Finding the middle ground between reflection and inquiry

When I first started writing this blog, I didn’t think it would last very long. Its name, ‘Reflecting English’, was a bit of an afterthought, a quick admin decision. Over recent months I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the word ‘reflecting’. Intuitively, practitioner reflection has a vital role in the iterative process of teaching – plan, teach, reflect … plan, teach, reflectyet it is also subject to a number of weaknesses.

I am not intending to argue against reflection. In fact, I think it is impossible to be a half-decent teacher without it. It’s just that I have come to understand its limitations more clearly. Let’s say a student misbehaves during my lesson: I reflect afterwards and decide to move him to the front where his behaviour dramatically improves over the next few weeks. Perhaps my students are struggling to answer a particular exam question: I reflect and decide to spend a lesson carefully modelling an answer step-by-step and their responses significantly improve in an end of term test. In both scenarios, I can tentatively conclude that my action has had the desired impact over time – and, even if I am wrong about the cause of the change, things have improved so there is little need to look back.

It is when we share our reflections that we need to be more careful, especially when we use them to make claims about ‘what works’ or, even more so, when we use them to help us to reach judgements about the quality of other teachers. We are subject to a huge range of biases and exemplary classroom teachers can overlook the strong effects of the automatic, unconscious elements of their practice. This can easily lead to attributing success to an intervention, when other unnoticed factors are at play. In the complex social environment of the classroom, cause and effect are hard to isolate.

An alternative to reflection lies in more rigorous inquiry. This might come under a number of guises. At last weekend’s excellent Research Leads event at the University of Brighton a number of models were shared.

I discussed the action research model we are currently working on in partnership with Dr Brian Marsh: three teachers are running inquiry projects based on areas of interest that match with school priorities.

James Mannion shared his revolutionary Praxis model, an online platform which, to paraphrase Freire, encourages teachers to reflect and act upon their classrooms in order to transform them. Praxis provides a structure for inquiry and evaluation beyond traditional reflection.

Another presenter, Nick Rose, shared the inquiry tools he has been building to support his coaching work with teachers: these include coaching logs, focused and formative observations and classroom climate logs.

In many schools, lesson study triads have been set up as vehicles for inquiry.

However, as exciting as these ideas and innovations are, just how much reach do they have? Sadly, teachers remain hugely hard-pressed for time and, even if these models become embedded, will they meaningfully change the culture of schools? My personal view at the moment is that involvement in an inquiry project should be optional for an experienced and successful teacher. That does not mean, however, that this teacher should not engage with evidence in any form.

So, is there a third way, a middle-ground between reflection and disciplined inquiry? Some are suggesting that the growing interest in research is really a growing interest in more rigorous evaluation and informed decision-making. To bring these about, we need to provide more checks and balances at various levels in our schools so that we avoid some of the obvious biases and flaws of thinking.

The suggestions below follow two simple principles: 1) they  lead to more robust evaluation and decision-making and 2) they do not lead to increased workload.

Share ideas before meetings. Groupthink is the psychological phenomenon where desire for conformity within a group leads to lack of creativity and poor decision-making. A simple solution is to ensure that before meetings – especially those that will evaluate past interventions or decide on future ones – ideas are independently submitted and compiled so that they can be shared. (Cut 15 minutes from the meeting time to allow this to happen.) A broader range of ideas is likely to be on the table and it is less easy to suppress dissenting or quieter voices.

Allow time for questions. At meetings, teach meets, 15-minute forums, etc, ring-fence time for questions. Be brave and actively invite tough questions. Everyone will learn a lot from them and you may refine your actions as a result. Make sure you provide an option for people to privately share their thoughts too: sometimes we need to chew the fat for a while or would prefer not to question publicly.

Appoint people to take the role of devil’s advocate. Every leadership team and department could benefit from  someone who takes this role. (You might want to call it the critical friend role.) The aim is not to annihilate every new innovation; it is to test that its potential strengths outweigh its potential weaknesses. Alex Quigley has written an excellent post on the importance of this role. Similarly, I love the idea of the premortem – when teams imagine a project has failed in the future and they work out the causes.

