In this post I’m presenting a conceptual model for how the teaching profession can reboot its relationship with scientific research into learning.
“…the simple truth is that, in education, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” – Dylan William – TES – 10th April 2015
“…Working out what works also means working out what we mean by ‘works’, and where science, heart and wisdom overlap and where they don’t….Evidence-based education is dead – Long live evidence-informed education.” – Tom Bennett – TES Blog 11th April 2015
Two frustrating truths:
- Science always seems able to measure ‘better’ or ‘worse’ ways to do things.
- Yet… Science cannot tell us the best way to teach.
Why is this the case?
- Because the unique combination of a particular teacher, particular pupil and particular set of circumstances can result in an unpredictable outcome.
- Because, metaphorically, we only focus on the “brightly lit corner” of the educational room. Ponder these two diagrams…
The first diagram shows just how limited we can ever be with trying to adopt guaranteed scientific strategies in teaching. The second one shows a similar thing – demonstrating the impossibility of ever being able to create a ‘best practice’ guide for dealing with any one individual
Another two frustrating truths to add in to ponder:
- Teachers ‘on the ground’ are the very best way to detect and intelligently respond to the unique individual educational needs of a child from moment to moment
- Yet… All people can be ignorant, naïve and deluded regarding what they perceive and what they think they are doing
So… how do we harness research to make things the ‘best’ that they can be…?
How things currently tend to happen:
- We rely on headline summaries of research into concrete strategies… “Feedback is good”… “Homework is bad”…
- Then we look for ‘silver bullet’ actions we can take which can be reliably rolled-out across all children in our class, or all classes in our school.
As Tom Bennett explains in his blog response to Dylan Wiliam’s article, the detail which would be of most use to teachers tends to be buried in “page 2,3 and beyond” of research papers, as these details give us the context which in practice mediates the effects – the overall average of which tends to be summarised in the headline.
So, for example, as Professor Wiliam points out, the effectiveness of ‘feedback’ to learners can rely entirely on the relationship between the teacher and the pupil; just giving feedback doesn’t guarantee a pupil will use it to move forward. Does this then mean we need scientific research to help teachers understand interpersonal relationships better – so as to map-out yet greater parameters for teachers to calculate? As someone who focused heavily on the ‘science’ of interpersonal relationships during their first degree, I’m relieved that Wiliam doesn’t think so. It isn’t more research that is required for the particular teacher, but a different relationship with the data. As he bluntly states… “The best way to become a more effective teaching body is to build and trust the ‘practical wisdom’ of teachers.” Drawing on Polanyi he adds “We can know more than we can tell”. In other words, teachers possess tacit knowledge of a situation which could never be expressed fully by language, and certainly not by rubrics.
Okay – Sounds crowd-pleasing! Let teachers get on with it and trust their professional judgement etc. Well, sort of. There is still that nagging first truth that I started with – which is still there – that science can tell us what works better and what works worse, and my fourth truth – all people can be deluded.
So…HOW CAN WE STRATEGICALLY IMPROVE OUR PROGRESSION AS AN EVIDENCE-INFORMED PROFESSION?
Professor Wiliam’s general solution is to ensure teachers access a range of quality professional development opportunities, tailored to suit their particular needs.
Geoff Petty this week takes that further, laying out a comprehensive list of the different kinds of research that teachers could access, and the principles they should think about when viewing it. He particularly stresses the usefulness of teachers ‘triangulating’ between quantitative, qualitative and ‘field’ research (case studies).
Here I’m going to go further still and propose a conceptual framework which school leaders and individual teachers could use to better develop as an evidence-informed profession. This framework suggests:
- A shift to focusing on principles of practice, rather than headline strategies
- A shift from looking for isolated ‘silver bullets’ to comparing contextualised ‘golden glow’ areas of research and case studies.
- A move towards seeing genuinely useful individual techniques as ‘silver seeds’ of practice, which can grow into something personally powerful when adapted by the professional teacher.
- A shift towards empowering individual teachers as the ultimate arbiters of what goes on in their classroom, according to the process outlined in the table below.
The most powerful way of moving a learner forward is not the delivery of a strategy. It is the coherent, integrated, responsive, humanly authentic educational mechanism we call a teacher, and each one of these clever devices functions at their best in a unique way, seeing things through a combinatorial lens unlike any other.
As with Dylan Wiliam’s reference to Polanyi, ijstock has recently pondered the unique way in which a teacher experiences the learning process and interacts with the unobservable processes going on in children’s minds:
“Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better… The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone… if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners.” There are strong calls through the ResearchEd movement for more teacher-led research to go on in schools. Whilst I more than support that where it is feasible, I have a rather nuanced vision for how teachers should become involved in research:
- New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should be taught the key findings of cognitive psychology regarding how people learn (less so the developmental psychology theories which can never be used to go from the general to the particular)
- New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should also be inducted in the skills required to carry out systematic social science research. This is not so much so that they could embark on quantitative research projects which can be used to add to our global data-bank of statistical findings – I personally think that the art of doing unambiguous quantifiable research is demanding enough for professional researchers. Rather…
- It will enable those who can to generate detailed in-house qualitative case studies which – without seeking to produce definitive recommendations in themselves – could add to a wider bank of resources which teachers could draw upon when attempting to triangulate their own approaches.
- It will enable them to question more knowingly the scientific claims and fads which they can be confronted with throughout their careers, and help to immunise them against sweeping claims when it is announced that ‘it has been proven’.
- It will enable them to gain the fullest benefit from their participation in the richest single source of research data available to them… their own personal careers. Of course, teachers already do gain wisdom from this day-to-day experience, but formal training in the practice of research would allow them to more carefully question their own perceptions of what goes on from lesson-to-lesson, and the various meanings which can be deduced from the efficacy – or otherwise – of their own practice.