Monday, 8 September 2014

ResearchEd 2014: Just An RE Teacher's View

Image by Andy Lewis

There will be many, many blogs written about ResearchEd 2014. A large of number of these will give a far better and more in-depth insight into the conference than I have the time to even begin to attempt. I'm going to write about a few highlights, some RE particulars and my general thoughts coming away from a really fantastic day.

I tried to put together a Top 5 of things that I took away from the day for those who won't read any further:

  1. Education Research tells us what has been the case, not what could be.
  2. "It's more complicated that that."
  3. CPD needs to be more that a one off session; a project/research model may work well.
  4. We need a balanced diet: experience/tradition/research
  5. "Suspend Your Disbelief": There may be a better future for OFSTED

In the Beginning...

John Bradshaw and Tom Bennett welcomed us to Raine's with the news that, despite the invite, Obama couldn't make it. My only disappointment here was no entrance music; a missed opportunity I felt. Tom said that we were looking a conference that was part of a "modest revolution... a polite rebellion". I agreed whole heartedly; we need to be cautious and curious. He made it clear we are not replacing experience, but augmenting it, "blending research and craft".

Session 1 - Rob Coe, John Tomsett and Alex Quigley: "Beyond Guesswork: researching wisdom in schools"

This session began with an anecdote from John Tomsett, his wife [a teacher too] asked, "Does it make me a worse teacher that I've never heard of Dylan Wiliam ?". This is perhaps a reason why only one man was genuflecting as he [Dylan Wiliam] walked through the hall during our early morning coffee:

Image by Andy Lewis

The point being, it's hard to get research to teachers. Even with the conference, 600 in attendance and 150 on the waiting list, we are a small number! I feel that there is only a very small number of staff in my current school who are interested. How do we make research interesting, engaging, useful... and where is the time?

We were then saw a clip from one of my favourite TV series... People Like Us. I wish the whole episode was online and I dug out my DVD when I got home and watched the whole episode with my Chinese takeway:

John pointed out its a brave head who goes in the opposite direction to current trends. Although it is not an experience versus evidence 'battle'; quite simply put, if you put the two together you may get something useful!

Alex asked how we go beyond guesswork when things are constantly changing? By using evidence and research, someone needs to be the devil's advocate for the 'next big thing' (and I would add, particularly when this 'next big thing' comes neatly packaged from a company with a significant price tag). However, how do you take this from the SLT to the classroom? You need to make it easy, attractive, part of CPD and give people time!

Professor Coe rightly said, "In schools we get excited about a lot of stuff and most of it doesn't work at all." He suggested the EEF, <here>, is a good start (and will be going interactive very soon!).

John returned to explain how there needs to be changes in structure; he spoke of a 'leadership wisdom' whereby headteachers need to create culture and structures for research to have impact in schools. It simply won't happen otherwise. He finished with another clip from People Like Us and reminded us that there is still a lot of nonsense going on in schools...

John Tomsett's research project RISE is <here>
Watch the session <here>

Session 2 - Dylan Wiliam: "Why teaching will never be a research-based profession, and why that's A Good Thing"

He started out by saying he doesn't set out to wind people up; perhaps a necessary caveat given his session title, at a education research conference.

Dylan directly re-compared medicine to education (responding to Ben Goldacre at ResearchEd 2013 in some part presumably). He pointed out that 40% of GPs prescribe antibiotics for virus'; there is no effect but patients feel happy. He claims that the successful parts of medicine are compared to the failing parts of education and this is imply unfair. Dylan also said, "When teachers go to the educational research cupboard, it's usually bare."

He did not hold back in his criticism and claimed that , "Most of homework teachers set is crap". Preparation for learning is the most effective form of homework, but is trickiest to set.

Wiliam also addressed setting. He said that teachers queue their lessons with a student reference point. In top set, it is generally the most able student ("You should all be able to do this"). In other sets it is quite often a middle child and in low sets it may well be the least able ("If student X has done this, so should you"). This directly effects progress; it is not the setting itself, it is the teacher influence.

Traditionally the best teachers were given the top sets, now many schools give them the C/D borderline. Rarely are they given the bottom set. However the best teachers have the biggest impact on the bottom sets. This brought about a great sense of relief as there have been times in my career when I regularly got given the bottom sets!

Dylan also pointed out, "In education everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere", so we need to be very careful about holding up research that backs up or discredits certain educational ideas. 

He also warned schools to be careful of the EEF; one example is that it suggests that TAs are ineffective. However, it is clear that many TAs do have a very positive impact and most teachers realise that. his was the clear message; educational research gives us what was and what has been, not what might be and could be.

