Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps

actionresearch

Image: @jasonramasami

Having recently been appointed as ‘research and development leader’ at my school, I would like to put down in writing my thoughts about how I see this role working in practice. Much has been written recently about how and whether our education system would benefit from becoming better research-informed, yet there appears to be little joined-up thinking emanating from the multitude of institutes, trusts, charities and school alliances that claim that they want to make this a reality. I shall avoid the dictionary of acronyms this could easily become, concentrating instead on how we want this to look at our school and where we might go from there.

With Shaun Allison, I am working on a three-year project to bring about a research-engaged culture. At present, our approach to research is quite unstructured and ad-hoc. We are already a very good school, yet we believe that creating a more systematic research-rich climate would be an important step for us. We are well-aware that the first stop on our journey to ‘research-informed’ is ‘research-aware’. Thus the two long-term aims I am working towards are as follows:

1. To encourage staff at all levels to become ‘critical consumers’ of educational research so as to create an evidenced-based teaching and learning culture.

2. To develop and support a range of forms of research within the school.

There is no blueprint for how to bring the above about. Indeed, the Education Endowment Foundation have just launched a wide-ranging randomised controlled trial which will focus on the best ways of communicating research evidence to schools and how to encourage schools to engage with it. We will keep an eye on this, but will also plough our own furrow as we seek to work within our school and with local Higher Education providers.

Below are some of the avenues we will be exploring.

Partnership with Higher Education

Next academic year, we will be working with Dr Brian Marsh from The University of Brighton. Our relationship will be reciprocal. Brian will be supporting us by improving our understanding of action research and research methodology. He will work directly with us and our ‘Learning Innovators’ (who will be undertaking year-long action research projects) once or twice a month. The aim is to set in motion a more rigorous action research process. The understanding of sound methodology I hope to develop through this process will be central to its sustainability. On the other hand, we will provide Brian with the resources and data he requires for two research projects. Not only will Brian’s findings be useful in taking our school forward, but we also hope to learn much from working alongside an experienced educational researcher as he goes about his business.

Learning innovators

Our ‘Learning Innovators’ will be required to engage with the wider evidence base as they undertake their initial reading. As a requisite of their projects they will work within their department areas to disseminate their findings as well as present to the full staff body. We hope then that they will be inspired to take evidence-informed thinking into their future practice, promoting a culture of ‘micro-research’ projects within subject areas.

Critical reading culture

Schools and teachers can easily becoming locked into an inward-looking cycle. To avoid such stagnation, it is vital that our thinking and practice is challenged and influenced from outside evidence too. The cycle is difficult to break, especially considering the pressures of workload and work/life balance. Our first stage will be to help make professional reading part of the fabric of our school. Those of us on Twitter or who read educational books, blogs and research papers regularly can forget a simple fact: many teachers do not read as a professional pursuit. So how do we help teachers become aware of this wider evidence base in light of the truth that much educational research is either very expensive to obtain or written in quite an inaccessible style?

Our first approach will be the EduBook Club. Shaun has written about the practicalities here. In short, all teachers and TAs will choose a book to read, will attend seminars on INSET days to critically evaluate their reading and will consider how this thinking might influence practice going forward. Our DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time can be used by staff for this reading if need be. The texts range from the Hattie and Yates’ research-based Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn to Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. We have wrestled with whether more anecdotal texts like Berger’s should be included but have decided that we want to set in motion a wider culture that looks beyond the school gates for inspiration wherever that might be – such ideas can than form the focus of in-school research and evaluation. It’s also worth remembering that research by its nature plays catch-up: there is much practice across the world that works brilliantly and, as yet, has yet to be given the green light by research. Group members will be encouraged to share new theories and evidence with their peers within subject areas and through our 15-minute forum programme.

