How is the evidence revolution going? Some reflections on 4 years of researchED

At the recent researchED in Haninge Sweden, I closed the conference with a speech that tried to understand where we had got to in evidence informed education, and what the landscape looked like. The following is a summary of that speech:

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, at least it does in education, where we see teaching full of myths, and poorly evidenced practices and strategies. Why have we succumbed so much to Learning Styles and worse, and why have we found ourselves basing our vital practice on gut feelings, hunches and intuition? I think it’s because misconceptions creep into the spaces where:

  • we don’t know much about the topic,
  • we like the answers junk science provides, or
  • we’re too busy to find out the facts.

How did we get here? Let’s reframe that question. Where did you acquire your ideas about teaching, learning, pedagogy etc? Chances are your answer revolves around: teacher training; memories of your own school experience; your mentor; your early class experiences.

Up to a point that’s fine. Teaching is to a great extent a craft. But craft without structured evidence to interrogate its biases and misconceptions can lead to folk teaching, where we reproduce the mistakes of our predecessors as easily as we do their successes.

So what? Because merely ‘folk teaching’ leaves us at the mercy of snake oil, fads, fashions, ideology, bias. We can think of an ocean of cargo cult voodoo that often dominated educational discourse in the past: Shift Happens; TED talks; the great Interactive Whiteboard con; most links you see shared on Facebook. We recall the training days hosted by inexpert experts; the books by charismatic gurus; the often quoted rentagobs that fill TV, radio and print who seem to know so much about classrooms despite never having worked in one, know nothings, elevated by other know nothings.

In this landscape, discussions about teaching becomes a battle of prejudices- Pokemon debates where we simply hurl one unprovable claim against another until someone blinks.

A new hope?

My naive ambition in 2013 when I began researchED was simple: we should lean on evidence where it exists, we should try to become more research literate as a profession, and crucially we should ask for evidence at every turn. That was as far as I had gotten, strategy-wise. But surprisingly, amazingly, researchED took off, despite its lack of blueprint or funding. It was a movement that wanted to happen, and we started to respond to demand by hosting events across the UK and quickly, around the world. Since then we have been to 9 countries, 4 continents, and seen 15,000 unique visitors to our events. researchED has 22,000 followers on twitter, and we have been graced with 1000 speakers, none of whom are paid. It is a humbling testimony to what can be achieved for next to nothing if love and altruism and mutual benefit are all you want to achieve. And it reminds me of the best in people, always.

The dangers of research

But it is important to always retain a sense a caution alongside the enthusiasm. The sleep of reason produces monsters, even with good intentions. There have been some reasonable responses and criticisms of this new age of evidence enquiry:

I’m busy– Good point. Teachers rarely have the time to read research, practice it, translate it. Which is why I rarely recommend teachers become researchers. Often, in-class research is of little use anyway. Research takes time and training. I want teachers to be bad researchers about as much as I want researchers to pretend they are teachers. So we need to become more evidence facing collectively, in partnership with other institutions.
You don’t need to know anything at all about research to be a good teacher. Also true. But we now live in an ecosystem where we need to be able to respond to people who claim evidence is on their side.
Research can prove anything you want to. No it can’t. Not all research is equal; there is worse evidence and better evidence, and discerning which is which is heart of the task we face.
Teaching is practical, research is abstract/ Teaching isn’t a science: no indeed, not entirely. But it isn’t wholly an art form either. It is amenable to structured investigation. It works in the material as well as the mental world. There are many aspects of it which can, must be analysed

Less reasonable responses: you must be funded by HYDRA; this is a neoliberal conspiracy; evidence is just another way to deprofessionalise teachers/ make them robots. At these I can only roll my eyes so hard they threaten to detach from their nervous tethers. Customers of tin-foil milliners will believe what they choose despite an absence of any evidence because they want to. No one makes a button from this, and no one funds it with any control. No one gets a say about speakers or content, and we are guided by the desire to seek the truth and fuelled by altruism. Strangely, I see popular snake oil salespeople paid for by Unilever and governments who escape this approbation, often because what they say pleases the conspiracists. Fancy that!

Evidence in the wild

Bad research- the ‘not even wrong’ categories like Learning Styles- aren’t the only problem. What happens to evidence in the wild is crucial. One thing this has taught me is that high quality research is, by itself not enough. If it doesn’t reach the classroom in a useful state then it may as well not have happened. And often good research gets lost in translation. I call this the Magic Mirror. Sometimes research goes through the mirror and schools turn it into something else. Research translation is as important as research generation. Poor old Assessment for Learning drops into the Black Box and becomes levelled homework and termly tests, weird mutant versions of what it was meant to be. And some research is simply misunderstood: project based learning, homework, collaborative learning all have utility in the right contexts. But how many teachers know the nuance of their evidence bases? Homework , for example, has variable utility depending on circumstances. Grasping the when and the how of ‘what works’ is essential, otherwise we over simplify.

A brave new world that hath such teachers in it

I think researchED is a symptom of a new age of evidence interest. Perhaps also a catalyst- one of many that now exist, from the Deans for Impact to the Learning Scientists to the Five for Five program and many more. This is indicative of an appetite that was always there. We now host more conferences, visit more countries every year. We have more first timers, both attendees and speakers. Like the can of worms opened, the worms cannot now go back in the can. This car has no reverse gear. Successful innovations, once perceived, cannot be unseen.

Policy makers

I once asked Tony Blair what research he relied on when making education decisions. He replied that there ‘wasn’t any useful evidence at the time.’ This attitude still dominates the biggest lever-pullers. We still see at a policy level multiple factors driving decisions away from evidence bases:

  • Budgets
  • Policy/ ministerial churn
  • Lack of insider representation
  • Reliance on personal experiences

But the more the profession talks the language of evidence, the more they will have to listen to it. And I have always believed that we should reward policy makers when they participate in evidence driven discussions. That’s why I’m proud we try to engage rather than barrack our political representatives. And why every year we invite minsters of every party to our party.


Leadership is still the biggest lever in driving evidence adoption. One evidence literate school leader cascades far more than one teacher.  Some schools are now embracing the research lead role, and devoting staff resources to this area. There is a moral and a practical duty for leadership to attend to evidence, because an era of dwindling resources demands better, more efficient decisions- less waste, more impact, from training to workload to tech. Let us abandon the days we tried to buy our way out of our problems, as if a chequebook was a magic lamp. And I sometimes wonder if raising budgets isn’t by itself insufficient, because what we do with the money we have is more important than the act of sending it unwisely.


In the absence of a coherent, evidence informed system it is necessary for teachers to drive their own research articulacy. It is necessary. Teachers should not be pseudo-researchers, but they should become literate; share, disseminate and interpret high quality research, and help us to develop a herd immunity, where enough of us are learned enough to recognise the zombie learning and junk pedagogy when it rises- as it always does- from the grave.

Embrace ambiguity

We have one more duty to observe. Teachers must become active participants in the research ecosystem rather than massive recipients.  But teaching is driven by practice, and the data is more subtle than we suspect. We often seek definite answers where none exist. Research often unpacks ambiguity, and we need to embrace nuance, uncertainty and probability rather than dress high quality research up as eternal and immutable fact.  We should avoid universals and certainty- and seek always remember that context is frequently king. Otherwise we perpetuate dogma, and become that which we seek to surpass.

The Gate Keepers 

One thing I didn’t expect- but should have- is that the existing system objects to its own reinvention. Whenever power shifts, former custodians of power seek to preserve privilege, and this new age of evidence adoption has frequently been dismissed by some academics, some education faculties, commercial interests, some teaching bodies. But the habit of command dies slowly. Education has relied on arguments from authority for decades. Evidence challenges their dominance like mystics challenge the Church. I have faith that evidence and truth will win, but it will not be because it was easy. Arguments must be made; evidence bases must be made transparent.

