If research already shows what works well, why isn’t it put into classroom practice?
A little while ago, I was asked to take part in a Guardian online panel on evidence-based education. Here are some of the questions asked:
1. How do we work out what works best, and why it works best?
2. What are the best routes to getting research into practice? How we can help teachers learn lessons that are useful for their teaching practice from research?
3. What role should school leaders play in applying and developing education research for evidence-based teaching practice?
The panel consisted of Emily Yeomans, grants manager at the £125 million Education Endowment Fund; Ben Durbin, head of impact at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER); Mike Bell, secretary of Evidence Based Teachers Network (EBTN) of 4,500 members; and others including contributions from Geoff Petty, author of Evidence Based Teaching. Thanks to Holly Welham for organising it. Here are some of the comments:
1. What works best and why
“Nearly everything suggested in education can claim to be ‘evidence-based’ because, in research, nearly everything works! The trick is to ask the next question: “how well does it work relative to everything else?” When we ask this one we find that the debate is dominated by methods which work, but only have a tiny effect. While much more effective things, like ‘linking to prior knowledge’ are little used.”
“It’s not just what works, but what works best; not just what works best, but why.”
“The greatest contribution science can make is in explaining why some teaching methods work much better than others.”
2. Research into Practice
“The teaching profession needs an evidence-informed, scientific approach to what really works in the classroom. We need to become a more critical profession, challenging the status quo.”
“It’s great that funding is now available for new research, but we need to be careful not to feel we need to ‘sit back and wait’. While there is lots to learn, there is also lots which we already know. It would probably take a whole teaching career to become proficient in the methods we already know work well.”
“Almost no teacher has the time to read research papers – and they should avoid doing so (unless they have piles of time) – because they can only read a few and cannot get the general picture from all the evidence. That’s why meta-studies are so useful for teachers.”
“Trialling things on a large scale and communicating the results means that not all teachers have to invent things for themselves. Practitioners can use the toolkit as a starting point for decision making so they don’t need to trawl through the original research.”
“Ask teachers what the problems are; ask them what they want to aspire to; give them the research evidence in that direction; let them choose what research to use to adapt; let them experiment with this whilst talking with colleagues about how their experiment is going.”
3. School Leaders
“The first thing leaders should do is to introduce their staff to the existing knowledge – what we already know works well. Then teachers need to try out the proven methods in their own teaching. The research shows that teachers will need to practice with a method for at least 6 months and share ideas.”
“A theme seems to be that we already know what works well in education. From a teacher’s viewpoint, this is the research-practice paradox: though we might already know what works well from the research, in practice school leadership aren’t even very good at avoiding what doesn’t work. For instance, research suggests graded observations are unreliable and inconsistent; yet many schools persist in using them for performance management, and are now locking grading in to PRP (performance-related pay) policies.”
“Teachers – would be great to hear any suggestions for how organisations like NFER can better support you in finding relevant research and putting it into practice.”
“The scary thing is – there seem to be a dozen organisations who claim to be making evidence available to teachers, but which few teachers have even heard of. Several make the mistake of linking teachers with research papers, rather then with the big-picture, the 10-20 things which work best, the 10 most common myths of low-effect methods or policies. The most helpful thing which NFER could do would be to join with all the others and become teacher-centered: a National Institute of Clinical Excellence for education. The fact that this hasn’t happened is a concern. If the funds which maintain these organisations were directed to communicate the big-evidence-picture to classroom teachers, the job would be done in a couple of years. EBTN would then be redundant.”
The way forward
What’s the way out of the research-practice paradox? One of the most promising avenues is the independent convergence of a century of scientific advances in cognitive psychology with decades of statistical meta-analysis – to clarify once and for all what works best in teaching.
Next weekend at the Midlands ResearchEd, Daisy Christodoulou, Katie Ashford, Kris Boulton and I are speaking about applying the insights from cognitive science to classroom practice.
It’s time for teachers to set the research agenda.