Hearts and minds

Alex Quigley has recently written cogently – here – about teacher engagement with research: if it is seen as another stick to beat teachers with the impact is unlikely to go beyond that of lip-service. A research-informed culture must not become dominated by a top-down ‘Ofsted in sheep’s clothing’ approach, nor should it be a free-for-all where dubious findings (learning styles, for instance) share equal weighting with robust findings. I appreciate, however, that the key to the success of our project will be how we win people over. I am already mentally preparing for the launch to staff in September, the message of which will be ‘teaching is an art and a science’. I also know that working the informal structures of the school – staff room chats, for instance – will be vital too as we try to engage and excite more teachers. I love the fact that our subject-based teaching assistants, who have such a wealth of untapped knowledge, will also take part in the reading groups. In line with this, the reading groups will include members of SLT but will not be led by them.

Personal development

I am a teacher and not a researcher. I shall always remain so. Yet I aim through this project to explore the ways my school can inspire ordinary classroom practitioners, like myself, to become engaged with, in and even through, research. I will hold my hands up and admit that I start from a position of relative ignorance. This is important because those seeking to bring about a research-rich culture should not be seen to be working in an impenetrable sphere far from the real world of our colleagues. If we do, we might inadvertently rebuild the ‘ivory tower’ that characterises many teachers’ beliefs about educational research already – only this time under the roof of our very own school! I have a lot of reading to do and there are a lot of collaborative links to be made. We will make mistakes along the way but that is very much in the spirit of what we want to achieve: a school where research evidence can shed light on our successes, our failures and guide us towards improvement.

Questions for the next year and beyond

  • How do we ensure that we are in receipt of the most robust worldwide research evidence available?
  • How do we communicate these findings in an accessible way without losing any of the finer nuances?
  • How do we promote engagement with research to teachers who already have such a heavy workload?
  • How do we ensure that we utilise research findings that are sharply focused on the most pressing needs of our students?
  • How do we ensure that research evidence enhances what we already do well as opposed to providing a limiting dogma?
  • As a ‘research champion’, how to I ensure that my own biases and preferences do not affect the content and breadth of research evidence I promote?

*

The above is just a flavour of our initial thinking. I appreciate that the role of research in education is a contentious issue. Our approach must remain cautious and we must ask critical questions of the research findings we share. However, this kind of scrutiny should not only be reserved for research findings; we should apply it to too to the thousands of hunches and biases that make up much of our day-to-day decision making in schools. Much of this is built on solid foundations of wisdom and experience, but not all of it. If our research-rich climate leads to more questions of ‘why?’ or ‘might it be better like this?’ then its effect will surely be positive.

In this previous post, I set out my arguments for the importance of research-evidence for teachers.

If you are interested in our project, or can provide us with extra guidance, please contact me through Twitter @atharby.

Advertisements

A directory of my posts on teaching writing

The posts I have been most pleased with on this blog have been those on writing. I will cautiously assert that I think I am a better teacher of writing as a result of the thinking that has gone into these.

Today (12th May, 2015) I am updating to include some of my recent posts.

Here’s a short chronological directory:

1. The beauty of paired writing. Although I am sometimes sceptical about the efficiency of collaborative work in the English classroom, getting students to verbalise, adjust and hone sentences in pairs always seems to work a treat for me.

2. My butterfly: the sentence escalator. Modelling and redrafting sentences as a class is a great way to get students to think about the importance of sentence construction.

3. Modelling writing… and the meaning of life. Events close to home can shed metaphorical light on our understanding of learning. In this post, I discuss why we should not keep children in the dark and present a list of simple ways to model writing with and for students.

4. It takes time to write. I worry that we tend rush students through writing tasks without giving them time to think carefully about how they are constructing the piece. Here I list a few strategies for embedding ‘quality over quantity’.

5. Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher. Our English department has shifted to a culture of ‘closing the gap’ marking of extended writing over the past few months and in this post I outline some simple strategies to make this happen.

6. Differentiating the responsive way. Simple ways of scaffolding according to need during written tasks.

7. A benchmark of brilliance. My favourite post. Using a ‘mentor text’ to challenge students to write brilliantly from the moment they first walk through our doors. How better to foster a ripe climate for the ‘growth mindset’?

8. Multiple models and the journey to freedom. A range of methods for using student exemplars to demonstrate to students that success is very possible.

9. The Everest writing scaffold. How scaffolding is a long-term venture and the process through which I guide students to extended writing.