Evidence doesn’t obliterate professionalism  it liberates it.  

We enter a new age of evidence. Once seen it cannot be unseen, and science cannot be uninvented, although ideas can change. Fears that evidence makes us slaves to research are no more rational than the fear that understanding how to cook makes you a worse chef. It empowers. If you object to where evidence takes us, then find better evidence. Otherwise, ask yourself if your opinion is dogma, or something more animates your objections.

Caveat Emptor. In a complex field we need interpreters and brokers of research, but we must also take care not to create a new priesthood- the neo-Shamans of evidence, who act as irrefutable guardians of divine truth.  The OECD, for example, in some ways has become the new international inspectorate, blessing or banishing entire countries on the basis of their data. Is this healthy? I don’t think so. Beware also the New Generation of Consultants selling ‘Snake Oil 2.0’ who have updated their absurdities by simply stapling the phrase ‘evidence based’ onto their bags of magic beans. And don’t think I’m ignoring the danger of researchED succumbing to this, like mortal ring bearers corrupted by Sauron. Which is why we curate events to include challenge and debate, like the grit in the oyster that helps to make the pearl.

The future

We begin to see new models of professional groupings emerge- digital collaborations, conference communities that no longer require permission to exist, and precious little capital. Self propelled, self sustaining, self regulating, they exist only as long as people want to go. These fluid, accessible, dynamic, virtual colleges are needed until they are no longer needed because the profession will have reinvented itself. We’re not there yet. Which is why we commit to cheap, accessible events that are democratic, inclusive and most of all, directed at discovering what works- and when, and why, and how.

My ambition is that we start to drive this voluntary professional development, which then cascades back into schools and starts conversations that starts sparks in classrooms that catch fire and burn down dogma. That initial teacher training makes evidence its foundation (where it does not do so already), platforming the best of what we know rather than perpetuating  the best of what we prefer. For new teachers to be given skills to discern good evidence from bad. For that to bleed eventually into leadership and from there into the structures that govern us.

I’m reminded of the story about the eternal battle between darkness and light in the night sky. A pessimist could look up and think that darkness was nearly everywhere. But the optimist doesn’t see that. The optimist knows that, once there was only darkness.

If you ask me, the light’s winning.


This post was originally published on Tom Bennett’s School Report:

A Day at researchED NYC

Written by: The Effortful Educator

I recently returned from my first researchED experience in Brooklyn; perhaps you saw the hashtag #rEDNY17 floating around twitter lately.  Like a lot of education conferences, speakers presented information for which they are knowledgeable.  Unlike a lot of education conferences, there was no expo or product to buy.  No one wanted me to purchase the latest and greatest education doodad that is sure to revolutionize the education industry.  ResearchED isn’t a conference for fads.  I think it could be best summed up with the word ‘evidence’.  ResearchED is all about linking education research and the teacher, making teachers more research literate, and highlighting educational myths hindering the classroom.  In my opinion, this provides for a more genuine conference experience.

Unlike past professional conferences I’ve attended, researchED didn’t load me down with free swag or leave me with an almost fanatical motivation that rarely translates into real gains in the classroom.  Information was presented by knowledgeable researchers and teachers, there was time for meaningful dialogue, and I left with many ideas to ponder about how to better my classroom for my students.  I cannot think of a more appropriate reason to attend an education conference.  Meaningful.  Researched.  Applicable.

I would like to take a few moments to shine light on a few of the many highlights I experienced.  This is going to be a tough task; like attempting to cull down my 180 character tweet to the mandatory 140.  I will be as brief as possible while still getting the point across.  I promise.

  • The first session I attended was led by Benjamin Riley (@benjaminjriley) with Deans for Impact.  It centered around our biases in reading/interpreting research and the persistence of neuromyths.  What I really enjoyed about this session is that it challenged my own perceptions.  Unbelievably refreshing for a conference setting.
  • I next joined others for a session on retrieval practice ‘from the learning-brain perspective’ led by Dr. Efrat Furst (@EfratFurst).  Admittedly, this session was right up my alley of interest.  I have an affinity for psychological works that intersect at cognition and neuroscience.  I thought Dr. Furst’s message on neural connections and retrieval practices’ ability to create and strengthen these associations was amazing.  All teachers should understand how this occurs and really think about how this knowledge affects how our learners learn.  I highly recommend you visit Dr. Furst’s website for more information on this topic.
  • During the lunch break, I ended up sitting with and indulging in a wonderful conversation with Callie Lowenstein (@calliepatton).  She is a fellow educator and we’ve had a twitter friendship for a bit.  We had what my wife calls ‘teacher talk’; spoke about the classroom, the importance of researchED in education, and writing/blogging (She very recently started blogging. Here’s her first one…it’s great).  Although it was a casual conversation, it was still a highlight.
  • Next, I attended a session led by Eric Kalenze (@erickalenze).  This one was a real eye-opener for me.  Basically, he discussed how education is upside downand some really smart people have incorrect beliefs on education.  But how do we effectively interact with these people to amend their beliefs?  Often times, shoving evidence down their throat causes them to more strongly advocate for their incorrect beliefs.  Eric contends it is a framing problem…we need to reframe the debate to be more effective.  Check out the link to his book above for a much more in-depth explanation.
  • A last session that really gave me information to ponder was led by Dr. Yana Weinstein (@doctorwhy and @acethattest) and Bryan Penfound (@BryanPenfound) on interleaved mathematical problems.  Now, I am not a math teacher, but I found the discussion and information on interleaving to be fascinating.  My biggest takeaway is that we don’t know too much about interleaving.  That may sound a little weird for a conference focused on research and evidence, but I think it’s great.  There are still a lot of questions around interleaving, and we will one day know those answers.  Research is being conducted now evaluating the relationship between the classroom and interleaving’s effectiveness.  In my opinion, that’s awesome.  Add to that the fact that Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Penfound are so knowledgeable and great at what they do…it was a great session.

Outside of the sessions, I was thrilled to meet so many wonderful people.  After the conference was over, we moved to a local restaurant and just hung out…being around the likes of Tom Bennett, Lucy Crehan, Richard Phelps, Ken Sheck, Marcus Lithander, and so many more was just fantastic… and I just know I’m leaving out some amazing people.  Sorry.  I promise you it’s not on purpose.  I immediately felt welcomed by the researchED ‘crew’.  Although this was my first researchED conference, I left with the feeling that I belong.  It was a fantastic experience that left me wanting more.  I strongly urge you to attend a researchED conference whenever you can.  I’m already making plans to attend the next conference in the United States.

