more careful approach to data is required which also thinks very hard about the unintended consequences for the system (e.g. gaming, teaching to the test/assessment, perverse incentives, loss of focus)......