Dr. Chris Brown, Institute of Education.
In this article Chris Brown reports on the Haverstock primary to secondary transition project. Designed to improve the experience of transition to secondary school for vulnerable pupils in Camden (London), the project uses Lesson Study to help primary and secondary practitioners work together to develop effective cross-phase pedagogical approaches to teaching English/literacy and science.
Connecting research to practice is notoriously problematic. Much has been written, for example, regarding whether the ‘evidence-informed’ movement serves to work against practitioners’ professional judgment (e.g. see Biesta, 2007; Brown, 2014). Likewise, there exists issues in relation to how formal academic knowledge and professional or tacit knowledge might be effectively combined (Stoll, 2009; Brown, 2013). Furthermore are the still very active and virulent disputes surrounding some of the methods commonly associated with enhancing evidence use (e.g. randomized control trials and the process of systematic review – see Maclure, 2005; Nutley et al., 2007; Brown, 2013). A further aspect of note centers on how practitioners’ capacity to engage with academic research might be enhanced (e.g. Hargreaves, 1996; Cooper et al., 2009). This issue is also intertwined with the notion that much academic research is inaccessible to teachers, both in terms of where it is published and the language that is typically used within such publications (Hillage et al., 1998; Tooley and Darby, 1998).
The idea of Design Based Research (DBR) (sometimes referred to as Design-Based Implementation Research) has been positioned as one way to overcome many of these issues (Penuel et al., 2011; Coburn et al., 2013), with Vanderlinde and van Braak (2010) explicitly suggesting that DBR approaches should be used to close the research practice gap. Described by Anderson and Shattuck (2012: 16) as an approach “designed by and for educators that seeks to increase the impact, transfer, and translation of education research into improved practice”; DBR in addition “stresses the need for theory building and the development of design principles that guide, inform and improve both practice and research in educational contexts” (ibid). Anderson and Shattuck (2012: pp.16-17) go on to suggest a number of important definitional Design Based Research attributes:
That DBR must be situated in a real educational context;
DBR should focus on the design and testing of a significant intervention;
It will involve iterative refinement of that intervention to improve its operation and builds on/iron out past mistakes;
DBR must involve a collaborative partnership between researchers and practitioners; and
The process of DBR leads to the development of design principles reflecting the conditions within which the intervention operates.
Coburn et al., (2013) suggest that DBR may be differentiated from other approaches that seek to connect research to practice because: 1) with DBR, the distinction between the roles of practitioners and researchers is blurred (i.e. practitioners and researchers are mutually responsible for developing theory and embedding solutions); and 2) collaboration occurs in real time throughout the project rather than concentrated at the beginning (scoping) and end (debrief). DBR thus represents a shift from the traditional perspective of research and practice being two distinct activities, with the former being able to unambiguously influence the latter (Vanderlinde and van Braak, 2010), and towards the simultaneous build and study of solutions. As Coburn et al., (2013: 8) suggest: “[DBR has] two goals of equal importance… develop materials and instructional approaches that can be implemented in classrooms, schools and districts. At the same time… to advance research and theory”.
Lesson Study has been described as a ‘teaching improvement process’ that has origins in Japanese elementary education, where it is a widely used professional development practice (Dudley, 2014). As a process, Lesson Study involves teachers collaborating, normally in groups of three, to progress cycles of iterative practice development. Such cycles typically involve the following steps: 1) a discussion of student learning goals and the identification of a teaching strategy that might meet these; 2) planning an actual classroom lesson (called a ‘research lesson’) that employs this strategy; 3) observing how the lesson works in practice; and 4) discussing and embedding revisions to enable improvement. In the Japanese model, teachers also report on and often hold public demonstrations of the lesson so that other teachers can benefit from their learning (Dudley, 2014). In addition three pupils, who represent wider groups of interest, will be observed and their progress monitored as case studies of the impact of the approach (ibid). In itself, Lesson Study can be considered a form of Joint Practice Development (JPD), a process described by Fielding et al., (2005) as involving developing ways of working through collaborative engagement that, as a result, opens up and shares practices with others. And whilst Lesson Study does have a number of distinctive characteristics, its underpinning mechanism, as with other JPD approaches, involves a process that is truly mutual, rather than one-way, with the practice concerned being improved rather than simply moved from one person or place to another.