You can find information on researchED here:


The original post can be found here:

Blog roundup #rED17

Here’s a roundup of blogs written about the researchED 2017 National Conference. If you’ve also written a blog and would like to have it posted here, let us know:

Teaching it real

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the ResearchEd national conference in London. I have spent the last week mulling over the sessions I attended and writing up my notes. Any errors are most certainly my own but this is what I took away from my day. Read more…


ResearchEd17 could be forgiven for being a bit self-conscious: in recent weeks it has been spoken of less favourably, had its grassroots raked over, its biases heat-mapped. Sure enough, when I arrived (like a marathon runner along Cheering Lane), it was clear that the cheering crowds had stayed away.  Read more…

the unconscious curriculum

My goodness, it was a struggle to get myself to this conference.  Along with first week exhaustion, engineering works on the Met line and the onset of a cold, I found myself wandering around Westfield Stratford at 9.30am on Saturday morning.  I should have looked at google maps but I wanted to save my battery for the conference. Read more…

Herts for Learning

In the first of a two part blog, Martin Galway shares his thoughts on presenting a pair of workshops (one on grammar and, here, a late-notice addition on reading comprehension) at this year’s researchED  conference. Read more…

Teaching it real

I thought Lucy’s opening point on her talk on the role of culture was very important. There is sometimes an assumption that any differences in education systems around the world are driven by some kind of organically grown culture that has developed over the generations. Lucy pointed out that this is not always the case. Read more…

Impression that I get

I’m going to say it. rED17 was the best one yet. There have been researchED conferences that rival of course, and the light-up pens have reached legendary status, but the atmosphere at this one was something different. Whether it was the venue, Chobham Academy, with its circular building that forced delegates to cross paths and talk as they found their next session, or whether on a more personal level I felt like I knew more people there, there was a buzz I’ve not sensed in the same way before.  Read more…

Rethinking education

With a grim sense of obligation, I had circled Nick Gibb on my programme for session one; however when the time came my feet steered me instead to Christian Bokhove’s entertaining talk entitled: ‘This is the new M*th!’ Unusually for a researchED talk about myths, Christian was not concerned with a feverish search for the ”next Brain Gym”. Rather, this turned out to be a cautionary tale about the folly of shooting myth-busting rounds from the hip before checking you aren’t packing a mouldy banana. Read more…

That Boy Can Teach

With a whole host of speakers it wasn’t easy to pick which sessions to attend – a good proportion of the train journey down was spent poring over the workshop descriptions and in some slots I had up to 5 possible choices. There was a definite air of excitement as teachers and other professionals poured into the school’s largest hall; it felt good to be part of something which, compared to other conferences I’ve attended, seemed so big. Read more…



Terra Australis: researchED Melbourne 2017

Terra Australis

Australia is an extraordinary place to come, especially if you’re British. The mixture of instant familiarity (driving on the left as all civilised peoples do, fried breakfasts, Cockney phonics buried inside carefree New World idiom) and the novel (dim sum next to baked beans, a menagerie of animals apparently constructed by God for a dare) creates an uncanny valley. Like you woke up in an alternate timeline where Britain was at once sunny, healthy and positive.

Nowhere I this demonstrated more clearly than in that totem of Terra Australis, the humble Tim Tam. I can summarise it in two words: Aussie Penguin (the biscuit, not the improbable saviours of zoos’ balance sheets). I already have orders from three separate people in the UK for boxes of them, like Antipodean contraband). But it’s a Penguin with an x factor I can’t quite name. A twist of vanilla perhaps, like someone sent a Penguin through a teleporter with a 99. And it is very delicious, an Umpty Candy for our age.

Aussie ed reminds me of this. I’ve been fortunate enough to eke my way across several countries with researchED in my knapsack: Sweden, Norway, USA, Netherlands, Australia, and next year possibly Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand- we’re even in talks with schools in the UAE and Spain. Every time I’m fascinated to discover how education plays out in each territory. It’s like foreign tongues: the vocabulary and grammar are frequently alien, but the underlying conventions of language remain. Every country appears to be wrestling with many of the same devils as every other country.

In some ways, this is unsurprising: the process of educating children has evolved as a societal necessity, and certain conventions emerge and converge due to circumstances universal to the human condition: the classroom, the teacher-expert, the taxonomy of curriculum, testing, certification, graduation, the lingua franca of instruction. As organisms evolve circulatory, respiratory, excretory systems in a ticker tape of styles, education throws up the same issue whether the school bells sounds over Doha or Dunfermline. Autonomy; selection; instruction and enquiry; whole child or subject…these and many others are the wrestling rings of debate.

Which is why I’ve found attending researchEDs aboard so incredibly instructive; the same debates with different accents, angles and nuance. Educational tourism is of course a dangerous game; often we find that what propels a perceived outcome (such as literacy or tertiary education enrolment) can be aligned as much with cultural contextual factors (such as teacher status, simplicity of language forms, social norms about university) as with policy levers and school systems.

But if we are careful we can learn from one another. The key caveat is to remember that correlation is not causation; that constant conjunction of two factors (such as waking up with a sore head and it being Saturday morning) may not be causal. So when we visit Singapore, or Finland we avoid drawing simple inferences about school starting age, bean bags, first name terms with teachers and wraparound tutoring and classes of 75. Some plants look beautiful in a jungle, but need imported soil and sunlight to thrive. British classrooms are not terrariums. Mango trees will not last a winter in Regent’s Park.

And other flora and fauna will. Look at rabbits, one of many unwelcome presents the British gifted Australia with. Or Highland cows (Latin: Heelan’ Coos) that chewed the cud in Mongolia for millennia before they were kidnapped to Scotland and made to produce toffee for people who couldn’t otherwise afford tooth extraction. I am fascinated by what we can and cannot learn from our neighbours, what will and will not take root abroad. There is an obvious advantage offered here: rather than launch costly (and no doubt unethical) vast social experiments in different education systems to work out which ones are most effective, we can just peer over the border and see what our neighbours are up to. In theory.

I learned a lot (my bar is low, and like a pupil on a G grade I make fastest progress) from Australia and the two researchEDs we put together in Melbourne, one at Brighton Grammar School and one in partnership with the ACE conference. Hundreds of teachers, school leaders, academics, researchers, and everyone else in between self-assembled to learn from one another and the fantastic array of speakers who had given their time for free to talk to their colleagues.

There were too many to mention of thank here, but some highlights that I managed to get to were:

Professor John Sweller, famous forhis work on Cognitive Load theory and developing Geary’s idea of Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge, which has proven to be increasingly influential in our understanding of why some forms of teaching may or may not be more or less effective in different contexts. His quiet, patient unpacking of his topic contrasted enormously with….

John Hattie, who is as close to a rock star in edu-conferences as you’ll find. I believe he and Dylan Wiliam are opening the Pyramid stage on Glastonbury next year. His grasp of meta-studies and the energetic, passionate enthusiasm with which he delivers it, make him one of our best communicators in education. Inevitably, one so prominent  attracts criticism: for the 0.4 hinge effect size, the nature of meta studies, and so on. But he is undeniably one of our most important voices in the Great Debate, and rightly feted as a giant in the canon.

Katie Roberts Hull from Learning First, who talked about Evidence Based Professional Learning and the implications for effective practice. In many ways this seemed to echo some of the excellent work done by the Teacher Development Trust in this field. Her idea that professional learning needs to be sustained over a long period, and connected to a learning goal, echoed deeply with me, when I see so much CPD and INSET based on a snapshot model where teachers spend a day at a Novotel taking away a bag of notes and often little else.

Tanya Vaughan from Social Ventures Australia, along with John Bush, was spreading the gospel of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and carefully explaining the significance of the lock, the dollar and the months-progress ideas. I hope she’s ready for years of people still asking what they mean like the UK.

Jennifer Buckingham heads up the CIS’s ‘Five for Five project’, which promotes the five main aspects of reading instruction that comprise our best evidenced practice. The resistance to this internationally is extraordinary, and even more extraordinary when you consider the enormous evidence in its favour. It’s a Sisyphean task at times, but when literacy is at stake, a vital one, and people like Jennifer are goddamn heroes for batting on their behalf against the snake oil dingos.

Greg Ashman. Australia’s deadpan knight errant, and for my money one of the best bloggers writing about education in the game. Prolific, spiky and usually dead on. He’s one of my must-follows for anyone interested in the intersection between practice and theory.