10. Pride in the product. How we can demonstrate to students that we value the quality of their written work.

11. What if we didn’t mark any books? I think the provocative title has made this one popular! Ways of providing regular feedback on extended writing without becoming a social recluse.

12. A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing. Why I believe redrafting is important and some simple methods to ensure that students take responsibility for improvement.

13. Beyond PEE: reuniting reading and writing. Why we must assess both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of analytical writing… plus a list of useful scaffolds for writing like a literary critic.

14. Reflections on a scuccessful student. A post that considers the progress one year 10 boy made across the year and muses on how hard it is to pin down the reason.

15. Distilling the best out of words. Not ostensibly a post about writing, but a post about how the spoken culture of the classroom feeds into writing.

16. 726 ways to achieve good exam results: or why the solution should be smaller than the problem. Often success criteria for writing are too abstract – I consider some ways to counter this problem here.

17. Slamming the door on bad writing habits. Once bad writing habits become embedded, they are very hard to remove. I suggest some solutions here.

18. Teaching students how to plan extended writing. Planning is essential to well organised writing; however, too much teacher scaffolding can hinder this.

*

Happy reading!

Beyond PEE: reuniting reading and writing

levels

Image: @jasonramasami

As we know, levels have been consigned to the land of assessment-past. Dragging behind them, an equally rotting receptacle of wasted human endeavour, lopes their hateful, dunderheaded side-kick APP.

One of my greatest complaints about the use of the level descriptors in English has been the way that ‘reading skills’ have been defined.  It is not just the infuriating nebulousness of these descriptors that has stunted KS3 English for so long; it is also the way reading and writing have been torn asunder as if they are two separate unrelated entities. Under the old system, if a student wrote a three page analytical essay on a Shakespeare play, I would assess them only on their ‘reading skills’ and not how they crafted the language of the essay. This led to the daft scenario of weeks and weeks spent teaching a text and pulling it apart, and scant seconds on how to write analytically. Worse still, was the tasteless PEE formula I would promote. At best it was a clunky, reductive way to teach students how to find a quotation and explain it. Hardly challenging.

With the chance to move beyond levels, it is time for us to reassert the importance of writing in an academic, formal style. In English, our students should aspire to the tentative voice of the literary critic and nothing less. The first port of call, then, should be to write assessment criteria that marry reading analysis with analytical writing skill.

It is important to remember that many students do not have access to this quite niche academic register outside school. I teach in a very comprehensive school; I teach a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. Even the middle-class students in my neck of the woods, a fairly large town on the south coast with no university, seem to have little exposure to this genre in their family lives. (As far as I know, I have only once taught a student at GCSE whose parent has an undergraduate qualification in English. She got an A* in English literature.) My point is that all students of all abilities benefit from being explicitly taught this style because otherwise they will not only be unable to use it, but will also be pretty unaware that such a genre of writing exists in the first place!

I have made it my mission to do so this year. I teach it through lots of modelling and scaffolding, both verbal and written, and the sustained and regular use of this resource I have shared before:

Tentative

Over the year, in every year group, at every ability level, I have seen genuine improvement. Not just in the how of the written style, but crucially in the what of the ideas the students generate. The great thing is that the resource itself is becoming increasingly redundant the more students have assimilated the style. It seems that inducting the students in the written genre not only makes them better academic writers, but better academic readers too. The language of the genre seems to go hand-in-hand with the ideas of the genre, each sustaining the other. David Didau’s new book, The Secret of Literacy (brilliant, by the way), has really helped to extend my understanding of this way of thinking.

Next year, I’m hoping to raise the bar again. What follows below is a list of analytical sentence structures we are going to be working with. I will interleave them through the curriculum so that they can be re-applied in a variety of contexts. Naturally, students will not just employ these sentences in their work, they will generate their own sentences too; I am not promoting a ‘write by numbers approach’. Those below, however, will form the bedrock of the tone I am hoping that my students will eventually adopt when writing about literature.

They are magpied from a variety of places. Feel free to use them if you like. However, please remember that they are domain-specific and not really applicable to any other subject. You might need to discover your own!