THE CAMDEN PARTNERSHIP FOR EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE
The Camden Partnership for Educational Excellence (CPEE) was set up in April 2012 with the vision to make the London Borough of Camden “the best borough for education”. The CPEE aims to drive forward the recommendations of the Camden Education Commission (an independent commission jointly established by Camden schools and Camden Council to take a long term perspective regarding strengthening education in the borough), which highlighted key issues and opportunities for Camden schools in the light of the changes to the English education landscape. In 2013, the CPEE Board invited schools, colleges, partners and stakeholders to bid for funds from a £2 million pot set up to support innovative ways of working and projects to raise achievement and attainment. In particular, to find ways of improving outcomes for the most vulnerable groups of students. A key requirement of the CPEE’s bid call was that school improvement projects should be based on the Lesson Study approach. This followed the appointment to Camden Local Authority/the CPEE Board of a staunch Lesson Study advocate who had been involved in the process for a number of years both in the UK and abroad (see Dudley, 2014).
THE HAVERSTOCK PRIMARY TO SECONDARY TRANSITION PROJECT
A key finding from the Camden Education Commission’s final report was that, particularly for vulnerable students “transition arrangements [within Camden] at present are not consistently good enough” (2011: 5); correspondingly it argued improving these should be a central focus of improvement efforts moving forward. In particular, it suggested that there should be a better understanding between year 6 and 7 teachers (teachers of students aged 11-12) of the pedagogy and practice of teaching and learning in each other’s institutions, which would both assist them in preparing students for success and in supporting students to flourish in their new environments (2011: 36). In response to the report and the invitation by CPEE board for organizations to bid for funding for projects, colleagues from Haverstock school (Camden) and the Institute of Education, University of London teamed up to develop a project that might serve to address some of the commission’s concerns in relation to transition.
Our first step was to undertake a review of the international literature on the issue of primary to secondary transition, enabling us to situate our proposal within a suitable theory of learning (Penuel et al., 2011) As a result, the review enabled us to centre our proposed bid to CPEE around the following three notions:
That transitions are at their strongest when: “the social, emotional, curricular and pedagogical aspects of learning are managed in order to enable pupils to remain engaged with, and have control of, their learning” (DCSF, 2008: 5; also see McGee et al., 2004; Evangelou et al., 2008).
That whilst a myriad of initiatives have been undertaken to tackle the social and emotional aspects of learning (especially for more vulnerable pupils: e.g. see Shepherd and Roker, 2005), Galton et al., (1999: 6) argue that: “there are still problems at transfer with curriculum continuity”; and that
Such continuity serves, however, to maintain pupils’ interest in learning, allows them to progress in their learning, and so helps them avoid the internationally observed learning hiatus that seems to accompany transition (McGee et al., 2004; Evangelou et al., 2008).
As a result, the Haverstock Primary/Secondary Transitions project was conceived with the purpose of bringing together primary and secondary teachers from the London Borough of Camden in order that they might employ Lesson Study to develop effective cross phase pedagogical approaches/strategies to teaching English/literacy and Science to support the transition of year 5 to year 8 students: in other words to provide hitherto lacking consistency/continuity in the way students across the phases were taught these two subjects. In particular, the project focused on two vulnerable groups: i.e. those students most at risk in terms of their progress post transition. Within this project we consider ‘vulnerable’ as contingent on pupils ability to make a successful academic, social and emotional transition from Year 6 to Year 7. Our scope thus includes pupils entitled to Free School Meals (FSM); “and pupils from some ethnic groups (which ones depending on the particular subject being assessed)” (Galton et al., 1999: 22; Tree, 2011): in this case, white British students (closing the gap for White working class students is a high priority both within Camden Local Authority and within the English context. For example the Camden Partnership of Educational Excellence highlighted this group as being the cohort with the most underachievement overall). We also sought to include more able pupils not fulfilling their potential.
