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Calm down dear, it’s only educational research.

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Before you embark, please note that I’m not anti-research.  Also, I’m a teacher because I believe in public service and don’t wish to make other people money.  Over the years, I’ve been lucky to speak to a huge range of audiences.  That’s not because I’m an expert anything, it’s simply because I have a range of stories that, when selected, form a powerful narrative on what has worked for me, in a particular context, with particular people.  I’m an instinctive sort of chap, which is why, perhaps, most of what I read seems like stating the obvious.  Indeed, I had no real understanding of educational research when we were transforming Priory Geography.  We just got on with what we thought was best and it turned out alright.  Anyway, back to the point.  Educational research has it’s own version.  Spot the key word:

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Academic research is a collection of stories, often within particular contexts. This post is a story, and my perspective of that story. It’s desirable to question and argue. I wonder how much research focuses on teachers who are great anyway?  Wouldn’t researching a particular aspect of what great teachers do just tell us what we know already? Is the robust evidence behind a research paper based upon those who are great teachers anyway?  It’s a bit like Twitter, are those that shout the most already in successful schools?  Indeed, reading any educational research reminds me of watching most L'Oreal Adverts:

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See the issue? Robust data indeed.  (See the full Mega Volume advert here, I often use these when introducing the geographical investigation that is Controlled Assessment when children conclude that, without a doubt, the only people who use the beach are dog walkers based on a sample of 50 people taken in November. Those that know me know that I really use any advert with Cheryl surname name in flux).

I enjoyed reading ‘What makes great teaching?’ (although the referencing issues did cause me some difficulty), although I gained no thunderbolt of revelation.  I’ve tried to sum up what it all means to me as follows:

Tool shed v Holy Grail

There isn’t one teaching technique that is going to revolutionise teaching and learning. Again, a blend of approaches is needed.  What the report does hammer home is this point:

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It’s about the high quality interactions that happen on a daily basis in classrooms between teachers and young people.  There is no short cut.  And I did love this on page 17:

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Yes, I think that learning should be made accessible and fun (fun doesn’t mean easy to me, fun can be really hard).  Education is about the beautiful struggle with the teacher making the vital decisions on how difficult it should be.  Teachers are the rescue line, but we should start hard and then support rather than expect less as a default.  ‘Desirable difficulties’ are approaches that may encourage long-term learning. The titles are from Bjork and Bjork, 2011 and the suggestions are my own:

  • Varying the conditions or practice – classic tool shed approach with a variation of approaches.  Constant and predicable lessons anchored on any one teaching method are not great at encouraging long term learning.
  • Spacing Study or Practice sessions – revisit, review and revise topics regularly. Linked to,
  • Interleaving rather than blocking instruction – interleaving isn’t anything new to teachers. Floating topicality can be used here to anchor learning to real work events, as they happen, and is relevant to any subject.
  • Use tests and get children to do the hard work. This is anti-spoon feeding and demands that teachers focus on what’s best for the student rather than the school in terms of league tables.

Schools need strong and visionary leadership to allow these four conditions to thrive.  For example, it’s almost impossible to allow teacher to take independent decisions if the culture of monitoring is based upon catching people out.  The report, for me, emphasises the point that education is anti-robots.  However hard we try, schools are just not production lines able to churn out identical teachers, students or staff.  Teaching is too important a job for that.  Indeed, effective pedagogy is more than a set of classroom techniques. It’s the ability to make complex decisions about what to teach, to which people and how to best teach it.  The report talks about schools identifying the ‘educationally worthwhile’ outcomes.  These aren’t confined to examination outcomes (I don’t really care how my 5 year old does in his phonics reading test to be honest) but need to be defined by the school.  This is where many schools face difficulty – without a strong vision of what they are for, many schools fall into the quagmire of being led by external forces rather than taking control of their own destiny.  Just don’t ask me how to do that though.  I’d rather try and fail though…..

So, where does this leave the research debate?  I believe that research within and in to  schools in vital, which is why we, like other schools, have a number of research bursars that are carrying out action research.  The limitation is that we will produce case study stories of what works in our context, within particular classrooms.  But, and this is the thing, that’s very OK. We are aiming to get to this:

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Research gives teachers permission, not that they need it, but:

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By taking part in research, we then need to create the conditions for staff to gather around the campfire and tell those stories.  Importantly, not every member of staff needs to be doing the research (although I would argue that they are anyway – just not formally) Only a handful of nutters (like myself and the priory geography team) will do this:

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Schools need to be driving research. This can be on the micro-scale within the institution, as long as that research drives change and remembering that research that proves something doesn’t work is just as valuable as research into what does.  Research is, after all, a narrative and selective of what is included.  I would argue that we need to see the warts. It’s not about being informed or based on research:

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Like most things, there is a third way.  For example, I came across a list of characteristics of Pupil Premium students at a conference, and was aware of the research and stereotypes.  A small scale action-research project aimed to define the characteristics of this group of learners:

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Although this reinforced the external research, it does mean that we now have a starting point upon which to make some real decisions.  If we aren’t careful, schools can be driven by anecdote and react to the encounters that a narrow range of decision makers have.  We hope that the adventures of our bursars will be shared so that those stories can be built upon.  One final example of a research story is the Mobile @ Priory cookbook.  Again, it’s a story that you can feel free to use, abuse, subvert or ignore.  After all, we could only make suggestions.

If schools start making decisions based upon research undertaken within their institutions, we would need to be careful to avoid the problem that climate change research sponsored by energy companies has.  Would you trust these guys?  Is it any surprise that research sponsored by educational research companies tends to support its own product? Any research in our realm is a product of bias and perspective and I believe that there is no such thing as an educational research ‘fact.’  And that’s ok too as it doesn’t make it worthless.  What educational research can’t be used for is to lambast or support a particular viewpoint or perspective.  It’s about the tool shed and high quality decisions made by knowledgeable teachers.

If research is encouraged and used in schools (rather than a tick-box to progress through external courses) and all teachers take the view that they require improvement always then we will build up a culture where scholarship and learning are valued rather than a hoop jumping exercise.  And not because people, like the Government, tell us to, but because it’s the right thing to do.  The danger with educational research is that, if not treated with scholarship, it can encourage Holy Grail chasing.  Just look at how politicians use it. I’m not one of those, I’m a teacher. Oh, did I just say that out loud?…….

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