Stephen Norton delivered a brilliant keynote on maths instruction, international comparisons between pedagogy, and the relative merits of enquiry versus explicit instruction. The results, it had to be said, were not in enquiry’s favour.

And Stephen Dinham. And Pam Snow, and Ben Evans…and too many others to mention. A huge thanks to Helen Pike and ACE for making the whole trip possible, to Brighton Grammar School for giving until it hurt, and to all the speakers who gave their time so freely. Kindness and generosity frequently makes the miraculous possible.

Good classroom management isn’t violence- A behaviour panel at the Wellington Festival of Education

I took part in a fascinating panel for the Wellington Festival of Education last week. Myself, Laura McInerney, Maria Arpa and Katherine Birbalsingh were quizzed about behaviour in schools (watch it here). Within about two minutes lines were drawn and it was game on.

Of course any attempt to reduce anything as complex as human behaviour to a coin toss of possible answers risks bleeding it dry of the complexity that makes it a conundrum rather than a pop quiz. Do what you’re told, or do what you want? Compliance or defiance? Autonomy or lobotomy? A lot of debate about behaviour barrels around these poles like flies around a lampshade. They make better headlines than strategy.

Never mind the hyperbole

The first question was ‘Is there a behaviour crisis?’ I would say it’s not obvious because the word is problematic. Crisis implies an emerging situation under so much pressure it cannot bear much more before it collapses or explodes. I think the behaviour problem is real, deep and tragic precisely because it isn’t that; in fact, it’s endured for decades and can continue to do so, gasping and grasping from the sick bed. McInerney mentioned Alasdair Campbell, who only considered it a crisis if the military had to be called in. (Perhaps we should be more worried by the Troops to Teachers program than we think?)

Katherine Birbalsingh, who can normally be counted on to barnstorm like Elijah, was as mild-mannered as someone with Xanax in their Special K. Turns out she was just stretching out like a Sumo. She broke into a jog when asked what the main behaviour problem was. “It’s not just TA’s being assaulted’ she said. ‘It’s the low-level disruption, You see them on the buses, and we’ve just come to accept the behaviour. ‘

‘Children push,’ she said. ‘We push back.’ And I could hear her angry fan club on social media set their blog-phasers to ‘gnash’.

Maria Arpa said she thought children shouldn’t be expected to be just behave. They had to want to behave. This is certainly a laudable ambition. The obvious bogeyman to contrast this with is compliance, that pantomime villain of behaviour management. Compliance connotes so negatively, doesn’t it? Coercion, oppression, subjugation. It’s an egregious word the instant it tumbles from your lips.

The appliance of compliance

But I think we can reform it a little. For me, compliance is the first step in a ladder that takes children to extraordinary heights of habit way beyond mere slavish adherence to convention and into the realms of independently reasoned decisions. But before we can get there we need children, on those first rungs of maturity, wisdom and social awareness, to comply with moral rules, set for their benefit and the mutual benefit of all. I don’t discuss with a three-year-old whether or not to hit a peer while there’s any chance of it happening. No; at first, I forbid and prohibit, and explain why elsewhere. These combinations of prohibitions and admonitions become a set of habits, which become character. If these guidelines are good and useful, the child acquires useful and good habits of character, which are portable, and live on in them long after the teachable moments.

In fact, not to do this, and not to expect compliance, is a disservice to the child and an abdication of the precious duty we have to raise our children with every advantage possible. Sure, it sounds great in theory that we could reason our every ethical dilemma with children every time, but this misses two key issues. a) We only partially reason rationally. Much of what we consider to be our wise judgement, is an emotional response. And b) It just isn’t practical. What if they simply disagree with us? What if, after all our lovely discussion, children simply want to pursue their own self-interest? This is called the Free Rider problem, and is the reason why, even though it might seem in everyone’s interests to be good, so many people aren’t. If you were perfectly rational you might conclude that the wisest course would be for everyone else to be moral, and for you to be wily and wicked, and exploit the poor saps.

And this is why reason and patience alone will not make us moral. At some point, we simply need to instruct children to be so, and expect it, and alongside all the lovely conversations about kind hands and how do you think Tariq felt when you did that, there has to be oceans of you just can’t and because I said so.

Michaela School, yesterday

Arpa said she wanted to get rid of behaviour management from teacher training, and half-jokingly I suggested that her wish had already been granted. Some providers do a great job, but there are still too many ITT platforms that de-emphasise behaviour management, or teach queer platitudes that are at best useless and at worst harmful: things like ‘try to make them laugh,’ or ‘There’s no such thing as bad behaviour, just a badly planned lesson,’ or one of my favourites, ‘Every behaviour is a communication,’ which might be true, but often what’s being communicated is ‘I fancy a bit of fun at someone else’s expense.’ It’s something I’m working to change, with the work we did as part of the ITT review into behaviour management training.

Do it- or I’ll tell you to do it again

I agree that discussion is a more lovely way to encourage social behaviour than enforcement. But the simple, stark and stone-cold truth is that it isn’t an efficient way to run a community beyond two or three people. We all have very different ideas about right and wrong; we dispute every term imaginable, from justice to equality to good manners. If we left it to individuals to work out what each meant every time we needed to think about it, life would be a series of struggles that would consume our every instant.

Cultures thrive on shared understandings of what is meant by good conduct. Watch children howl as you apply one rule for one person but not for another. You simply can’t get students to all agree what the right thing to do is, even if you negotiate with them. For a start, some children will simply disagree about the rules of conduct, or lateness, or homework, if you let them co-create it. And every time you defer the responsibility of decision to a pupil you undermine the authority of the teacher to regulate and monitor the culture of the classroom. And that means you can’t keep them safe. It means you can’t provide what they need the most; a calm space where they know they are valued, free from bullying and interference, and free to learn and flourish.

Because what are consequences if not a way to show students that their actions matter? That they are not invisible? That someone cares about what they do? Some decry sanctions. Arpa calls them ‘Violence.’ My eyeballs almost spun in their sockets and my face made a very serviceable OMG GIF. This could not be further from the truth. She, and many who share her view, believe that systems based on rules and consequences breed violence; endorse violence; multiply violence. I think this stretches the concept of violence so far it snaps like a banjo string. If rules have no consequences attached to their infraction, then even the simplest of children realises quickly there is no rule at all.

Consequences are like the alarm bell that stops you reversing into a bollard on your car; an uncomfortable reminder that a poor choice is being made. There are many other reactions one can have to good or bad behaviour- sanctions and rewards are only two arrows in a quiver that quivers with possibility, from conversations, to meetings to education to interventions. But they are an essential- not optional- part of how we mould and help sculpt young adults into better versions of themselves.

I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe

Arpa is a sincere, intelligent and deeply caring person, committed to the well-being of children and adults. But these ideas are part of the reason why we have such intemperate and inconsistent behaviour in schools today. We train teachers not nearly enough in effective ways to anticipate and resolve challenge at a structural level. We offer no guaranteed training to school leaders who want guidance in creating effective school cultures. And far, far too much of the advice on offer where it does exist, is of this variety: that rules are oppressive, that children will thrive if only we granted them more and more autonomy.

Neither are complex enough to be true rather than merely pretty and pious platitudes. Children desperately need us; they need adult guidance. That requires us to be adults; to admit our responsibilities and take them seriously. Far too often we are advised in these matters by well-meaning people who have never had to deal with the reality of thirty, not a few children, in a teaching rather than a therapeutic context.

Teach the children you have, not the ones you want

There was a sensible question at the end. Could you run a society on principles of restorative justice? And of course, the answer is no. No society ever has. You simply can’t expect large communities to self-regulate through reasoned discussion. It would be lovely, but it’s a utopian fantasy. And the sad reality of utopias is that when they go wrong, it’s never the wealthy who suffer most, but the people it was intended to emancipate. Its why we have prisons and police rather than enormous voucher reward schemes for M&S.


