‘The scientific approach to identifying best practices is the best long-term bet.’
Prof Rob Coe
The scientific revolution dramatically improved medicine.
Doctors applied scientific research evidence to vastly improve healthcare over time.
Infant, maternal and preventable mortality fell worldwide; longevity and health improved for billions of people globally.
By 1999, evidence-based medicine had been established, integrating doctors’ expertise with the best available research evidence.
Teachers and researchers are now leading a scientific revolution of their own in education.
We are working out not just what works in teaching, but what works best for most, why and how.
In 1999, Professor Rob Coe published a manifesto for evidence-based education: for a culture of two-way efforts between teachers and researchers, similar to those between doctors and scientists.
By 2013, a grassroots, teacher-led, web-powered movement started up, spearheaded by education bloggers, symbolised by ResearchEd (led by teachers Tom Bennett and Hélène Galdin-O’Shea). From 2019, teachers Adam Boxer, Stuart Lock, Sarah Donarksi and Craig Barton led on producing research guides.
Teachers are studying and sharing the scientific advances in the study of the mind. Learning, memory, attention, reading, writing, vocabulary, revision, assessment, motivation, habits, self-control, resilience and more are being increasingly rigorously investigated. To borrow from Dan Willingham, we’ve learned more about the human brain in the last 40 years than in the previous 4,000.
What might an early draft of the recent history of the scientific revolution in education look like?
The dawn of the scientific revolution in education: a timeline of 25+ research summaries
2016- Rose & Didau
In fact, research into memory in learning is long-standing; Aristotle studied it at the dawn of scientific thinking, and the modern science of it began in 1880 and had been replicated 210 times by 1996, before the start of this timeline.
The dawn of the scientific revolution in education: 44+ seminal articles
I’ve collected 44 articles by teachers applying the research, all freely available online, organised into three sections: curriculum, pupil culture and staff culture. I’ve chosen, and summarised in a sentence, articles that I’ve found continually useful in 10 years of thinking about school leadership, that I think may become seminal over time. I’ve also tried to distill the core message of each of the 25+ research summaries above into a sentence. Feel free to make a copy and adapt.
Over the last decade, our thinking in education has made sustained advances.
Teachers and former teachers, writers of the texts above, like Doug Lemov, Tom Bennett, Daisy Christodoulou, Nick Rose, David Didau, Kat Howard, Claire Hill, Greg Ashman, Ruth Ashbee, Carl Hendrik, Stuart Lock, Tom Sherrington, Harry Fletcher Wood and Matthew Evans are asking great questions and clarifying axioms that can guide thinking for school leaders.
Even just ten years ago, things were very different.
Teacher blogs barely existed at all.
ResearchEd didn’t exist. Since 2013, there have been more than 20 worldwide.
Research schools didn’t exist. Since 2016, there are now 23.
Trusts of schools centring their leadership, teaching and training on scientific research evidence, like Advantage, Greenshaw, Star, Inspiration, Charter and Astrea, didn’t exist.
Since then, schools have started up like Dixons Trinity, Bedford Free School, Greenwich Free School, Michaela and Jane Austen College – schools whose teaching is based on cognitive science.
Now, new headteachers like Darren Hollingsworth, Dan Carter, Summer Turner, Jo Facer, Patrick Farnborough, Robert Peal, Carly Waterman, Tilly Browne, Izzy Ambrose and Carly Moran have stepped up to take the lead, joining those long at the frontline like Matthew Evans, Katharine Birbalsingh, Barry Smith, John Tomsett, Sam Strickland, Clive Wright and many others.
Now, great thinkers are creating a research-based ecosystem for subject teachers and school leaders, thinkers such as Christine Counsell, Daniel Muijis, Amanda Spielman, Tom Bennett, David Didau, Tom Sherrington, Daisy Christodoulou, Stuart Lock, Michael Fordham, Tom Rees, Peps McCrae, Nick Hart, Russell Hobby, Sallie Stanton, Craig Barton, Jonny Utterly, Kathryn Morgan, Kat Howard, Greg Ashman, Andrew Old, Ben Newmark, David Thomas, Kris Boulton, Naveen Rizvi, Louis Everett, Dani Quinn, Alex Quigley, Laura McCinerney, Shaun Allison, Jon Hutchinson, James Theobald, Rebecca Lee, Phil Stock, Claire Stoneman, Carl Hendrik, Tom Boulter, Hannah Cusworth, Andy Tharby, Pritesh Raichura, Nimish Lad, Oliver Caviglioli, Ruth Ashbee, Mary Myatt, Amy Coombe and many others.
Some caveats. Science won’t resolve divergences on values for those of us in teaching. We must be alert to pseudoscience masquerading as science. Science has its limits, and we should be wary of overreach. We can find inspiration and insight from the sciences of learning, memory, habit and motivation, but not cast-iron mathematical proof. Some sciences are more recent than others: moral psychology, evolutionary biology and complexity science are nascent and advancing. Other subject disciplines beyond science, such as philosophy, history, sociology, economics, politics, literature, strategy, organisational management and systems thinking, have lots to offer us in school leadership too. And crucially, as headteacher Carly Waterman insightfully says, we must be alert to lethal mutations, cargo cults, groupthink and bandwagonism!
Even so, genuine scientific thinking can provide a foundation for those of us trying to create enduringly successful schools. It can help us establish axioms. Since 1880, for instance, research into forgetting has found that people don’t remember new things well if they are not revisited. Scientific research provides a starting point for evaluating ideas, initiatives and claims on school improvement, behaviour systems, curricula, teaching, assessment, performance management and CPD with powerful questions:
To what extent does the approach resonate with or clash with long-standing scientific research evidence on human learning?
What evidence do we have to support our claims?
Teachers and school leaders are now at the forefront of the scientific revolution in education, challenging well-meaning but misguided approaches and leading on how best to improve school culture, subject curricula and staff development. We can keep studying and applying the best available scientific research evidence while staying alert to overstretch.
As Rob Coe says, and as history suggests, scientific thinking may be the best long-term bet of all.