Encourage tentative language. Quite simply, school culture is rooted in language. A simple and subtle shift is to encourage educators to choose their wording carefully – does/did work and will/has work(ed) become seemed to work, might work, could work, etc. This is not a call for relativism, just for more careful skepticism. If modelled by leaders, this change would be relatively easy to implement.

Encourage a broader engagement with theory/research/ideas/other schools/other classrooms. We need to broaden perspectives. Often we do not ask questions of our own practice because we do not realise that there are questions to be asked. Introducing staff to the world of blogs and twitter are easy ways in to help teachers to consider their practice in new ways. Circulating a blog of the week and a research bulletin, or encouraging teachers to video themselves or providing them with the cover to watch another teacher in action can lead to more rigorous reflection.

Anyway, there are a few ideas for you. I might be wrong, but I think there is a gap between day-to-day reflection and more extensive inquiry that could be bridged by a simple whole-school approach.

Please take the time to comment. These ideas are in their embryonic stages.

Thanks for reading.

This post by Gary Jones on groupthink and bias has informed some of my suggestions.

Related posts:

The art of teaching clearly: on why we should treat intuition with care

Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps

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The art of teaching clearly: on why we should treat intuition with care

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Image: @jasonramasami

I have been reading Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly on systematic cognitive errors. It is a thoroughly readable romp (Dobelli is a novelist by trade) through many of the flaws in decision-making and judgement that human beings are prone to. It is not that we are completely irrational – just that we are not as rational and clear thinking as we like to believe we are. Like many, I first encountered ideas about cognitive biases and heuristics – common mental shortcuts used to side-step thinking about difficult problems – in Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work, Thinking: Fast and Slow. It is a must-read.

The routine cognitive errors shared in both books are largely inescapable. They are wired into our thinking, probably as evolutionary relics passed down genetically from our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  Through careful self-control we can all get better at managing our own decisions, and because decision-making based on a complex range of variables is part-and-parcel of teaching and school management, I think a broader awareness of cognitive biases could prove particularly useful.

What follows are descriptions of three common cognitive errors, along with real and hypothetical school-based scenarios to exemplify their significance. For each, I also offer some tentative solutions.

1. Availability bias is the way we are susceptible to making evaluations based on the evidence that comes most immediately to mind.

Here’s an example. I have taught at my current school for nine years and, without fail, every few months I hear somebody say that they think that behaviour in the school is steadily deteriorating. I tend not commit to this conversation, mainly because I have judged the complete opposite to be true: I think behaviour has improved immeasurably.

Both our judgements, however, are likely to be tainted by availability bias. Perhaps my colleague has recently been the victim of several examples of poor behaviour in her lessons. These memories loom so large that she automatically links them together to form her judgement, forgetting about ninety-nine per cent of her pupils who have been consistently impeccable. Similarly, examples of good behaviour are more available to me because of two factors: 1) the longer I have remained at the school, the more established and confident I have become and 2) I have been extremely lucky with the behaviour profile of my classes over the last two years.

So, how do we find an answer much closer to the truth? We could look at school exclusion figures first. These would give a general picture but they might not fully tell us what we they think they do. Do lower exclusion rates mean improved behaviour? Or do they instead indicate higher tolerance levels of bad behaviour, or indeed better on-site school provision for the behaviourally challenged? It would be advisable to look for other sources of evidence, too. If you have an on-call ‘duty’ system like we do, could you collect data on how often senior staff are called to incidents of poor behaviour? Or could you survey the students on a termly basis by asking ‘how many times were your lessons disrupted by bad behaviour yesterday?’? Even better – do both. To avoid the availability bias, therefore, we need to find our answers in a wider base of evidence – and preferably evidence from a range of sources.

2. Self-serving bias
is the way we tend to attribute our successes to ourselves and our failures to external factors beyond our control.

Never is the self-serving bias more evident in schools than on exam results day. Let’s take two hypothetical students, Dan and Tom, to exemplify this phenomenon. Now Dan and Tom were in my GCSE class and were statistically similar: white, working-class, with lower than average attendance and below average prior attainment. However, there was one difference on that August afternoon: Dan achieved an E in English, Tom got a B.