1. Reader response

The reader is caught between…

The reader is caught between empathy for Lennie and disgust at the cruel world he lives in.

2. Peeling away the layers of characterisation

On the exterior____________, yet on the interior we can infer__________.

On the exterior, Shylock appears desperate for revenge against the Christians who have wronged him, yet on the interior we can infer that he is he feels a deep sense of injustice for the wrongs he has suffered.

3. Character motives

________is motivated not only by___________________ but also by _____________________________.

Macbeth is motivated not only by his ambition to become king, but also by his desire to please Lady Macbeth.

4. Character development

By the close of the play/poem/novel the once _____________ has developed into_______________________ .

By the close of the poem, the once fearsome terrorist has developed into a polite and humble child who is willing to remove his shoes.

5. Reader positioning

(The writer) positions the reader/audience in favour of /against _____ by __________________________________________ .

Priestley positions the audience against Mr Birling by revealing his buffoonery in the early scenes.

6. First impressions

Our first impressions of ___________________________________ . (x3)

Our first impressions of the Birling family are that they are rich, arrogant and ‘pleased with themselves’.

7. Weighing up the importance

Even though/although ________________________________, ________________________________________.

Even though Curley’s Wife behaves at times like a cruel temptress, by the end of the novel we realise that she is a victim of a harsh, misogynist world.

8. Deepening analysis

At first glance ________________________________; however, on closer inspection ______________________________.

At first glance the family appear to be respectable members of society; however, on closer inspection, we can already sense the rift between father and son.

9. Identifying a common thread

Throughout the novel/poem/play ______________________________________________________________.

Throughout the poem, the poet explores the pain of unrequited love in a variety of ways.

10. Identifying the main thing

The most important word/sentence/idea/chapter/moment is _________________ because ________________________.

The most important word from this line is ‘top’ because it emphasises the superiority of the bird.

11. Close language analysis

Here, _________employs the word/phrase ‘__________’ to suggest/imply/reinforce ____________________________.

Here, the Inspector employs the phrase ‘millions and millions’ to reinforce the idea that Eva Smith represents many other working-class, Edwardian girls.

12. Exemplifying an idea through a character/setting/event

__________ reveals her/his belief in _____through her/his description of______________________________________.

Stevie Smith reveals her belief in the cyclical nature of war through her description of the ‘ebbing tide of battle’.

13. Contrasting alternative viewpoints

Some readers might propose that__________________; other readers, however, might argue________________________.

Some readers might propose that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock was cruel and unfair; other readers, however, might argue that Shakespeare was simply reflecting the views of the society he lived in.

14. Noting  subtleties

Here, the writer cleverly________________________________________________________.

Here, Ted Hughes cleverly employs the gruesome image of a dying hare to remind the reader once again of the way war targets the innocent.

15. Proposing a tentative idea

Perhaps, (writer’s name) was hinting that ______________________________________________________.

Perhaps Steinbeck was hinting that human beings are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

16. Contrast

Although both _______________________________________, they ______________________________.

Although both writers explore the idea of love, they express their ideas in very different ways.

17. Comparison

Both ______________ and ______________share ____________________________________________________.

Both Beatrice and Shylock share feelings of anger and frustration.

 

There are countless other sentence structures we could work with too. I think that less is more when it comes to this kind of thing. If we throw too much at them, they will catch less than we hope. Hence why these need to be introduced slowly, carefully and in context. Regular repetition too will be vital to their success.

Related posts:

The Everest writing scaffold

Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition

Memory platforms

memory

Image: @jasonramasami

A few years ago, still under the spell of the starter/main/development/plenary model of my teaching training, I began to stray. My distinctly unimpressive timekeeping meant that I would usually find myself doing the plenary of the previous lesson as the starter of the next.

