In my work I regularly have the opportunity to talk to groups of teachers and leaders about ideas from research and research processes themselves. It’s a continual source of surprise to me how different the levels of engagement and awareness can be from one audience to another. In some places, there’s a high level of awareness of recent books, discussions and concepts emerging from research studies, cognitive science and the wider world of sharing across the teacher community. Other places feel isolated and I’m the one telling most of the people, for the first time, about Hattie, Willingham or Rosenshine or Nuthall. Usually people have heard of Carol Dweck – but not always, and quite often they’re not aware of the debates around growth mindset interventions. Very often most people have heard of Dylan Wiliam – but it’s not always the case that they know what he’s said beyond something about ‘AfL’ – whatever they think that might mean.
Given the gaps in knowledge and practice I see quite regularly, it’s also a source of frustration that out in the edu-sphere people are busily dismissing or demonising excellent ideas about teaching, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are classrooms all over the place where these same ideas would be a Godsend to the students and teachers muddling their way through a relatively bad experience.
If good ideas are going to find their way into the classrooms that need them, then we might need to be more conscious of all the potential barriers. Here’s a list:
- There’s research? Lots of teachers remain oblivious to the range and nature of the studies that are undertaken into the effectiveness of the things they do every day. There’s a long way to go here just to get people into the discussion.
- Managed well enough with out it. This is true of lots of great teachers… it’s only a problem when this turns into… ‘therefore, research can’t be important’.
- Not looking for it. It can be that a school’s circumstances are so challenging or so comfortable that people just don’t look up and see what’s going on around them. They run entirely on recycling institutional knowledge, sometimes to good effect; sometimes not.
- Not had time. It’s so common to find teachers hungry to learn but where their workload or CPD systems just don’t support serious research engagement.
- But it’s nothing new…. Some people get wound up by anyone promoting ideas they already know about because it feels they’re saying the ideas are new (even if no-one is saying they’re new). So what! Old ideas can be new to many… what’s the problem?
- But there’s a lot more to it. This can become a holier-than-thou spiral: claims of superior understanding and appeals to more subtle thinking. Learning is complex; we study elements of it and promote ideas around them. But if someone decides to focus on anything specific it allows people so say we’re missing the big picture: eg “retrieval practice is not just about learning isolated facts”. Nobody thinks it is!
- But whatabout….: What about relationships; what about my particular EAL students; what about drama; what about early years? Do we need a global caveat? : Not all ideas apply equally to all students in all subjects in any given discussion. There are some generally useful ideas but who is claiming universality? And nobody is leaving you out by just talking about what’s relevant to them.
- But that doesn’t apply to my subject. Why would it? Year 8 art; Y11 chemistry; Y3 creative writing….are poles apart. Can we not apply our filters without roadblocking the discussion with obvious false comparisons?
- But it’s all driven by ideology. There are people who resist anything supported by political figures they oppose. Some even literally think promoting good instructional methods is tantamount to supporting indoctrination; people who carefully separate instruction (bad) from “education” (good). As if this isn’t its own bizarre ideology.
- But you can find a study to tell you anything.. The ‘anything goes’ brigade. Research can be conflicting but not at the level where we sweep all research aside and do what we feel like.
- But, I once knew a student who… Exceptions! My son didn’t need X; I knew a girl once who learned by doing Y; some do perfectly well without Z. If we’re looking for good bets to improve outcomes for the many, our counter-example exception anecdotes don’t add up to much. We need to do better. At the same time, it’s pretty weird when people refuse to accept that exceptions do exist.
- But, in my experience …. Let me stop you there. Teachers aren’t researchers. Let’s share our experiences for what they are. Some insights are powerful but let’s not extrapolate too far. Your story of how well a class performed could say more about what they already knew than about anything you did. Caveats abound.
- The Punk/Maverick/Liberator delusion: The tedious idea that some folk just operate on a different plane where they are the true educators outside the establishment machine.
Sometimes it’s not resistance that’s a problem; it’s the way ideas are promoted.
- Time lag discovery: Someone comes late to the party, promoting an idea unaware that there’s been a huge discussion about it already, refining or even debunking it. (Eg 2018 event introducing people to learning styles. Eg Finland/Singapore = Utopia)
- Ideological tunnel vision: there are people out there (eg Epiphany Learning) promoting student-centred learning as deep versus teacher-centred learning as shallow. Conversely others are determined that students should never work in groups or make choices.
- Hero worship: Hattie said it; Sir Ken Robinson said it; Dweck said it; Willingham said it…… Even great people change their minds or refine their thinking. Their work isn’t gospel.
- Vested interest. If your company or twitter handle is called Flight Paths, Visible Learning UK or Mindsets Inc, it’s going to be hard to hear opposing voices.
- Surface reading. The Rosenshine graphic is laminated and on the classroom wall next to your ‘The Power of Yet’ poster. You’ve not read Rosenshine or Dweck – but reckon you’ve got the gist of it and you do most of it already anyway.
- Data literal: Hattie says X has an average effect size of 0.65 and Y has 0.43. This means when I do X it will have more impact than if I do Y; in fact we should all do X instead of Y. (Yup, I’ve heard this exact case being made).
- Checklist Killer. Rosenshine is ace. Here’s your readymade 10-point lesson observation checklist feeding into your annual review.
- Presenting ‘did no harm’ as ‘it works for me’. Teachers do not usually undertake systematic evaluations of their strategies. We do something we like or something we’re biased in favour of; kids do well … q.e.d. “It works for me”. Truth is often that there is not nearly enough evidence to support a cause-effect claim. ‘Do what works for you’ is basically a license to live evidence free and promote all ideas regardless.
- Presenting ‘it’s an engaging enrichment activity that people like doing’ as ‘its an effective general teaching method’. There all kinds of experiences that are rewarding and lead to learning – at least for some. They can be high on the ‘feel good factor’. But this doesn’t mean they are a good bet in general. They are icing on the cake; they have their place. But they are not cake. It’s folly to pitch icing vs cake. Eg, yes, in a Y5 class some kids can successfully teach themselves something by reading about it for a project activity ; most will need to be taught directly to fully understand it. Role-play might add a dimension to an area of learning – but it’s unlikely to go very far in exploring a whole curriculum.
None of this means we just bow to the Research Gods. We should discuss, debate and evaluate. Let’s do that with some open-mindedness and some readiness to address the complexity and nuance. But let’s also remember the classrooms where basic things aren’t going so well and they need simple, effective and actionable tools. Let’s not get in the way of those ideas getting through.