He gave another cautionary tale; feedback does improve progress but it has to be right feedback. The EEF is great BUT teachers are just told where to dig but not why; we are left as the equivalent of "intellectual navvies".

Finally Wiliam began pointing out some problems with research reports in education. Of 3000 tested, only 131 were reliable. It is important we know the science (and neuroscience got a good few mentions during the day), but we must temper with judgment. The purpose of educational research should be to move teachers towards more effective action. Too often the findings of research are what good teachers do already do and others can't or don't (or won't take the time?) to understand. Wiliam said when he first instructed trainees her just said "just do what I do, it works for me."

His final closing comment was that "all teachers should be seeking to improve - that is our moral imperative".

He spoke a lot of sense and it was hard to disagree with his notes of caution.

His PPT is <here>
Watch the session <here>

Session 3 - Andrew Sabisky: Nature and Nurture - the Genetics of Education

Opting to save Andrew Old vs OFSTED for home release (I wanted popcorn for the spectacle) I found my fellow RE teachers, Daniel Hugill and Neil McKain for a bit of psychological research.

Sadly Andrew's PPT wasn't working, which left us doing some mental maths... it was still too early!

However there was some clear messages here: 40-70% of the differences between individuals for some traits (e.g. behaviour, nicotine dependence) can be attributed to genetics.

Many classroom and learning behaviour may be down to genetics but overall behaviour can vastly improve with intervention. A very disruptive 'unteachable' student can become a charming pain in the butt!

This does not make us redundant as teachers, but is an important consideration. We may not be able to 'close the gap', but it may be more of a 'moving the bell curve' which is still raising standards and improving the education for all. Crucially chasing equality of outcome too far is a big mistake.

Andrew left us with the scary fact that cognitive decline begins at 25! But reminded us of his belief that that success "is not in our stars but in our selves". 

Session 4 - Martin Robinson: The teacher and the researcher: the time has come to talk of many things...

Martin began with a poem, performed with gusto, which entertained us all. It's worth watching via the link at the bottom of this section).

He began by pointing out that the strength of anything reduces over time: even mice in the lab react differently over time. However schools must ask, "do you want unquestioning teachers or rational thinkers? Would you silence someone who had chance to present research that undermines your institution?” Sadly, as Martin said, headteachers can be the 'ubermensch' attempting to guard against collapse of the system in light of inconvenient truth.

Martin then went to to make some science and health analogies; tummies rumbled at the talk of food and the smell of the near-ready 'Lunch of Champions'. Science has changed over the years... now you can eat butter, he exclaimed!

Firstly were told you needed 5 veg a day, but potatoes don't count (this was only because they were worried peoeple would count chips). Then 5 veg a day, but potatoes DO count. Others say 5 veg plus 2 fruit. Some say there is no difference.

Things change. Does anyone really know what a good diet is? We are just trying to get closer to it; we may need to contradict previous ideas.

As it is impossible to follow 'correct instructions', we must undertake a balance diet. This involves common sense, a bit of everything, a bit of exercise, a bit of educational research, some experience... "don't chase just one flavour!"

He went on to talk about many areas of education that won't be researched. Contact time, pay, & authoritarian school leaders... all things that may well be vital to the success of our schools.

Martin also pointed out that our "best teaching might occur when you're not trying" and that actually a plane without a pilot might actaully be safer.

We were then given a quote from Charles Darwin:

"...if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

Our schools are not based on pure reason, they are not clinical. They are "not rational places and if you question things too much you may damage its ability to do what it does". Often they are based on traditions and you may well destroy the things that hold it together if you try to get rid of this irrationality. However reason must also be part of the conversation, "It helps with the journey towards truth, but it is not truth itself."

He reached a conclusion asking the question for headteachers, "If you allow teachers to think things through, how far will you let this go?"

Watch the session <here>


RE Networking took place in the Science Garden where we met The Golden Calf. He tweets and blogs a lot of sense about the state of RE today. We investigated the CU posters (apparently very popular and student lead) and admired the views over London town.

Session 5 - Tristram Hunt MP

This was pretty dull, MP speak. Nothing really new, nothing exciting. A well executed script with a few shakily answered questions; I'd worry having him in charge of schools. He raised a laugh by calling ResearchEd "The Woodstock of Research in Education", but that was pretty much the highlight.

He did say that improving teachers was key, still hinted at the license, but played the crowd by saying wanted to give teachers the time & wherewithal to become “practice-informed & research-inspired”.

Session 6 - Michael Cladingbowl: Changing Inspection

"I think education is necessarily emotional... We all have a personal stake", Mike began. He made it clear something that is so often evident on Twitter and in the blogsphere: "We don't all agree... It is not self-evident what good is... and it has changed."