Rules optimise justice and stability. Broken rules need to be mended and reinforced. People are imperfect. We can strive for a more perfect community, but not on a cloud of enthusiastic but impractical fantasy. In every teacher movie, broken urchins are healed by the love of a teacher who never gave up on them. That’s true, but if we don’t also teach them how to behave, then all we’re doing is hugging them into poverty.

Known unknowns: what I discovered in Stockholm

I was the worst kind of tourist today: an ignorant one. I was in Stockholm to host researchED Haninge and chew bubblegum, and I was all out of bubblegum. But unlike our ancestors, for whom international travel was an arduous pilgrimage, we skip across borders like children. Even so, normally on any visit you’d guide-book up; I knew zip. So when I found a few hours free on Sunday to poke around the city before I flew back I found myself a stranger in a strange land, a wise fool.
It was frustrating to pad around the beautiful Old Town, ignorant of every brick and cobble, every institute and palace and promenade. I bumped into the Royal Palace like I’d fallen from the Moon, and watched soldiers march up and down, uncomprehendingly. Of course, I wasn’t a tabula rasa; I could piece together some of what I was saw: I knew a little Swedish history, a bit of ABBA, how to build a Billy bookcase, all the Larsson novels, Pippi Longstockings.  So I wandered around,  uncomprehending, dislocated from my circumstances by ignorance. Knowledge was the lack; misunderstanding the effect. No amount of puzzling it out by myself would make up for the it. The facts were not buried in me, waiting to be winkled out. I could no more have discovered what was what than I could have played written a book with no letters.
I could have found out; I could have quizzed everyone I met. I could have asked the shop assistants, and waitresses, and policeman what I was looking at, and built up a picture that way. But a) I would have no idea if I had discovered the most important things to know and b) I would miss my plane and possibly starve to death. But half an hour with a guide book would have opened it up like a treasure chest. I saw a billboard advert that said, ‘For the travellers who go by instinct, not by must-dos.’ I understand that. There is a special pleasure in wandering, driven by chance and circumstance and luck. There are Stockholms and Parises and Tenochtitlans wild and hidden and mysterious, waiting to be found. But imagine if you did that and missed the Louvre? Imagine if you went to Venice and wandered past St Mark’s Square?
I know nothing
Wild learning, self guided, unpredictable and new, has many things to recommend it; surprise, novelty, personal investment. Everyone who likes to be a traveller rather than a tourist would prefer to say they had discovered their Tuscany, their Tromso. But doing do requires that you already have a hundred pegs on which to hang the new, unprocessed data: I know a little Polish history, so I can reverse engineer some of Swedish history from their wars; I live in a constitutional monarchy/ parliamentary democracy so I know that I’m not in immediate danger of being press-ganged into the King’s militia without a warrant from John Company. I’ve seen enough charming ancient labyrinths to know a tourist duck shoot when I see one. Knowledge begets knowledge. To those that hath, shall be given. I missed almost everything, and how different it could have been. Stockholm, I apologise for walking through you as witless as Pinocchio was inside a whale’s bowels.
Visit Auschwitz to see a contrast. Oświęcim locals will remind you: it’s not a Polishconcentration camp; it was a German camp, hence the retention of the Germanic form. And it’s not a camp; it’s a museum, a memorial. Visitors are required to take the tour, and lean on headphones to unpack the horror. It’s easy to understand why. Without background, Auschwitz is rubble and grass and cattle sheds and mean, meaningless brick one-storey terraces. With explanation, it burns and hums with history and Hell and horror: the spot where Maximilian Kobe was martyred and murdered; walking though the gas chambers and trembling; shaking with sorrow at the bogs where the ashes of thousands were buried. What is a room full of spectacles but an odd jumble of garbage until someone points out their savage provenance? Rags, hair, suitcases are detritus until each one has a line drawn to a lost soul.


You could find out for yourself. You could. You could- and should- talk to people there, ponder a little, work out why an oven needed to be so inordinately large in a prison camp. Or you could be told by an expert, and then do that anyway, broadening your understanding, imbedding that understanding with personal experience, and fixing it in your comprehension with depth and gravity.
Why not just tell them?
Discovery is a fine thing; a necessary thing. some say it is the natural power of the human mind. It is the intuitive, animal legacy of our apprehension and it is a wonderful thing. But it was designed to construct knowledge of a world at a very human level: how not to tumble over, when to shield one’s eyes from the sun, how far an apple will travel if thrown just so. But Newton spoke truly when he said he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants; propositional claims (‘Stockholm is in Sweden’; ‘Carl XVI Gustaf is King’) can be imparted in the time it takes to say it. In this way we not only stand on giants’ shoulders, we rapidly form a pyramid of giants and humans, and see for miles.
When we teach students, there may well be times we want them to figure out the world for themselves. But when we do, we should ask, ‘Why not….just tell them? What is to be gained by the game?’ If we can’t answer this, then we have a duty to inform, clearly, and with as much an impression as we can make.
The unexamined life is famously not worth living. But the informed life is worth much more.

Raving about #rEDWash

Written by @polymathish

Aside from not having a minute to spare during this hectic week to record my thoughts on my amazing experiences at #rEDWash, I needed some time to reflect on the brilliant sessions I attended. The researchED series of events is, bar none, the best PD I’ve ever attended. The ideas presented are challenging, relevant, and useful. The entire day is jam-packed, and I still didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see. That’s the rub of Tom Bennett’s curating expertise – the diversity of topics and the powerhouse line-up of speakers inevitably demands that difficult choices be made. On a positive note, I got to socialize with almost everyone, thanks to the inviting and inclusive community created by Tom Bennett and Eric Kalenze, both at the official conference and beyond the main event.

After making some of those inevitably difficult choices, I came away with a stellar day. It began with a keynote presentation from Dylan Wiliam, the authoritative voice on formative assessment and assessment for learning. His focus here was on the delicate balance we must maintain between research and practice and on the important considerations we must take into account when applying research findings to classroom teaching. Wiliam provided astute analogies and sage advice. My favourite bit of food for thought was his assertion that “everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” Always mindful of the dangers of falling victim to confirmation bias, this is something I’ll try to remember throughout my career.

The first session I attended was David Didau’s Poor Proxies for Learning. Not only is Didau able to persuasively challenge often unquestioned positions, he is a most entertaining and engaging speaker. It’s obvious he was a master in the classroom and I almost feel badly for the students who don’t have the privilege of taking his classes now that he’s moved into another sphere, but their loss is my gain! I’m not sure Didau is even aware that attendees of his sessions take as much away from WHAT he says as HOW he says it.

Next, I was treated to Tom Bennett’s Running a Room presentation. As a fairly experienced teacher, much of what he said was not new to me, but only because, like Bennett himself, I had to figure classroom management out largely on my own. This was Bennett’s thesis: teacher-training programs need to more consciously and deliberately prepare their charges for typical situations in the classroom that can, for the most part, be anticipated. Thankfully, he’s started an online course where his wisdom is available to all.

After lunch, I got to see Eric Kalenze in action. His book, Education is Upside-Down, was one of the first policy-reform books I read in my independent research journey, and it blew my mind. Like Didau and Bennett, Kalenze’s presentation was as engaging as it was informative. A master of metaphor, he cautions us against over-correction in education policy and reminds us that we should be skeptical of initiatives that simply re-package old, failed ideas. Best of all, he provided a must-read list of hard-found resources for those getting started on their paths of questioning the established orthodoxy.