How do I attribute these differences? Well, Dan was hardly ever at school, and he arrived in year 7 with a level 3 KS3 score and, to be honest, white working-class boys achieved terribly nationally anyway. As for Tom? Well (!), we built up a great relationship right from the start, he seemed to find my lessons particularly engaging and I did spend an awful lot of time giving my students careful feedback. In other words: I have blamed Dan’s failure on external factors and accredited Tom’s success to the enduring prowess of my classroom practice. The self-serving bias caught red-handed.

Although the self-serving bias is natural (and, to some extent, provides us with a useful self-protecting mechanism), the education system currently incentivises such disregard for objective truth. If you want honest accounts of success and failure then you first need to remove data targets and performance-related pay. Even if we discount out-of-school factors (genetics and family background), there are a huge number of in-school factors outside the control of the average classroom teacher that influence both good and bad final exam results: curriculum design, choice of exam board, subject timetabling, class profile, how subject knowledge and skills are reinforced by the whole-school curriculum, how much progress the child made with KS3 teachers…the list is endless. To truly begin to understand the complex ways students succeed or fail we need to see the teacher’s contribution for what it is – one part of a much bigger picture. Once we take this rational view, we can begin building up an evidence base – perhaps through long-term case studies – that might help us to better understand the interaction between the complex variables we work with.

3. The regression to the mean delusion is a common fallacy. If a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it is likely to be much closer to average the second time it is measured.

Let’s use behaviour in class as an example. Imagine one Tuesday your class are particularly badly behaved – the worst you have seen them. The next lesson you try something different: perhaps a more engaging starter, or a new seating plan, or bawling at them like a sergeant major or threatening them all with a lunch-time detention. That lesson the class are better behaved, so you believe your newly adopted strategy to be an out-and-out success.

Now perhaps it really was an out-and-out success in its own right, but the improvement in the class’ behaviour may only have been a regression to the mean. When you have witnessed extreme, beyond-the-ordinary behaviour from a class, it is statistically more likely that behaviour will be better the next lesson – i.e they return back towards the norm. In the same way, if a problematic class are better behaved than usual for one lesson, be prepared for them to return back to their old tricks in the subsequent one. In both cases, they have regressed to the mean.

The takeaway here – applicable to all strategies and interventions undertaken in a school – is to be careful not to jump to assumptions too quickly. When you witness extremes of success or failure out of kilter with the norm, be vigilant not to immediately attribute this to the intervention itself. Until you have more robust evidence, be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly. Try out the intervention a few more times and if you do choose to share it with colleagues before you have strong evidence, do so tentatively.

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There are many, many more biases worth knowing about – I cannot share them all here. What is most critical, however, is that we question, test and evaluate our assumptions and intuitions, whatever our position in the educational system – from trainee teacher to Secretary of State. Unless the evidence is incontrovertible (and it almost never is) always avoid the simplistic answer, however seductive it sounds.

So, does this mean that we should adopt a nihilistic, iconoclastic standpoint, always seeking to pour scorn on tradition or the latest initiative (or both)? Absolutely not. A few things work very well in education; many work partially well; some do not work at all.  Sometimes our intuitions are absolutely right, sometimes they are not. We should not embrace uncertainty, but instead accept it as the starting point on a journey that might lead us towards greater certainty. More robust judgements and decisions allow us to tweak and modify our actions more confidently. However, these are only possible in a climate of enquiry, honesty and humility. The system has a lot to do until we reach that point.

Further reading:

I loved this post by Harry Fletcher-Wood on ways of using evidence in education.

The cerebral life of schools

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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.

 

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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?

 

Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

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Image: @jasonramasami

As the new school year springs – or lumbers! – into life, I have been thinking about the beliefs I have about my students. Like all dedicated teachers, I would vehemently argue that I have the highest expectations for each and every student I teach. How dare you suggest otherwise!

