Having been kindly invited to speak at ResearchEd in Glasgow I’m possibly in danger of being drummed out of the conference by suggesting being research informed is simply not enough. The post is a summary of the main points from the middle section of my presentation in which I stressed the need of going beyond being informed to a deeper wisdom.
The pre-conference blog, The Maelstrom of Change or Educational Cluster F***? You Decide, tried to set the context in which schools are striving or struggling to be more informed by research in their daily practice. Of possibly greatest relevance to the area are issues around workload and a lack of time alongside the relative ineffectiveness of so much professional development provided for teachers.
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It concluded with, “Embedding research within schools needs a fundamental culture shift that sees the class room as the key structure within the system, the student-teacher interaction as the critical interface and effective professional development of teachers as the primary area for leaders to influence.”
Why would you want to be research informed? This is a reasonable question to ask and my answer would be to improve outcomes for children and young people. Leaders needed to see being more research informed within a wider perspective aimed at continually improving the quality of teaching. Leading a school is complex and to help manage the process you tend to break it down into smaller constituent parts. The various parts, with their champions and pressure groups, both inside and outside the school, can become disconnected, incoherent or out of balance if a leader takes a disastrously myopic view.
Four Potential Aces
Experience, data, feedback and research could be thought of as four aces for improving the quality of teaching.
Research is very much in vogue. It has the potential to act as the informed conscience of a restless profession which wants to know how it can get better. Research helps prevent the profession from becoming insular or complacent, there’s always more to learn. Reading other people’s research is necessary but not enough. Schools and teachers need to engage with the large scale projects of others alongside their own smaller scale, but no less important, class room based projects.
Data has become increasingly central to judging the effectiveness of schools but its place within developing class room practice has been undervalued and under used. At its most informative, data is integrated into a cyclical teaching process of assessing, reflecting, planning and delivery. Our obsession with data is also impacting on our view of research with randomised control tests and effect sizes seen as gold standard research rather than a particular type of research which is useful in certain situations. If we are going to become more data informed, at a class room level, we need to change our data perspective to focus on a grain size, age and subject specific, which is linked to the needs of teachers and learners as opposed to leaders. Put simply, data needs to tell us more precisely what children do and don’t know.
Specific actionable goldilocks level feedback to teachers on how to improve the quality of their teaching is too infrequently found in schools. The legacy of summative grading of individual lessons has left a long tail of disenfranchisement amongst teachers. Schools are beginning to look at more sophisticated ways of assessing the quality of teaching. The one shot graded lesson observation is becoming rarer but is not yet extinct. Critically any system aimed at the formative development of teaching needs to be separated from a summative element. Teachers need feedback which is specific, focussed on a particular aspect of practice and acted on, with support as required.
When I started teaching experience is what counted though this too often became conflated with age. The need for experience is an inconvenient truth in a business model of schooling which seeks to remove the expertise from the class room and replace it with standardised teaching which is planning light and mass delivered. Experience is most valuable in times of continuous change and although the World may be changing rapidly the class room is not. Experience is not simply about years within the job but about developing expertise and mastery which can be shared with others and has been honed using research, data and feedback.
From Informed to Wise
We can all too often be one dimensional in our perspective when seeking to make a point or if feeling defensive. Evidence ignores experience and vice versa or data and feedback are dismissed, “What do you expect from these kids?” thinking. Being informed by research, data, feedback and experience brings a wisdom to teaching that allows decision making to have, more often than not, a positive impact on children’s learning and subsequent outcomes.
Considering the relationship as a venn diagram you can see the potential consequences of taking a more limited perspective of improving the quality of teaching through ignoring a particular aspect of information . If we focused purely on what happens in the school, informed by data, feedback and experience, we lack the wider perspective that research can bring about better options for consideration or what has worked particularly well in another context and could be considered for adoption. We become an inward looking organisation. When we developed criteria for looking at the quality of teaching the work of John Hattie and the Sutton Trust were particularly helpful.
Being informed by data, feedback and research without the overlay of experience can bring a rather cold and theoretical perspective to improving the quality of teaching. More importantly it lacks the practical expertise and mastery knowledge that is required to turn a good idea into an effective and potentially powerful class room routine. Not every idea converts well from paper to a class room with thirty individual children in. Nor is everything which has an impact worth pursuing, some ideas are more hassle than they are worth when taken in the totality of a teacher’s job. Making decision about what to pursue and how to pursue it efficiently comes with experience.
Being informed by experience and research, without gaining the insights offered by data and feedback, leaves a teacher and colleagues impact blind. We can fall into the danger of deciding this is good teaching because I am a good teacher and this is what I do. Further when we seek to develop and change our practice without the benefits of data and feedback we are uncertain as to whether the change has actually led to improvement or not.
Improving teaching is a complex process in which research, data, feedback and experience all have a part to play. It is the integration of these four aces that leads to a deeper wisdom at the root of an enriching school culture that leaders must take responsibility for building.
The final post on my presentation for #rEdScot will look at the leadership dimension of building a more informed culture in schools, Creating a Teaching Wisdom Culture: Signposts and Destinations. We’re only at the start of this journey.