Teachers are operating in interesting times. We are increasingly becoming an evidence based profession, I am however more than ever convinced that teaching is… well more. If we ignore the evidence from our schools we miss opportunities to truly learn what works.
I believe in teaching and more importantly I believe in great teaching. Being a good teacher isn’t easy, It’s a complex job. W.C Fields famously said, “Never work with animals or children.” But as well as providing the greatest challenge the greatest joy we have within teaching is that we are working with young people. I’m concerned that sometimes this key relationship, this alchemy, gets lost in the rush for evidence based practice.
There is a magic apparent when you see great teaching, an indefinable something that makes your heart sing. There are so many factors that come together to make great teaching, trying to define it is always problematic. I have seen too many occasions where something that worked in one class goes on to crash and burn in another. I think I can recognise the whiff of snake-oil when it’s about . If there is a common factor that characterises great teaching then I believe that at its core is the trusting and honest relationship between the teacher and the children. I realise this is not a new idea and that I will not sell textbooks and training packages off the back of it but just try a bit of completely non-scientific evidence gathering. Ask ten people what the most positive memory of their education is and I would bet my elbow patches that most reply with a tale of a teacher, a person, a relationship.
Some people seem desperate to make out that teaching can just be a formula, do A then B and child will learn C. (packaged and sold…job done) The key issue as I see it is how we measure learning if the measures are flawed then they will only point teaching in one direction. Improved results in exams will only align the direction of travel towards doing better at that thing. Time and again we see evidence of children getting better at the thing we measure. Does that genuinely mean the teaching is better or does it just mean we’ve just got better at ensuring children can do that thing. Speak to a seventeen year old about the stuff they learnt for GCSE it is amazing how much has dispersed into the ether, never truly learnt. Cognitive science may help us to help children remember stuff but it doesn’t hold all the answers however much some would want you to believe that it does.
So where does this leave our evidence based profession? Talk of alchemy and magic is hardly helpful in pushing the research agenda. We need to nurture the craft, the art of teaching. I look at my early years of teaching through interlaced fingers from behind the sofa, I have to admit some of it was a bit duff. But I was given time to develop and I did I became a good teacher. I worked hard at it, I read, I tried stuff and some of it worked. I feel for NQTs who are expected to deliver from the moment they step through the door. I worry that so many leave the profession just when they are getting good. They are not given the space and support to hone their craft.
There has been a big push for our teaching to be informed by research and the scientific method and that is no bad thing. Finding the most effective ways to teach can only help us impact more effectively on the life chances for all our pupils. Teachers that are more knowledgeable about what works, more reflective on the impact of their teaching can only be a good thing. However, the key word there is knowledgeable. I do find it odd that research seems to be increasingly used to shut down debate rather than open it up. There seems to be an increasing consensus to shut down exploration into things rather than open up avenues of research. Quality research should inform our practice but we need to be wary of assuming there is a ‘silver bullet.’
Access to research whilst helpful is not the answer either as there is a big issue that is often ignored, many teachers are not skilled in reading research and science and are not taught how to interpret it critically, in other words how to become knowledgeable. In my time, I have had numerous shiny initiatives thrust into my classroom from SLT’s looking for ‘the answer’ like a post Easter egg dieter extolling the virtues of the latest nutribullet recipe book. But like many of the fad diets pedalled in magazines, these educational revolutions were frequently poorly researched and tenuously linked to a very weak evidence base and alas never ‘the answer’. Learning Styles anyone? In my view, too much research sold to teachers as evidence, is in scientific terms not particularly robust. There are too many variables, sample sizes are often negligible and measures applied are often not based within theoretical frameworks. Research is often funded to fit an agenda and being aware of publication bias is important but ensuring a critical reading of research is the crux of the issue. How many educators have gone back to the original research rather than had a package pushed their way being promoted as the thing that will solve their problems? How many teachers and education leaders have read the limitations of the research outlined by the researchers themselves. Scientists know that research builds an evidence base it never provides proof. Picking out the valuable stuff is not easy. Picking it out without bias is even trickier; we are all sadly prone to confirmation bias. I see lots of practice in schools that is jumping on the latest bandwagon adopted with an uncritical eye. Knowledge rich curriculums/ knowledge organisers/ vocabulary fixes put in schools without true thought o looking for a quick fix. Yet those schools that are doing these things well have spent significant time getting it wrong, adapting the practice. Most would admit to making plenty of missteps on the way. Getting it right is hardwork.
So, with regards to using research evidence in the classroom I would say I am healthily sceptical. As the good Psychology graduate I am, I read a lot, I question more. Good teachers deal in evidence based practice every day. If we encourage staff to be reflective and explore what works in their class they often find the things that make the difference. This may be enhanced by understanding the research but replacing personal insight with off the shelf packages rarely shows impact beyond the initial placebo effect. During the last 23 years, I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time in other people’s classrooms. I say privilege because that is what is, to watch someone teach well is a wonderful thing. A great teacher makes all the difference. If you want children to make great progress then frankly there is no other solution. In our schools, the priority has to be creating the systems that allow our teachers to be great. There is no easy route to that. It is hard work, it takes time, focus and effort, there is no ‘silver bullet’. Teaching is a craft, it is something to be honed not solved. By all means be informed by good research ( not all of it is ) but be mindful that it might not help you to teach fronted adverbials to an excitable year 5 class on a rainy November afternoon. For that, you might need to use a bit of imagination, expertise and the artistic nature of your craft.