Jointly directed by colleagues from Haverstock school and the Institute of Education, the specific aims of the project were to improve student and teacher outcomes in relation to:
Improved rates of progress and attainment for ‘vulnerable’ pupils within each of years 3-8 (ages 8 through to 13).
More robust, challenging and innovative but also consistent pedagogic practice at National Curriculum level 1-8 in English and science (levels represent how pupils progress in relation to England’s National Curriculum) and assessment practices through years 5, 6, 7, & 8 (ages 10 through to 13).
Shared teacher confidence using these practices as well as in planning work and moderation of leveling in their subject in English and science from levels 1 to 8 in order to assess progress.
A group of teachers able to use Lesson Study approaches to improve classroom practice and impact on standards, thus building transferable capacity.
The project main phase (which commenced in September 2014) comprises a pilot and main phase, with the latter involving 18 schools engaged in:
Nine Lesson Study sessions throughout the course of the academic year.
A workshop to examine both interim impact and to look at cross-phase approaches to assessment/moderation.
A workshop to examine both interim impact and cross-phase approaches to data transfer.
Participating schools were also brought together to design final resources for the project with the aim that resources can be used by schools within the borough and more widely.
A knowledge mobilisation and end of project workshop.
A DBR APPROACH TO LESSON STUDY
Primary and secondary schools have their own particular ways of working and these are not especially well suited to fostering cross phase collaboration. For instance, primary teachers will teach all subjects to one cohort of pupils for an entire year. In contrast, secondary school teachers will specialise by subject area and so will teach that one subject to a number of different classes. In addition, using Lesson Study is a new phenomenon in English schools and using Lesson Study in a cross phase way (to tackle issues of transition) rarer still. Baring in mind the particular ways of working of each phase and that neither the researchers or practitioners involved in the project had engaged in Lesson Study activity before, it was decided that a pilot phase of five months with a small group of schools be run in order that researchers and practitioners could collaborate in trialling the approach and ascertaining how it might be made fit for practice: in other words to enable a Designed Based Research approach to the development and implementation of a Lesson Study approaches. That is, in keeping with Anderson and Shattuck (2012) we (i.e. participating teachers from these schools, the Assistant Head project lead from Haverstock school, and researchers and facilitators from the Institute of Education) sought, as a collaborative partnership, to design, test and refine cross-phase Lesson Study in a real educational context, with a view to establishing a basis for its future roll out.
DEVELOPING A THEORY OF ACTION FOR LESSON STUDY
A key aspect of this approach was the establishment of a theory of action for Lesson Study: in other words, to determine which aspects of Lesson Study were an integral part of a logical chain leading to improved student outcomes and which were more open to contextual manipulation (Argyris and Schön, 1996; Cherney and Head, 2011). A mutually developed theory of action has been shown to have significantly positive impacts on the effectiveness of interventions they relate to (Lemons et al., 2014) and so is a vital aspect of DBR. As noted above it is argued that, as a form of Joint Practice Development, Lesson Study involves collaborative engagement that serves to open up and share practices. As such, the development of our theory of action for Lesson Study centred on how adults can learn from and build upon the best practice of their peers through interaction. This led us to the constructivist mode of learning which posits the idea that, in instances of effective learning, new understanding is not simply digested but engaged with as part of a social process of adoption, accommodation and assimilation (Black and Wiliam, 2001; James et al., 2007). This means that new information will be filtered through past experience, knowledge and understanding; implying that the process of new learning must start via the exploration of existing ideas as well as the encouragement of those who holding them to express and defend them. As a result, these ideas can be surfaced and made explicit, the importance of which is illustrated by James et al., who suggest that: “unless learners make their thinking explicit to others, and so to themselves, they cannot become aware of the need for conceptual modification” (2007: 17). The social constructivist approach further augments the constructivist notion of learning by emphasizing the interactive element of learning: i.e. the idea that learning proceeds via interaction within a social milieu.