Next, I attended Robert Pondiscio’s Why Knowledge Matters, where we were given a primer in thinking about designing a curriculum based on core knowledge. A gifted orator with a wealth of knowledge, Pondiscio’s presentation came the day before I toured D.C., and I thought of his point about President Obama’s inauguration speech as he looked toward the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I wasn’t prepared for an emotional response, and I thank Pondiscio for providing a bit of a framework for the power of knowledge surrounding that bit of history.

I then attended Dr. Robert Craigen’s presentation on Project Follow-Through, still the most comprehensive longitudinal study on the efficacy of various teaching methods. Despite some technical difficulties, Dr. Craigen is so well-versed in this important study, he was able to communicate its relevance in a methodical manner. It always upsets me when I see how many people have never even heard of of PFT, a study whose results should have informed education policy, rather than having been suppressed from teacher-training institutions and ignored by the education establishment.

Another expected treat was Benjamin Riley’s The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Riley is the founder of Deans for Impact, a research-based organization that endeavours to bring evidence-informed theories to teacher training and practice. One of my main take-aways from this dynamic presentation was Riley’s tempered approach to effecting change, a particularly timely bit of wisdom given the international trend toward polarization and fragmentation. I look forward to the upcoming Deans for Impact report on initial teacher-training.

You’d think that by the end of the day, I’d be completely bagged, but I was as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I could be when the day closed with Paul Bennett’s presentation on Special Education. This Bennett, no relation to Tom, is Canadian, and his talk was actually focused on a relevant issue in the context of my own backyard. Bennett reinforced the idea that class size, while always a concern for classroom teachers, is not necessarily as pressing an issue as class composition. In Canada, a country that has largely adopted an inclusive model of education in most provinces, the challenge is how we can address a diverse learning environment in which we have students who struggle with speaking the language, those who require specific interventions based on medical diagnoses, and others with behavioural issues that go beyond any training the average teacher will have received. Bennett is an expert in this area, among others, and his findings have been largely ignored as provinces like Alberta keep pushing forward with this failed model that has been of questionable benefit to anyone. Incidentally, as a teacher in Alberta, my U.S. and U.K. counterparts were stunned to learn how much contact time I have with students as part of my mandated schedule. While my union, which also doubles as a professional association, has worked hard to ensure that we’re well-paid, this issue of class composition and prep time has largely been ignored.

My four days in D.C. also included a couple of great evenings with people I didn’t get to see present, like @bethgg, @BryanPenfound, and @thebandb. After #rEDYork, I also gained the confidence to approach people and introduce myself, which allowed me to meet @doctorwhy, @DrSmithRIC, and @DrGaryJones. I met so many other delegates from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada with whom I shared ideas and from whom I learned so much. As well, I saw the iconic sites of this great city and enhanced my own personal experience of the world. I look forward to the next time I can participate in a researchED event, and I hope to one day be able to have a hand in bringing these great ideas and people to Alberta – we really need this here.

P.S. Many thanks to David Didau, who got me 100 Twitter followers in less than 24 hours with his joke-tweet. That’s the power of greatness, I guess!


This post has been republished by permission from “Of Possible Worlds.” View the original here.

#rEDmatsci A Student’s Journey Through Learning: How Can Cognitive Psychologists Help?

By: Yana Weinstein

Last week, I gave a talk at researchED Math & Science at Oxford University. I have never been to a conference where the attendees seemed so genuinely excited! The place was buzzing as we prepared for the opening speech.

For those who couldn’t make it – or those who would like to look back at the slides – here they are, with a brief summary of the talk.

Part 1

  • Science Communication (aka: how Twitter changed my life)

Here, I talked about how overnight a silly idea turned into a huge science communication project. To read more about this, please see our story on the APA graduate student blog.

Part 2

  • How can (and can’t) cognitive psychologists help education?

In this part, I wanted to be upfront and honest about the limitations of cognitive psychology, so that we can focus on the ways in which we really can help education, rather than making false claims.

  • Two myths about cognitive psychology

In the popular press, the term “cognitive psychologist” is often used interchangeably with “neuroscientist”. These are not the same discipline! I explained this myth, and also the false notion that cognitive psychologists always use meaningless materials and never leave the lab.

Part 3

  • The big 2: retrieval practice and spacing

Here I explained the principles of retrieval practice and spacing, focusing on how they can help long-term learning. However, I also included a caveat slide showing a study in which neither technique helped learning! Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that even the best learning strategies will always yield significantly better results.

  • FAQs about the big 2

Next, I addressed three questions with data from recent studies conducted by our team. Each question is described further in a linked blog post:

  1. Which quiz format should be used for retrieval practice?
  2. When in a lesson should retrieval practice occur?
  3. Should students answer practice questions, or make up their own?
  • How can teachers help?

I ended the talk by discussing whether students know good strategies by the time they get to college/university (they don’t). What can we do to change this? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

This article first appeared here:
Photo credit: Yana Weinstein

researchED Melbourne: High hopes for research down under

Tom Bennett explores what the recent EEF findings mean for teachers and research- and offers a researchED perspective

The irony.

So, I’m in the taxi on my way to researchED Melbourne, an event we’ve been planning almost since last year’s researchED Sydney in 2015. Jet-lag and host jitters are making stormy seas out of my groggy Pom cortex, but my mood, like my fives and my drama, is high. Like a junkie I rock out my phone, because six quid a megabyte still isn’t enough to deter an addict and never will be.

‘Teachers do not have time to learn about research evidence, studies find,’ says an article online. Edugeek Twitter has already found it. ‘Depressing reading,’ says one. And on the surface it is. The EEF funded two pilot programs (Research into Practice and Ashford Teaching Alliance Research Champion programme) to look at the ways schools can engage with research, and what impact it has. The findings were actually pretty predictable (but no less important for that- good research is designed to challenge what we think is intuitively true): research champions (get with it daddio, all the schools too cool for themselves are calling them research leads these days) can help cascade research into schools, but find it harder to make the jump into the classroom; teachers need time to engage properly with research in schools; senior staff are important brokers for these cultures; properly done, teachers can start to see the benefits of research, and attitudes towards research can change. I couldn’t disagree with any of that. The headline was more gloomy than the research, I think.

James Richardson’s commentary seems to bear this out. A chief analyst at the EEF, he notes that:

It would seem that structured and bespoke support for teachers, focusing on specific actions for implementation and in-class support is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for making sure research has an impact. Importantly, the independent evaluations noted that the engagement of senior leaders in Research into Practice was critical to its success; they noted that time constraints affected teachers’ ability to commit to the Research Champion model.


It’s important to note that the two studies are pilots; feasibility studies for further investigation, not conclusive research projects:

Pilot programmes are designed to test the promise of an idea and the feasibility of trialing it on a larger scale. Their reports have no effect sizes or security padlocks so we don’t expect to draw robust conclusions by evaluating them. But this can make their findings and messages difficult to communicate.

So these studies are an interesting and useful commentary; the devil, as always for educators, is to  stop pretending every piece of research is either the definitive last word on a subject, or worthless. Since starting researchED I’ve found that this has become one of the most difficult hurdles. I call it the Magic Mirror; once a piece of research is released from the slab in the lab, it turns into a monster. By the time it reaches the practitioner it often barely resembles the subtle, nuanced think piece it started as. Ask Dylan Wiliam. What happened to his sensible research into formative assessment is the reason he’s now bald.

