Research

Carl Hendrick used his excellent blog to contribute to the on-going debate about the link between research and teaching yesterday and promoted me to offer a few thoughts of my own. 

Carl’s starting point is that research is done to teachers and therefore focusses on questions/problems that are irrelevant. A question is why does this happen. 

The first factor I would suggest is that the need to generate income causes people to exaggerate claims in order to sell ideas to school leaders. This process introduces  what may have once been useful research into the classroom in a way that can damage both the idea and, more importantly, learning. The consultant becomes salesperson and in that role encourages school leaders to think that if they do not take on board an idea their children will not make as much progress as other schools who have bought into the pitch/concept/resource. 

I remember being told that dropping marbles in a jar would support children’s learning behaviour. Somewhere there was probably a sound piece of research undertaken in controlled conditions that suggested the variation of sound from the overly-familiar teacher’s voice had a positive impact. The idea was then packaged with a few other strategies  and sold to schools as an in-service training package.  The consultant’s job depended on the level of sales of the training which changed the relationship between him/her and the teachers from open pedagogical discussion to customer relations. It is this change that leads hard-pressed teachers to implement strategies that bear little relation to the original research.

The second factor is political. Due to the short-term  (and now fixed term) nature of government, politicians are very interested in quick fixes. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black’s research appealed to politicians because they spoke of economic growth and increased tax revenue from changing pedagogy with no resource implication. This was then implemented through Department of Eduaction guidance, local authority advice and OfSTED lesson observations. The speed with which the message went around that not displaying a learning objective was an indicator of a failed lesson was remarkable. In my last school, the fact that pupils could articulate what they had learned and what they would like/needed to learn next was of less interest to inspectors than children being able to say what level they were at. Wiliam’s  research was thorough and well-evidenced. Unfortunately, the speed of implementation led to poorly trained OfSTED inspectors saying ridiculous things that we all had to fall inline with because of their power. Looking at developments in teaching since the early 1990s, the inspectors have played a key role in spreading and reinforcing practice that has no clear evidence base. 

The financial and political drivers have in recent times coincided with companies building closer relationships with government minsters not just through lobbying  but also friendships. A number of policies have their root in both the generation of profit and political ideology.  This is not out of evil intent but a genuine belief that schools offer better education if exposed to market forces. That there is no evidence for this claim suggests that we are a long way from a genuine research-led profession. There is plenty to suggest that the profit motive will continue to be a barrier to developing effective pedagogy as short term fixes and Magic wands are introduced into schools not on the whim of detached academics but to meet the demands of shareholders.

Carl’s blog offers a clear way forward with schools basing improvement on their own research. I wish him and his staff every success. 

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