In order to facilitate this learning, we turned to the literature on Professional Learning Communities. Whilst there is no universal definition of a Professional Learning Community (PLC), they are usually depicted as a situation in which people involved with and concerned about teaching and learning, work collaboratively to learn about how they can improve pupil learning or outcomes (Stoll, 2008; Harris and Jones, 2012). In particular we looked at the nature and structure of the ‘learning conversations’ that take place as part of PLC activity. Described as “deep, sustained conversations among teachers about matters of teaching and learning” (Stoll and Louis, 2007: 79) and “the way that educators make meaning together and jointly come up with new insights and knowledge that lead to intentional change to enhance their practice and student learning” (Stoll, 2012: 6), learning conversations comprise considered thoughtful (rather than superficial) discussion and challenge, focused on matters of teaching practice, that consider evidence of actual and potential forms of practice and that are undertaken with a view to developing both improved practice (i.e. new solutions to issues) and, as a result, outcomes for students. Moving deeper into this area, Stoll (2012: pp. 6-11) suggests that the following are features characteristic of high quality learning conversations between adults:
Focus on evidence and/or ideas. Learning conversations are focused, with the specific focus reflecting one of two important perspectives. First, the conversation’s focus can centre on existing and effective practice within the school/network. Second reflects ideas about innovation and transformation where, for example, the conversation explores creative ways to engage learners and extend learning. Because second focus will require elements of the first, many conversations weave these two perspectives together.
Experience and external knowledge/theory. Access to outside expertise deepens learning conversations. Whether delivered personally, through writing, or via other media, independent ideas are injected to stimulate reflection, challenge the status quo and extend thinking. Such ideas can help promote greater depth in conversations.
Protocols and tools. Learning conversations can often be framed more clearly when supported by frameworks and guidelines that help participants structure their dialogue and interrogate evidence or ideas.
Facilitation. Facilitation isn’t the same as external expertise. It can come from inside or outside the group, but it’s needed to elicit and support intellectual exchange, as well as maintaining open dialogue and, sometimes, injecting new energy into the conversation. Skilful facilitation can often lead to a productive balance of comfort and challenge.
OPERATIONALIZING LESSON STUDY
These four elements, plus the four steps outlined above) thus formed the basis for how we initially thought to structure and operationalize Lesson Study activity. As a result it was decided by the project team that the pilot phase should commence with a one day facilitated workshop in which practitioners held data informed discussions about the key issues their vulnerable students faced in relation to Engish/literacy and Science. Before the workshop the Assistant Head project lead from Haverstock school, and researchers and facilitators from the Institute of Education spent a day developing protocols and tools to facilitate learning conversations and planning activity within the workshop (based on approaches used by Stoll: e.g. see Stoll and Brown, forthcoming). Using these, participants worked through a series of activities designed to help them decide upon one focus area (a topic being taught that encapsulated the issue) and to also think about a common approach to teaching the topic in relation to the issue that triads could adopt, implement and iteratively improve. Following this, participants were asked to identify three students within each school that represent the focus (vulnerable) students and to then collaboratively plan the first research lesson that would be taught/observed.
In keeping with the notion that it is expertise with respect to a given intervention that enables practitioners to tailor interventions to their specific situation, and that the development of expertise involves both aspects of effective learning and sustained skill refinement (practice) (see Bryk et al., 2011; Penuel et al., 2012; Lemov et al., 2013; Brown and Rogers, 2014) the pilot phase then involved three full Lesson Study days. These involved practitioners: 1) revisiting the purpose of the lesson and the focus area that it linked to; 2) being talked through each phase of the lesson and what its aims and goals were; 3) observing how the lesson worked in practice (with a focus on the case children); 4) interviewing the case children for their perspectives on the issues; 5) a facilitated discussion to evaluate the lesson (what went well and what would have made the teaching activity even better); and 6) building on what had happened (i.e. collaboratively establishing how to improve the pedagogic approach), planning for the next Lesson Study research lesson. Again, before the first Lesson Study day, the project team spent a day together collaboratively developing protocols, tools and an outline for the day to facilitate the Lesson Study process. The Lesson Study activity was also observed by the project team in order to give us an understanding of how it was being enacted.