Over time, I felt that I had cottoned on to something. By leaving the plenary to the next lesson, it seemed to force students to recollect what they had covered previously. This retrieval of prior learning would then, naturally, catapult us into the current lesson. It seemed to make a lot of sense. Especially when reading a longer text, I would use a quiz to cue memory of the key events and ideas we had covered. The trick was to use these simple closed questions as points of reference in a broader class discussion. If I asked in the quiz, “What were George and Lennie wearing in the opening pages of Of Mice and Men,” as we went through the answers I would ask students to elaborate – with, say, “What do we associate denim with and what might this indicate about the lifestyle of workers like George and Lennie?” The quiz questions encouraged the recall of points of knowledge (a place-name on a map you might say) to cue more conceptual connections later on (the interconnection of roads and highways that link together such isolated places, for instance).

As often in teaching, simple, straightforward ideas are usually the most effective. Make It Stick (2014) by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel – a must-read by the way – centralises the idea of spaced retrieval practice, in the form of regular short-answer quizzing, as a means of consolidating knowledge in the memory.

19443_review_make_it_stick_peter_brown_henry_roediger_mark_mcdaniel

“Quizzing provides a reliable measure of what you’ve learned and what you haven’t yet mastered. Moreover quizzing arrests forgetting. Forgetting is human nature, but practice at recalling new learning secures it in memory and helps you recall it in the future.

Periodically practicing new knowledge and skills through self-quizzing strengthens your learning of it and your ability to connect it to prior knowledge.”

They go on to suggest that quizzing is a far more powerful tool than re-reading texts and notes or listening to the teacher explain again. Such strategies create ‘illusions of fluency’ – we convince ourselves we know it because it makes sense in the moment, yet very soon it will inevitably slip from memory. Even more interesting is the finding that memory retrieval is most useful at the point of forgetting. The more effort we put in to remember, the more fruitful the practice is.

As a result my quizzes have morphed into what I have now – rather grandiosely – dubbed ‘memory platforms’. The first 10 minutes of most lessons are dedicated to a memory task – a task in which each individual, on their own, is compelled to retrieve stuff from their memory without recourse to any cues or materials. I have also extended the scope of the quizzes by nodding to the beneficial techniques of spacing (the need to space-out retrieval) and interleaving (that learning things side-by-side is more beneficial than in a mass).

My quizzes now appear something like this:

Q1 – Q3 – retrieve key knowledge from last lesson.

Q4 – retrieve key knowledge from last week.

Q5 – retrieve key knowledge from last term.

Q6 – retrieve key knowledge from last lesson and connect it to knowledge from last term.

The potential permutations of this kind of quizzing are huge, so what follows is just a possible example.

  1. Which word is missing from this line? “I sit in the _____ of the wood, my eyes closed.”
  2. What is the hawk from the poem a personification of?
  3. What does the hawk now hold in its foot?
  4. What did the hare in Bayonet Charge symbolise?
  5. Which character from An Inspector Calls is said to be ‘cold’ in the opening stage directions?
  6. Which character from Of Mice and Men does the hawk most resemble?

The students will do the quiz as soon as they enter – it’s a good settler task. I am not convinced, however, that the retrieval of atomised facts is enough in itself. The trick is in asking students to elaborate so that they switch from surface knowledge to deeper knowledge. My theory is that answering the questions improves the retrieval of the simple facts onto which more complex knowledge can be pegged. Questions like number 6 above are so useful in that they not only allow for more complex feats of retrieval, they also feed-forward into lively discussion.

It is worth mentioning now that quizzing is not the only means suggested in Make It Stick. Indeed, the book suggests that we teach ‘elaboration’, the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material, to further aid retention. This might be by relating our new learning to what we already know or explaining how the material relates to life outside the classroom. ‘Memory platform’ tasks could consist of:

  • Explain how the poem we learnt about yesterday relates to the novel we read last term.
  • A tell B five things you remember about ‘x’; now B tell A five things you remember about ‘y’.
  • How does the character relate to a person you know?

Reflection is also a useful tool. Ask students to review what went well last lesson, how it might have gone better and what they feel they need to understand more of. This task, as long as the original notes are put to one side, again goes beyond superficial retrieval.