The Irony and the RCT

And the irony is that with researchED we’ve seen an extraordinary appetite for research engagement that is unparalleled in my time as a teacher, and I suspect at any time before that. Our national conferences, with anything up to 1000 people on the day, sell out long before the curtain rises. We’ve just had to close ticket sales on researchED Oxford Maths and Science, and researchED York for the same reason. Most of our events in the UK sell every ticket, and some have waiting lists for months. Melbourne had hundreds of educators and teachers, as did Amsterdam, Sweden, New York….It might be that some teachers aren’t engaging with research, but clearly, many others are.

The elephant in the classroom will always be workload, and for most teachers, research engagement is a distant goal after many matters more practical. That’s no surprise. In an average teaching day my capacity to brush up on Johnson and Johnson or cognitive load is also pretty minimal. Which brings me to five baseline observations that I’ve made:

  • Most teachers don’t have time to engage substantively with research
  • Many teachers can’t see the point (and I don’t blame them; my own unfamiliarity initially led me to sceptical rejection of all research as pointless)
  • A lot of educational research isn’t actually aimed at teachers
  • Most teachers are unfamiliar with the language of research, or how to assess research
  • Research, like everything else, is frequently used as a political cudgel; ‘do this because the research says.’ Teachers often mistrust it, but lack the language to critically interpret it.

Which leads me to seven further observations derived from my work with researchED:

  • Some teachers are very interested in research; and many researchers are very interested in talking to them about what they do
  • Putting these groups together is very easy to do because they are essentially an online dating match
  • These groups may be in the minority of their communities, but they are vocal, digitally literate and energetic, which gives them a disproportionately loud voice in public forums
  • When we survey attendees, they routinely score their ‘takeaway’ very highly for utility, and similarly their intentions to use this takeaway are also high (this is self-reported, and impact isn’t assessed, so there’s nothing hard about this evidence, but it’s interestingly consistent)
  • From the relationships and conversations I develop through the researchED communities, my experience is that research literacy in these super adopters is increasing, and that they cascade it back into their schools. The higher the formal position of the super adopter, the greater the whole-school impact.
  • Attendances are increasing at our events, and we’re running more and more to cope with demand
  • I notice that the research conversations at our events are becoming more mature, as many adopters are also early adopters and have developed complex relationships with research and research generators.

This relationship can’t be forced. You can’t make someone a research champion or lead; you can’t force a school to be research engaged if they don’t have time, inclination or a baseline of understanding of what research represents. researchED people are often outliers, mavericks, freaks and geeks, prophets, hermits, punk rockers, agitators, reactionaries, uber-trads and neo-progs. They are the coolest nerds I have ever known.

So what do we do now?

Happily I have another list for you:

  • Teachers need to be formally and critically exposed to research earlier, preferably in ITT (which was one of the recommendations of the Carter report) so that they have a basic grounding about what research means, where they can access it, how to appreciate it, and how to critically assess it. That way the language is imbedded intheir whole careers
  • Schools should pay some attention to being research aware, by advertising the post of research lead, funding and securing protected time for it. As the EEF pilot suggests, it’s important that teachers are shown ways that it can be relevant to their classrooms. If it remains an abstract, it will never change anything.
  • Teachers who are interested in pursuing it further should be supported in doing so: allowing them to attend research conferences, or hosting their own; forming journal clubs; continuing professional development focussed on clear professional needs; forming partnerships with existing research institutions, or taking part in large scale research with existing projects.
  • If teaching is ever to be seen as a true profession, it needs to be more engaged with evidence and less terrified of having its cherished assumptions challenged.

Teaching is a profession heavily reliant on craft, or practical wisdom. But like everything it can be augmented by evidence, and that evidence can take many forms; RCTs, case studies, literature reviews and so on. These all have their strengths and their weaknesses, and there is nothing to be feared from understanding this. The intersectional soil where craft and evidence meet is where the flower of professionalism will bloom. I’m so proud of my colleagues in teaching, and colleagues in other educational communities for what together we’ve been able to achieve through researchED; and with zero capital, and no profit. We’ve done it with no money at all, breaking even as we roller coaster along. People who cared about education made it happen because they wanted it to happen. We’re fuelled by ambition, hope, and a handful of either fairy dust or pocket sand.

I reckon the headlines will start to get better. I have no evidence for that, but plenty of faith in teachers.

– Tom Bennett

This post first appeared here: 

Northern Lights: researchED Scandinavia lands in Sweden

Tom Bennett writes from the land of long boats, snow and Lisbeth Salander about the latest international researchEd conference


Centuries ago, Vikings rattled coastal Britain with battle-axes and hammers; it’s only fair that we get to do the same, only this time with lanyards. The researchED longship beached in Gothenburg this weekend for our latest invasion by invitation. It nearly didn’t/couldn’t happen, because I’ve been so busy this year with other gigs and a behaviour role that suddenly had gas put in its tank. But Sara Hjelm, who is a divine avatar of ambition, patience and dedication, persuaded me that it could happen – it was her moxie and labour that made the day possible. I should never have doubted her, although I suspect I doubted my capacity more than hers. ResearchED only works because we have the fortune to partner up with so much talent and energy; every project is a marriage for love, and the conference is a child that shares the DNA of both parents. This one had a long blonde beard, pigtails, and spoke with a Scottish accent. Kids!

It was a beautiful blend of the usual researchED ingredients: volunteers, funding-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, donated time, collaboration and altruism. Speakers consisted of academics, teachers, leaders, policy makers, researchers, this time deliberately aimed at the Scandinavian continuum. The talent was predominately local, a Nordic Olympiad of epic heroes like Marion Stenneke, Per Kornhall, Jesper Boeson, Tine Proitz and so on. But we snuck a few Anglos in our Trojan Monkey, like Philippa Cordingley, Lucy Crehan and David Didau, and hoped no one would notice. Legends of Swedish hospitality were confirmed by the fact that they allowed the whole day to be held in English; I look forward to the day when we can hold a Swedish conference in Whitechapel.

Normally my day at each researchED sees me lashed to the mast of necessity, running around with a toilet plunger, a bag of programmes and a smartphone; for events abroad I allow myself the selfish indulgence of actually seeing a few sessions, otherwise when else will I see them? Sara had organised the students and staff volunteers at the Burgardens utbildningscentrum so thoroughly that the biggest problem I had to deal with was filling a session gap when a speaker couldn’t make it; Kevin Bartle, super-head, who had come as a member of the audience, probably regretted it later when he found himself preparing an emergency session with one hour’s notice. He was just one of the many Super Troopers who blinded me that day.

Sweden has an interesting system: the system is practically 100 per cent state schooling, with a voucher twist. This policy has meant that while private education (as the UK knows it) is almost non existent, free-school chains have sprung up, eg IES, and, more controversially, these chains are allowed to make profit. It’s a system that divides many in Swedish education, and I heard a couple of excellent speakers like Per Kornhall speak powerfully on the issue. Sweden’s recent fall down the PISA High Score Table was mentioned a lot, and there is clearly a lot of concern about this.


Internationalism was a common theme, and I chaired an excellent panel with Harry Fletcher Wood, Pedro Bruyckere and Lucy Crehan on the validity of international comparisons, tourism and PISA. All were excellent. Some of my takeaways from that session:

  • PISA and similar have utility, but the data sets are often misinterpreted for political ambitions.
  • Some claim that the OECD promotes a neoliberal Hydra-like conspiracy to transform the world’s education into an international and competitive market place; but actually the conclusions that PISA more than often draws are that collaboration between schools (rather than competition), trust, low stakes accountability and teacher autonomy are the features of the best performing school systems. Of course there are many challenges we could make to the validity of the data that informs these conclusions, but it’s an odd tension between reputation and reality.
  • Sweden and Finland’s great successes in the league table, which have now wobbled and tottered, were probably not the result of near-recent structural innovations, given that they had already been reliably and stably successful for years prior to their introduction.
  • This fascinates me: edu-tourism is a dangerous and seductive game. Pedro described how everyone looked at the new Polish literacy as a miracle, but everyone had ignored the fact that when testing had been introduced to Poland that discerned this, it had been done into a system that had previously had almost no testing. So the baseline improved massively over a few years as increased test familiarity bore the low fruit of success. The Poles’ score went from poor to average, fast, and plateaued. Maybe simple barometers of success need a little more contextual scrutiny before we all start booking package flights to Krakow.