But do I really? And more to the point: is it possible for any teacher to have genuinely high expectations of every student?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares the following experiment. Participants were given this question:

An individual has been described by a neighbour as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (P6)

Did you go for librarian? I thought so. So did I. Your associative mind made it impossible to avoid this immediate assumption. Yet, as Kahneman reveals, there are twenty male farmers for every male librarian. (These statistics come from the United States, but I imagine that the ratio is not too dissimilar over here in the UK.) Statistically, it is more likely that Steve is a farmer even though his description matches our stereotypical understanding of a male librarian. Human thinking, Kahneman shows us, is prone to making judgements through a reliance on heuristics (rules of thumb that take the place of deeper thinking). The heuristic in this case was that a male library attendant is ‘meek and tidy’ and a male farmer is not. Judgements are immediate and implicit and they will form our expectations before we are even aware of them.

Now let’s segue to this morning as I slouched at my desk and put together some seating plans for this year’s classes. Some of the classes I had taught last year and some were new to me. I was looking through a list of names when I came upon ‘Ryan’. Now consider the fact that I had never met Ryan before and I had no data or information to go on: Ryan needs to sit near me at the front, I thought. A couple of minutes later, I came to the name Benedict. Benedict will be fine – put him at the back.

Now in my teaching career I have taught a few Ryans – one or two of them have been a little on the tricky side, but the majority have been paragons of virtue. As for Benedict? Well, I have never taught let alone met a person by that name! Yet his name made me smile – internally, at least. The tragic, brutal truth was that my initial expectations of both children – before even a photo, prior data or target grade; before even a glimpse of their brimming 12-year-old faces – were beginning to form implicitly, beyond my control. Kahneman also describes the priming effect: when we are exposed to a stimulus it can subconsciously influence our response to another stimulus. In this case, their names led to the first stirrings of an implicit judgement of their character and ability.

A little later in the day, I caught myself at it again. A year 10 student had surprised me in her summer GCSE English literature exam by performing better than expected (see, there’s that word again…). I was marking a piece of her creative writing from the back-end of last term and, low and behold, I was noticing things about her work I had never noticed before. Yes there’s a real fluency here. A lovely turn-of-phrase in this sentence too. My response to her work was transforming favourably in light of my new understanding of her. This time, an unexpected letter next to her name had raised my future expectations of her. Would I have read her work through the same filter if I she had not achieved that grade I wonder?

Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings were shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback. See the following video for more information:

Coupled with this is the fact that ‘self-reported grades’ comes out as the top ‘effect size’ in John Hattie’s meta-analysis. In effect, this relates to students’ expectations of themselves – they are remarkably good at predicting how well or badly they will perform in a future test. Hattie states: “Our job is to never meet the needs of kids…our job is to help kids exceed what they think they can do.” Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves. Presumably, these self-expectations are formed from a hotchpotch of factors including teacher expectation, parental expectation, peer expectation and previous academic success. To disrupt and readjust these often entrenched presuppositions is no mean feat. Watch Hattie speaking about this here.

It might be a  KS2 score or a letter next to a name (L, M, H), it might be a word in your ear from a form tutor, it might be an uncharacteristically sloppy first piece of work or it might simply be the expression on a face… over the next couple of weeks you will, consciously and subconsciously, form hundreds of expectations based on the information in front of you. It would be impossible not to. Schools face a tricky dilemma. It seems intuitive to share as much helpful prior information about students as possible with teaching staff, but might this militate against the success we want our students to achieve through the unwanted side-effect of crystallising expectations at too early a stage?

I am usually one of life’s cynics, apart from in one domain. Despite what statistical evidence and common sense tell me, every season I expect Tottenham to win the league. This year my view was augmented by the fact that I had sound evidence that our new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, would build a tremendous, world-beating team spirit. (A former student of ours, a professional player at Southampton – Pochettino’s previous club – had shared with us the manager’s ability to generate a great team spirit and a winning mentality.) It seems strange, however, that this type of optimism rarely finds its way into my thinking about students.

And so, fighting back the expectation-whispering devils as best I can, I will try my hardest to put the data to one side and begin the year with unlimited optimism.

 

Related post: Reflections on a successful student 

Postscript – It would appear that, after a little extra reading, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s research into the Pygmalion Effect showed quite modest effects. I may have been guilty of hyperbole in my description of the study. However, this does not detract from the main argument of the post: that we should be wary of jumping to assumptions about students too quickly. Follow the link in the comment from dodiscimus below.

Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps

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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?

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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.