The light is winning

WHY RESEARCH IS (SLOWLY) TRANSFORMING TEACHING. TOM BENNETT’S THOUGHTS ON researchED’S SUCCESSES AND CHALLENGES SO FAR

At the recent researchED in Haninge, Sweden, researchED magazine’s editor Tom Bennett closed the conference with a speech that tried to understand where we had got to in evidence-informed education, and what the landscape now looked like. This is a transcript of that speech.

The sleep of reason produces monsters – at least it does in education, where we see teaching full of myths, snake oil 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 the following: 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 what I call ‘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 and 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 become a battle of prejudices – Pokémon 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 14 countries, 5 continents, and seen 17,000 unique visitors to our events. researchED has 30,000 followers on Twitter (not counting the local accounts), and we have been graced with 1000 speakers (none of whom are paid). We pay no salaries (least of all to myself) and entirely self-fund each event. 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 of 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:

Evidence in the wild

Bad research – the ‘not even wrong’ categories like learning styles – isn’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 gets mangled into 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 oversimplify.

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 Impact1 to the Learning Scientists2 to the Five from Five3 programme 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 ex-UK premier 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 ministers of every party to our party.

Schools

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 were a magic lamp. And I sometimes wonder if raising budgets isn’t by itself insufficient, because the most important thing is to be judicious in spending the money we have.

Teachers

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 subtler than we suspect. We frequently 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 always remember that context is king. Otherwise we perpetuate dogma and become that which we seek to surpass.

The gatekeepers

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 if 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. This 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. 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 begin to drive this voluntary professional development, and then that cascades back into schools and starts conversations which set off sparks in classrooms – ones that catch fire and burn down dogma. And also that initial teacher training increasingly

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. And for that to eventually bleed 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 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 transcript was first published on Tom’s blog, The Behaviour Guru.

REFERENCES

  1. www.deansforimpact.org/resources/the-science-of-learning/
  2. www.learningscientists.org
  3. www.fivefromfive.org.au