He said that RI has improved the system and helped get better deal for students especailly those schools working with HMI. 

Mike then started referring to AN Whitehead, "A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge ..."

He then stated that any inspectorate should be relentless in pursuit of success and that it's just as important to consider the how as well as the what. We do need to consider what kind of relationship the inspectorate needs to have with schools. It should not be as the 'DeathStar' or as "a toxic toad say on the head of school leaders" (real description of OFSTED given to MC)

Should inspection be war? Could it be more of a dance?

Then the promises began... a new slim, single framework. There will be more HMI and school leaders will be involved. All will be directly employed by OFSTED. There will be a regional structure that offers greater support, especially to struggling schools. Potentially there will be much less focus on grades (1-4) but just 'good enough' and 'not good enough' (I can't see exactly how this works personally!).

He asked whether or not good schools need full inspection. A short, robust, professional dialgue should be suffiecnt with a letter published rather than a report. It will be about redefining relationships. Currently 6/10 schools are Good and 2/10 are Outstanding (and the plan is to still leave them alone). However, it was made clear that inspections or visits can't take place with out visiting classrooms, but not with a clipboard. There is an open consultation taking place and as many people as possible are encouraged to join in; it's hoped at least 23,000 will.

He then began to point out the realities. There will be change from this September and more from next September, and it will continue to evolve. There will be a large consultant: what should we inspect? How? When? WHY?

However individual lessons WILL NOT be graded and heads CANNOT use OFSTED as justification for doing it themselves. He would say to the head "why are you doing it?" It's up to them but they CANNOT say it is for OFSTED. 

For RE teachers, it was pleasing to hear that OFSTED realise that they don't inspect SMSC well enough (NOT RE but often closely linked and often the responsibility of the RE department). There is more <here> from Dawn Cox.

The final message was "suspend your disbelief"; OFSTED may well be getting better. Mike Claddingbowl seemed like a good guy, who does want to listen to teachers and does want to make things better. Only time will tell if he can...

Session 7 - David Didau - not Ben Goldacre!

David pointed out that around 28-90k research papers are published each year: why hasn't this changed teaching?

We returned to one of the key themes for me, they only tell us what was, but not what might be!

He then went on to give a series of thought points on lots of ideas connected to education research:
  • We're all wrong, being human, it's what we do.
  • As Wittgenstein said (another for the RE teachers), "If it looks like a duck..." (but it may be a rabbit!). We sometimes only see what we want to see.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
  • Our brains protect us from being wrong - it's not a logical or rational organ. We have confirmation bias and a backfire effect: we don't like being wrong! We also suffer from illusion of asymmetric insight: we even think we know other people better than they know themselves.
  • There is Sunk Cost Fallacy: we sit through film even if it's crap but we've paid for it. We can't get money back but can get the time... but we can't back out as we'd look like idiots!
  • We are susceptible to the anchoring effect: if someone tells us a student is a c we believe them
David pointed out that even if we recognise these things, we often don't see our own bias. We prefer a reassuring lie to an inconvenient truth. When others disagree with us, we assume they are ignorant, stupid or evil!

This is the essential problem with educational research. It is not the same as proof; it can be used to prove anything. Context is KING, can we generalise? What do we do if it conflicts with our values? What is the unit of education? Time/progress/amount of knowledge?

SO, what should we do?
  • What research says?
  • We've always done?
  • Works for us?
  • What gets results?
  • What OFSTED wants?
Can we make predictions that are meaningful and measurable?
Does a physicist examine all atoms to give predictions about atoms?
Do we believe children are broadly similar or different?
Can we make generalisations about how we learn?

The Burden of Proof means we need to ask how likely is it a duck? Do we need to prove that it is a duck? Or that it's not a duck? Learning styles confirm what we think, "It's a duck!"

Always, always, remember the bias blind spot! (Just like cars with motorbikes)
Some of the things that are probable:
  • The spacing effect - we forget what we learn, ensure regular review of content
  • The testing effect - study test test test - test is best way. If we study study study study - test, it creates an illusion of knowing it.
  • Cognitive load theory - the working memory is finite; greater long term memory assists learning
David left us with the words of Carl Sagan, "a judicious mix is what we need". Ultimately we have to make guesses....

Watch the session <here>

Some other good REsearch Ed blogs:

Jo Facer's blog is <here>
Academies Weekly Special Edition is <here>
Tom's reflection is <here>


We then all piled over to the pub and continued the ed chat, meeting lots of people I follow on Twitter. Lot's of respected educational peeps were all hanging together in the pub... interestingly there didn't seem too many arguments!

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