Ben White is the director of curriculum at Highworth Grammar School in Kent. With Ashford Teaching Alliance, he is working on a project to promote awareness, understanding and use of research in the classroom, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation. He is also developing a programme of evidence-based CPD.
Educational research, you say. How interesting. Tell me, what does your research tell me that we should do here to get better?
As a relatively new director of research and development, I get asked this question a lot. My first challenge is to establish whether:
The question is genuinely meant – not always the case in a system where senior leaders are under intense pressure to meet standards which seem to be heading north while grade boundaries move south
The question is a veiled challenge – "Are you another charlatan offering the latest Ofsted-approved silver bullet solution?"
Either way, I now go with: "Educational research can’t tell you that. Isn’t that frustrating?"
In the 1970s Ernesto Sirolli headed to Zambia, keen to play his part in helping a developing nation. He failed. But he also learned and improved. It seems to me that we could also learn from Ernesto's mistake.
When it came to agriculture, Ernesto and his compatriots knew their onions – or in this case, tomatoes. They identified the fertile Zambezi flood plain as a prime location for establishing a tomato plantation. The ground was cleared and prepared, and hardy Italian tomatoes were planted and carefully tended. They looked delightful.
Only the local hippos, however, could tell you how they tasted. When the rainy season came, the river banks flooded and the hippopotami were only too happy to make the short stroll from the water’s edge to the pop-up Italian pick-your-own which Ernesto had so thoughtfully provided for them.
More on hippos later. In other news: there has, as yet, been limited success in scaling up promising educational interventions. Professor Robert Coe (director of the CEM at Durham University) makes this observation in the paper Improving education: a triumph of hope over experience:
"Many of the most effective strategies are complex, open to interpretation and hard to implement. We may think we are doing it, but are we doing it right? In most cases the approach is not supported by a well-defined, feasible, large-scale intervention strategy. In other words, we do not know how to get large groups of teachers and schools to implement these interventions in ways that are faithful, effective and sustainable."
Our work at Ashford Teaching Alliance, together with insights shared by the growing cadre of institutions and individuals supporting the cause of ‘evidence-based practice’, has made it clear that:
- There are no silver bullets
- Change is difficult
- Success requires greater depth and slower pace than we would like
- To compound issues, a cacophony of voices either promise or demand change which belies all of the above
It is vitally important to realise that if we can make successful evidence-based changes to our schools then we will have achieved something exceptional and rare. Much of this has been tried before – and it has generally failed. We must pay more than lip service to this insight, carefully evaluating every stage of our programmes for change in its light.
Despite the challenges, I also agree with the idealism found in Coe’s work –it makes sense to adopt an evidence-informed stance to educational improvement, and I hope that we can find some measure of success.
With past failures (and hungry hippos) in mind, evidence-based practice demands not just deep engagement with the principles of educational research, but also careful exploration of unique local contexts. Conducting a rational review of the status quo can inform worthwhile long-term changes. It may help in other ways:
We may quickly discover irrational practices in our schools that can readily be ended or changed. Human behaviour is rarely totally rational, and schools are not exempt from this
Hippos may be identified and removed, rehoused, stuffed or retrained. Make of this metaphor what you will, or, if you prefer less obscure advice, this resource provides some excellent tools for introducing evidence-based practice (log-in required)
We may be able to identify gaps between a perceived problem and what is actually happening. I’m thinking along the following lines:
- Fear: in one primary school, reluctance to make mistakes in written work was linked by students to a new book-checking policy which in their view meant mistakes made their teachers sad
- Homework: a group of girls from a local traveller community were being actively discouraged from completing homework at home. Therefore, a drive focused on improving the quality of work set by teachers was having no impact there
- Fathers' attitudes: interviews with some white working-class boys in a rural location found that they were reluctant to complete homework at home, as they knew that their fathers would feel threatened by not having the literacy to understand it
- Teacher learning: analysis of an unsuccessful attempt at implementing effective feedback found that teacher understanding of underlying principles was not initially established. As a result, new practices were not deployed effectively
One thing we are doing at school and across the alliance this year is hippo-hunting. Yes, there are some promising pointers relating to successful educational interventions, and some fairly clear principles on which we can build. However, before providing an answer, we ask all our colleagues to spend a little time considering:
What they think the problem is
Whether their diagnosis is borne out in pupil voice, observations, focus groups, questionnaires and assessed work
Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to hear staff talking more clearly and accurately about the current state of play in their classrooms. We will no doubt uncover successes that inspire and challenges which seem almost impenetrable. However, once we can pin down specific issues, we can then look to educational research for principles (as well as their practical incarnations) which might actually help.
Or, as Ernesto puts it: "Want to help someone? Shut up and listen."