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.