The central idea of the ‘memory platform’ is to ring-fence classroom time for memory retrieval. One of the advantageous side-effects of the strategy is that when you start regularly creating these kinds of tasks, you start paying more attention to memory in day-to-day lessons. I am much more likely to remind students of previous learning during lessons than I ever was. This is because I have to remind myself when designing the lessons! Interestingly, students are also primed: they are now making more connections than they ever were before as a result of these tasks. Moreover, as we cannot ask students to retrieve everything we have ever covered, it helps us to simplify our teaching by discriminating between important knowledge and less-important.

There are of course many, many ways to give memory more significance in our classrooms. This is just one I have been developing. I hope it is of some use.

Robert Bjork’s is one of the leading researchers in this area. His Learning and Forgetting Lab is a great place to start investigating this area.

One of the most successful science teachers at my school – with years and years of incredible exam results to her credit before she retired – swore by regular quizzing. Shaun Allison interviewed her here.

25 practical blogposts for the English teacher

Over the past few months I have read many blogposts from a wide range of bloggers. What follows are links to some of the (mainly) practical posts written by English teachers that have inspired me the most. Each post rings true to me as an ordinary classroom English teacher on a full timetable; each post contains ideas that, I think, cut to the core of English pedagogy and immediately translate to the everyday classroom.

I am accutely aware that there will be glaring omissions. I may have missed the post originally; I may have simply forgotten it. My apologies if this is so. I must warn you that I have also plugged some of my own posts too.

My original plan was to produce a document to share with my English department but I figured it was worthwhile adding to the blog too. At my school, we have identified a set of pedagogical principles that we acknowledge are vital to expert teaching. They underpin our thinking, yet can be implemented in the style the teacher prefers. They are challenge, explanation, modelling, questioning and feedback. I will use these to categorize the posts.

 

image

Challenge

Explanation

Modelling

Questioning

Feedback

  • David Didau’s seminal post on marking has introduced many teachers to the concept of DIRT and many students to the idea that they must respond to our feedback. Marking is an act of love
  • Getting kids to respond to marking is a tricky business and in this post I put forward some of the successful strategies we have been using in my department. Strategic marking for the DIRTy- minded teacher
  • I have become increasingly skeptical about ‘red pen accountability’. In this article for Guardian Teach, I make three suggestions to make feedback less arduous. How to make marking more efficient
  • This post from Chris Curtis describes how he writes with the students and then asks them to compare their writing to his. A great way to help students formulate their own feedback. When will… when will… when will I be subtle?

Scaffolding

These are just a flavour of what’s out there. I hope these posts and the bloggers who wrote them inspire you in the same way they have me.

Please add any references to posts or bloggers you feel I have left out in the comments section. (I appreciate that this is mainly a list of living white males!)

 

Investigating the threads: classroom craft or research?

investigating-threads

Image: @jasonramasami

A few months ago the laws of classroom physics conspired to place me in an awkward position, the kind of position that, I dearly hope, might only occur once in a career. At the moment I passed her chair, a tall year 8 girl with very long hair leant back so far that her hair, somehow, became attached to my trouser button. For at least a minute, amid desperate joint appeals for scissors, we tugged this way and that in a humiliating pantomime.

Thankfully the scissors were delivered swiftly (to remove the button, not the hair!). Even more thankfully, the button was on the back pocket of my trousers, not the front. Peace was resumed once again.

The number of variables and permutations we experience every day in our classrooms is tremendous. This student has had a sleepless night due to a family row; that student is desperate for the toilet but too shy to say. This day is too hot to concentrate; that day is too windy to think straight. This teacher is concerned about her very sick elderly mother; that teacher is still distraught at having received a ‘requires improvement’ judgement yesterday.

Unexpected episodes can derail our most thoughtfully planned lessons. Conversely, poorly-conceived lessons can turn out better than expected if fewer variables are working against us. In the hair scenario above, despite my careful attention to the known variables in the room, most potential learning was swamped by the memory that this was the lesson that ‘Sir got tied up in Emily’s hair’. I too have long forgotten the content of the lesson. Thankfully, such extremes are few and far between!

Classrooms are incredibly complex worlds. The depth of craft and nuance required by great teachers, who build up knowledge year by year the hard way, is extraordinary. So many potentials co-exist that it is no wonder that many ordinary teachers question the insights offered by educational research. What’s the point of trying to isolate causal effect when there are countless causes and even more effects occurring in my classroom every minute? Why apply empirical findings from elsewhere when no-one else knows my students like I do?

I understand these arguments. Indeed, at times, I have argued them myself. However, despite these caveats I think there is a strong case to be made for engagement with research in all its forms. Put simply, there are some things that work, and some things that don’t work (although these might have differing effects depending on teacher and subject). The evidence for this is simple and can be found in my own classroom: over the years, I have managed to improve the impact I have on my students, yet I am not completely clear as to why. I would like to work out the patterns – the threads amidst the chaos – that have made the most difference. And I would also like to know the converse: in spite of the biases I might irrationally cling to, what has made the least difference?

To help me address these questions, this year I have looked towards educational research. When I have had the time, I have read blogs, educational books and even a few research papers. I have started writing this blog too. The benefits of this approach have been striking: a new-found awareness of what I am doing and a resurrection of enthusiasm for the profession. A wider engagement with research has helped me identify what I have done well in the past and has given me ripe fruit for further investigation. It might be an illusion, but I feel closer to those threads of meaning than I did before.

Huge debate rages around the implementation of educational research. Some research seems infuriatingly contradictory. The more I read, the less I seem to know. I am acutely aware that my personal reading and understanding only represents the tip of he iceberg.

My concern is that research findings can too often be presented as a panacea for the perceived faults in our system. Introduce the findings of this particular cognitive scientist or educational powerhouse and the streets of learning will be paved in gold.

It is imperative that we root out the most robust findings, those studies that have been replicated in a variety of educational settings. At times we will need to take risks too, so that we test out findings from other fields such as cognitive science, because the findings seem too good an opportunity to be missed.

What we must remember, however, is that any implementation of a strategy gleaned from research is a leap of faith. We cannot assume that it will be successful in our classroom contexts immediately or perhaps at all. We must not convince ourselves that our initial implementations are the most suitable nor that they will meaningfully improve what we have built through years of craft. It is also very easy to lose the nuances of research findings in the translation.

Take the finding from cognitive scientists such as Professor Robert Bjork that learning should be interleaved and spaced rather than massed (i.e. learning sequences should follow an abcabcabcabc pattern rather than the traditional aaaabbbbccc pattern). I find this research extremely persuasive as it chimes with my own reflections about why my students do not retain knowledge very well. However, this leads to myriad questions. Which produces the most successful outcomes: the interleaving of topics, assessment objectives, types of task or all three? In English, would teaching a range of texts and topics in unison militate against the love of reading we want to engender? What would the costs of this system be in terms of the efficiency of teacher planning and organisation?

It is incumbent upon us to test and trial research findings in our own contexts, to handle them cautiously and with a sceptical eye. As such, we must research the research so that it works successfully for us. Unthinking top-down diktats, research-informed or not, are dangerous in that they limit our capacity for critical thinking.

Nevertheless, an education system that works on informed, tested hunches must be in a stronger position than one that relies solely on the intuitive hunch. (Read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have any doubt that we should treat our intuitions with healthy caution.) In the choice between acceptance or rejection of research findings, the latter appears the poorer option.

I take a wide-angled view of research. Engaging in research, to me, is about deepening our thinking and increasing our autonomy. The more we read, the more we think, the more likely we are to have the confidence to question received wisdom. The idea that the perfect ‘Ofsted-style’ lesson is the paragon of teaching excellence, for example.

Our own research, from reading research papers to observing successful colleagues, should provide the catalyst for thinking about and investigating our practice. Be that as it may, the classroom is so richly complex that we will always need to fall back on our craft and intuition. Experience is so vital when dealing with the complex and, at times, downright bizarre world we inhabit every day. Yet as long as we keep our wits about us, research findings might help us identify and hone the threads of our craft in ways we once considered impossible. If our students learn better than they once did as a result of our engagement in research, then the debates become redundant.

It is up to our leaders to provide the time and opportunity to make this possible for all.