Implementing Research-based Professional Learning: Why? – by Damian Haigh, Aspirer ELE.

24 October 2018

For the last three years at Wilmslow High School we have been trying to forge a formal link between high quality evidence and research and the professional learning we aim to ensure all our staff are engaged in.  Whilst we have always hoped that the strategies and ideas we have shared and promoted are effective and well justified, it is only in recent years that we have placed a priority on ensuring that:

1) the key decisions we make are backed up by sound evidence and research;

2) not just school leaders, but all classroom staff have a good working understanding of research evidence and how it can help them;

3) as a school we play a role, albeit a small one, in adding to the research evidence ourselves, and sharing what we learn with others.

Research evidence is, happily, very prominent in education currently but it is certainly not the only type of input that teachers need.  Professional Learning at Wilmslow High now comes in 3 distinct flavours, and we believe that classroom staff have an entitlement to development in all three:

·         Aspect 1: Expert Subject Knowledge.  Unless we ensure that we are experts in the material we teach, we’d be foolish to hope that our students will be.  Even where staff have high levels of qualification in their subjects, we believe that they should be entitled to time to explore their subject and enjoy an active ongoing study of it.  We also recognise that increasingly teachers are teaching outside their initial areas of expertise, either because of timetabling compromises or curricular change, and so need the support of colleagues to become expert in new domains. For us subject knowledge includes both the domain-specific academic knowledge that teachers are seeking to pass on to their students, but also the pedagogical subject knowledge that teachers need to assess effectively, interpret errors diagnostically, and transfer knowledge of their specialism successfully to students.

·         Aspect 2: The Craft of the Classroom. The leadership of learning in the classroom is a hard skill to learn and one which takes years to hone.  We believe that all teachers need and are entitled to an ongoing apprenticeship in the classroom to support their growing mastery of the craft.  We see this as distinct from Aspect 1 because it is inherently cross-curricular.  In this aspect we set up highly effective mentoring relationships between, for example, maths teachers and PE teachers because the expertise being developed is specific to the skills of leadership, motivation, the application of school-wide systems rather than to a subject discipline.

·         Aspect 3: Engagement with Research Evidence.  Which is what this article is primarily focused on.

This last “flavour” of professional learning is, for some colleagues, the hardest one to swallow.  After Katie Wynne and I published to colleagues the list of 24 different research-linked projects they can choose to partake in this year, one of our most effective teachers responded by asking whether the research we were talking about would be “based on more than the 24 000 lessons he had taught in his career?”.

An expert teacher of mathematics who reflects thoughtfully on his lessons, he knows the difference between what works and what doesn’t.  Like many highly effective teachers he sees little value in being made to read the evidence about what works and what doesn’t, when he is testing to find what works in his classroom, every day.  His challenge is a fair one: why, when time seems shorter than ever, would we want teachers to spend time considering formal research evidence about what works when their experience at the chalkface answers those questions for them every day?

I put this point to Alicia Shaw and Alex Quigley at the EEF when I had the good fortune to hear them talking about the research evidence on metacognition last week.  The recent EEF report on Metacognition is an excellent example of the sort of easily digested but carefully composed research summaries that are now available to classroom practitioners.

Alicia’s response was this: “think about medicine: many doctors used to believe their own professional judgement was far more important than abstract academic research, but we now know better, and medical practice is benefitting hugely as a result”.  Fair point: since teaching first began, many teachers have been highly confident in their own practice without it necessarily always working for their students.  Our gut feel, and even our careful reflections, have a bad habit of fitting our preconceptions in preference to the facts.  A couple of cognitive biases could be cited here:

1) confirmation bias is the tendency to favour evidence which supports our current beliefs while ignoring evidence which refutes them.  Naturally, we want to believe that what we do for our students is effective, and we’ll happily accept evidence that supports this view.  For me, evidence of my lessons being ineffective is normally neatly reinterpreted as evidence of the degradation of society, poor parenting, children’s ever shortening concentration spans and their deplorable need for immediate gratification.  This simple heuristic prevents me wasting any time on the potentially painful reflection that I might have pitched it wrong to my class or led their learning poorly.

2) the Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency of people who are relative novices in a field to overestimate their abilities, while those who are experts will tend to underestimate where they stand in relation to others in the field.  Dunning and Kruger put this down to an inability of those with superficial knowledge to reflect objectively on their own knowledge: without a sufficient allocation of domain specific knowledge meaningful metacognition is not possible and you can have little concept of how much you don’t yet know.

“the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Evidence-based practice campaigner Ben Goldacre, of Bad Science fame, argues that high quality evidence and research “should be a routine part of life in education”.  Trusting the strategic decision makers alone to engage with the evidence while leaving the teachers to do as they are told is not enough to achieve for education the same leap that has been achieved in medicine: “This is not about telling teachers what to do. It is in fact quite the opposite. This is about empowering teachers to make independent, informed decisions about what works, by generating good quality evidence, and using it thoughtfully.”

Alex Quigley made a slightly different point:  Where excellent practice does exist in certain classrooms, how effective are these practitioners at describing what they do in terms that make sense to less expert colleagues?  Unless you can point out how your practice reflects the concepts, models or best practices established through high-quality formal research, how can you confidently pass on to others the things that work for you and will also work for them?  How, in other words, can you make the things implicit in your own practice, explicit to someone less expert than yourself?

Research doesn’t just settle arguments: it plays a role of codifying and organising aspects of our craft in ways that allow us to talk more clearly about which things work, and why.  Few teachers that I have worked with feel they have time to discuss what is happening when students learn something, or why, at a cognitive level, certain things we do work well, while others tend not to.  Furthermore, a crucial part of motivation at work is our sense of growing mastery in our craft.  Engagement with research provides us not just with an opportunity for some intellectual stimulation, but also a feedback framework within which to see our growing mastery of the challenge of transferring knowledge effectively.  More than this, we also now have access to a higher level of mastery that has, until recently, been denied us.  Teaching has been a folk tradition for centuries but it is increasingly becoming a powerful hybrid of science and art: a trade that is informed by both craftsmanship and formal knowledge.

An excellent example of this can be found in Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths.  Craig is probably the UK’s most famous maths teacher and, thankfully, is having a growing influence on how other maths teachers, like me, now work.  His book repeatedly makes the point that there were many elements of his teaching that he thought, believed, even knew to be the immutable truth yet, he now knows, are fundamentally wrong.  Much of what we now know about learning and cognition should be revolutionary for how we think about building knowledge in students’ brains – but the changes that this new knowledge requires in our teaching are surprisingly subtle and could not be enacted by, for example, changes in government policy or adjustments to the accountability system.

We’ll continue ploughing the research furrow at Wilmslow High School because the benefits that the engagement between school and university brings are many and various, and I hope to expand on more of these in a future blog.  For me the biggest benefit, though, lies in the potential for improving the quality, validity and enjoyability of professional learning.  Now, more than ever, we need to hold on to the expert practitioners in our schools and all the wonderful things they do for the children they teach.  I believe, and I hope to persuade all our staff, that for a school to make a commitment to take 10 hours per year (0.8 % of our directed time budget) for teachers to read, think about and discuss high quality evidence about what they do every day is not an additional burden but a down payment on the long overdue professional respect that teachers are owed.


The Dunning Kruger effect:

(Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367 ; via Wikipedia)

Ben Goldacre’s paper on research evidence in teaching:

Teachers! What would evidence based practice look like?

Craig Barton:

Posted on 24 October 2018
Posted in: Blog

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