The laconic Jesper Boeson spoke about teachers with PhDs, explaining why Sweden had provoked so many; some of the reasons were quite recent, and sprung from structural reforms to teacher training. In the past, as HE rapidly expanded, all the teachers with PhDs had been sucked into that system never to return; it took decades of incentives and change to build it back up. I’d love to see clearer pathways from teaching into academia and back again, as one strand of professional development that doesn’t necessitate a mono planar rise from classroom to senior staff, so I hoovered this up. And when they invent a time turner, or add five hours to the 24 hour day cycle, I’ll do a PhD.

Per Kornhall, I mentioned, glowered and raged about the damage ascribed to vouchers; I swear if a voucher had walked in he would have strangled it on the spot. He was cutting about the current Scandinavian model, and another speaker mentioned that ‘even in right wing Norway we wouldn’t emulate the Swedish model’ Meanwhile I was still trying to process just what right wing meant in liberal and lovely Norway. Per was fascinating and compelling.

Lastly I saw Joakim Landahl, who outlined the history of international comparisons, based on work he is currently doing. This was one of my highlights; the context fascinates me. It’s desperately important for us to recognise the impact that PISA now has on national systems, for good or ill (and I’ll suggest that an unelected organisation which routinely pronounces what success and failure even means, needs more checks and balances than it currently endures. Until then, maybe we just have to do it for ourselves), and to understand: just how did this structure emerge?

Joakim Landahl’s outline ‘From Paris to Pisa’:

The first inter-nation education comparisons were, oddly enough, in the pavilions of the International Exhibitions, 1851-1904, where nations of the world showed off the best of their engineering, scientific and cultural achievements, including education. Imagine an Epcot World Pavilion of teaching. No league tables, just rooms full of exhibits of penmanship, book keeping, blackboards and tidy classrooms; demonstrations of the Hamburg versus the Stockholm method of drawing instruction (and frankly if someone doesn’t bring this back immediately I don’t know what we’re in this game for). The Paris World Fair of 1901 even featured a purpose-built mansion called- wait for it- the Palace of Education where this was displayed. Now there’s a Xanadu for some billionaire edu-Ozymandias to emulate. We should start work immediately.

There was no attempt to compare between nations, no scoring; just national breast beating. Unlike today of course. Actually, today it’s more like an international competition to see who can pee highest up the wall, followed by years of painful and embarrassing analysis of each other’s equipment.

Characteristics of the World’s Fair as an educational Comparison:

  1. Focus on teaching methods
  2. Predominance of the aesthetic (drawing, gymnastics, architecture)
  3. No set rules; different games competing against one another
  4. In the words of Hobsbawm it was ‘capitalism celebrating itself,’ as Landahl described it.

Then: Sputnik. Suddenly the race for space internationalised competition in a new and politically urgent way (at least for the Grand Fromages- can you imagine how unbothered Joe Public was by all of this until someone told him or her that this really, really mattered above all else, above social security and housing and all that rubbish?). Suddenly, politicians and civil servants and generals became experts in what it was that children needed to learn. Again, how unlike today. Quote of the day was this:

‘The trouble is that we are turning out annually from our institutions of higher education perhaps fewer than half as many scientists and engineers as we did seven years ago. The greatest enemy of all mankind, Communists, are turning out twice or possibly three times as many was we do.’ (Herbert Hoover, 1957)

And if that sounds familiar then you’ve probably watched that awful piece of witless futurism, Shift Happens, with its funereal warnings that China will destroy us and India will Kabbadi freely around us.

‘People who didn’t use to show any interest in schooling, such as satellite research admirals and nuclear physicists…have suddenly made themselves chief justices when it comes to assess what the American school ‘produces.’(Torsten Husen, professor of education, 1959)

Suddenly nations were comparing each other like models back stage at Fashion Week. Arthur Trace wrote ‘What Ivan knows that Johnny doesn’t’ in 1961. Interest was heightened in science and mathematics. If it could put monkeys in orbit or bullets in a sand bag, it was interesting. Gymnastics and penmanship suffered terribly in this brave new world. Me, I worry that the International Penmanship Race is being lost and no one is doing anything about it. You’ll be sorry.

Them the rise of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (the IEA) in 1958. This involved statistical surveys to ‘explore the factors that effect educational achievement in different countries.’ It didn’t mean to be, but the media, and politicians, fell upon it and soon it was being called the “Knowledge Olympics”. Data by itself is neutral; what we choose to do with it is not. Players gotta play, fish gotta swim, and people looking for a race will find one whatever you do. But as Landahl pointed out,

‘Surveys were made in many different subjects (civics, literate, mathematics, science, english as a foreign language, geography….surveys were conducted irregularly (16 years between the first and the second maths study. The analysis was slow. The IEA claimed to be rather uninterested in competitive logic: ‘education is not a horse race.’’

Meanwhile in the real world GIDDEY UP HORSEY HYAH! Snouts were deep in nosebags and riders fingered their crops. The scientists could go stuff themselves, we were getting popcorn. In 1972 the Guardian wrote that ‘for British education reformers the Swedish school system is like a Christmas Tree loaded with presents- it has so many reforms it is difficult to know where to begin.’ In 1973 the IEA released the results from their six subject survey. Sweden performed like Usain Bolt. The race was on.

The IEA still exists, but Landahl pointed out that its impact is now fairly minimal- a skinny 178 followers on Twitter (the universal benchmark of merit and influence) confirmed that.There are porn-bots tweeting in Esperanto that draw more heat than that. Contrast that with OECD education, with a more imperial 62.6K, mostly anxious head teachers, journalists and masochists. In 2000 we saw the PISA winner’s table published. If it had ever not been about national pride, it was now. The rest, as they say, is hysteria. I can’t wait to read more about this from Landahl, who gave me my biggest takeaway from the day, on a day laden with takeaways, or like presents on a Swedish Christmas tree maybe.


The North, remembered

That was my day; everyone had theirs, and that’s the beauty. You build the day that most inspires you, and you talk to people about what you saw. And you share that with other people. That’s the beauty of collaboration in education, and that’s why working with researchED has been the biggest honour and pleasure of my life. I can’t wait for researchEd to come back next year, and anyone who wants to help us make that happen, get in touch. Maybe Norway, land of the Trolls, all tweeting furiously from under bridges? Stockholm? Copenhagen? Svalbard? You tell me.

Next stop: Melbourne.


  • Harry Fletcher Wood has barely seen any television beyond 1977. I teased him with the identity of JR’s killer all day long.
  • Lucy Crehan’s book Cleverlands cannot come quickly enough
  • Sweden is so child-friendly it makes the UK look like the Child Catcher. Every foyer in every hotel has a children’s play area. It’s almost as if they value children or something.
  • Cabin culture is a big deal here: they weekend in winter or summer cabins, which involves getting away into the wild with friends and family and actually talking to one another. If only any aspect of this could catch on in the UK.
  • The hotel room has a recycling bin
  • Scandinavians are so civil they make Canadians look like pirates.
  • “Glocalism” is a horrible word, however useful it is


This article first appeared here: