The cerebral life of schools


Image: @jasonramasami

Much has been written about this weekend’s glittering, sweltering ResearchED conference. It is not my purpose to describe the day in detail; rather to share some of my post-event reflections. This post on the Turnford Blog – here – brilliantly captures Saturday’s prevailing wind: that even though we must heed caution when proceeding towards an evidence-based new dawn, proceed we must.

The event reinforced my belief that education should not forget the good already in existence – expertise, craft, experience, tacit knowledge, common sense, call it what you will. Martin Robinson warned that if we are not vigilant, ‘research’ might soon become the emperor’s new clothes, replacing one form of dictatorship with another. The revolution of the ‘rational’ could give birth to an equal or greater absurdity than the ‘irrationality’ it usurps. Let us make sure that the best of what already exists in our system, our schools, our classrooms and our minds always forms the basis of what is to come.

One of the glib assumptions that seems to be repeated about teachers is that we are a pretty stupid bunch. That’s why we need stuff like three-part lessons, starters, plenaries, learning objectives, AfL and lesson-grade descriptors to help us to teach correctly. Without these, we would quickly drown in the vomit of our own ineptitude, our classes watching on in ignorant glee.

Similar is the inference that we are easily duped by pseudoscience and quackery. Yes, it has been a travesty that Brain Gym and VAK (visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning styles) have replaced meaningful science in the field of education; however, how many experienced teachers have really and truly paid anything more than lip service to them? The problem, of course, is when such corrosive ideas are sold to inexperienced and trainee teachers who have yet to develop a sense of what works for them.

I know that I am limited to my own context and any attempt to generalise beyond is fraught with danger, but the following thought has been building for some time…

Teachers might, just might, be more canny than they are given credit for.

In this light, I think the rightful place for engaging with and in research is as part of a wider inquiry into the nature of our day-to-day actions and decisions. Research findings can become a platform for thinking about teaching: they pose questions rather than hand us gift-wrapped answers. Indeed, I am not convinced that the word ‘answer’ should ever be used when thinking about teaching. Because all actions in the classroom always have both benefits and costs, perhaps we should be searching for the better, not the best. Each time, for instance, I define the meaning of a new word to the class in my English lessons, it is likely that some kids are learning it for the first time yet one or two understand already. Time has been wasted for the minority so that the majority can reap the benefits. The notion that there is a right action that produces only benefits is a myth. Everything we do is both a success and a failure; our job is to work out the extent of each so that we can make better choices.

Such healthy scepticism often peppers the informal conversations in schools, yet it is not the dominant tone. Sadly, the prevailing narrative in education favours the easy answer, the quick fix, the crudely simple. Chuck a load of cash at socially disadvantaged children and, abracadabra, schools will right ingrained historical wrongs. If only.

Above all, teachers need to be given the tools to think with and the freedom to ask hard questions. Neat answers, tidy interpretations and coherent stories are juicily tempting but usually wrong. To get closer to the truth – or whatever you want to call it – we need to think as much as we do. A cautious engagement in research, I hope, can help to enhance this process. However, it remains the case that without the careful and critical thinking of the practitioner, research might easily become another fad.

To end my day at ResearchED, I trotted along to Tom Sherrington’s session. Taking into consideration methodological rigour, his own biases and values, and the perils of extrapolating from one context to another, Tom dissected four very different research findings. With zest and enthusiasm, Tom modelled for me not just how to critically evaluate research findings from a practitioner’s viewpoint, but why honest reflection and finely-tuned analysis should form the catalyst for action above, beyond, and sometimes in spite of, the evidence itself. You can read his blog here.

In education we must both act and think, taking on at once the guise of foot-soldier and master strategist. The cerebral life of the school is forgotten at its peril. Without thinking, nothing can ever come to any good.



In these posts I have discussed the pitfalls of making simple assumptions:

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

Reflections on a successful student

Investigating the threads: classroom craft or research?


4 thoughts on “The cerebral life of schools

  1. Pingback: £Millions spent on educational research every year but why is there so little evidence? | DHSB Teaching

  2. Pingback: Education Panorama (October ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

  3. Pingback: The book group: CPD for the future | Reflecting English

  4. Pingback: Education Panorama (October ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | | @TeacherToolkit

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