COLLABORATIVELY REVIEWING AND IMPROVING LESSON STUDY ACTIVITY
Throughout the pilot phase, time and space was created to enable researchers and practitioners to deliberate and discuss what researchers and practitioners had learned and their experiences in relation to Lesson Study. Through this dialogic process we were able to construct common understanding and meaning with regards to both aspects of the process and in terms of the use of tools and protocols to facilitate the process. As a result were then able to understand which aspects of the approach were successful in helping participants develop their practice and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable and which appeared to provide limited value. In other words, as Gutierrez and Penuel (2014: 20) suggest: “[s]tudying the ‘social life of interventions’ [helped us] move away from imagining interventions as fixed packages of strategies with readily measurable outcomes and towards more open-ended social or socially embedded experiments that involve ongoing mutual engagement. To ensure the learning from the pilot phase, at the end of the three Lesson Study days, a one-day workshop was held so that the main phase could be collaboratively developed. Aspects here included the nature of the ‘kick-off’ event that would introduce ‘main stage’ participants to the process and the types of exercises and tools to be used as part of this event; the grouping and sequencing of Lesson Study days throughout the year (bearing in mind the distinct ways of working that each phase of schooling has); the nature (running order) of each Lesson Study day; the nature of the tools and protocols to be employed as part of each main phase Lesson Study session; and how impact should be conceived of and measured (see below).
What was also viewed as important by both participants and the project team, however, was that, as we scaled the project up from pilot to main phase, the dialogic process that enabled us to understand and iteratively improve the operation of Lesson Study could continue at scale. Perhaps one of the main issues of the DBR approach as currently conceived is that it is very researcher intensive: in other words that it requires researchers working intensively with small numbers of practitioners. The failure of evidence to make a widespread and sustained impact on the practices of teachers is an international phenomenon however (Bryk et al., 2011; Taylor, 2013) and, despite considerable activity, the development of system-wide processes for the effective connecting and applying of research and professional knowledge remain underdeveloped (Gough et al., 2011). An imperative then must be to find ways of examining how DBR approaches can impact on maximal numbers of teachers.To overcome this, practitioners and researcher jointly agreed on the need for distributed ownership: if DBR at scale is an unmanageable task for researchers alone, then researchers cannot be the only actors involved in creating meaning – practitioners experienced in the deliberative process should also be able to move beyond their traditional roles and engage in this way too (Coburn et al., 2013). This agreed upon approach to capacity building meant that we were able to use the original pilot group members as practitioner-researchers who could form new triads and engage with practitioners involved in the project’s main stage. This freed time for the researchers to work with other groups of ‘main stage’ practitioners and both sets of researchers could then meet periodically to consider ongoing improvements and changes that needed to be made to the Lesson Study methodology.
FINDINGS SO FAR
Interim impact data illustrates that the DBR approach to Lesson Study has been successful in enabling us to build researcher practitioner’s capacity in relation to: 1) understanding and evaluating impact; 2) cross phase collaboration; and 3) engaging in, managing and tailoring a process of cross-phase Lesson Study. Such capacity building is a direct result of the DBR approach: in other words engaging in DBR activity has enabled practitioners to develop an understanding of the theory of action underpinning Lesson Study: that is, how could we ensure the effective enactment of learning conversations so that best practice could be established and iteratively improved. Capacity building is also a vital precursor to the project’s ongoing sustainability: i.e. its propensity to self sustaining once funding ends and the research team can no longer be involved (Coburn, 2003; Gutierrez and Penuel, 2014). It is only when practitioners take ownership of an initiative that it will continue and, it is argued, feelings of ownership will flourish if practitioners have been involved in the creation and development of an initiative. It has also provided much needed scalability: with each new round of Lesson Study those involved in the previous round can now work with two new practitioners but still continue to develop and refine the approach.
In terms of the wider group of participants, impact data shows that teachers are better able to identify ways of improving practice that impacts on the outcomes of their students and receiving feedback so that their improvement efforts can develop iteratively. To ascertain impact, participants were surveyed each term and asked to consider in relation to their baseline data, their desired outcomes and Lesson Study observation and other data available to them. Specifically impact focussed on two main questions:
What difference has Lesson Study activity made to your practice? How do you know?
What difference has Lesson Study activity made in terms of pupil outcomes? How do you know?
Examples of some of the responses here include:
“My pupils are able to be more specific about skills in writing. I now have a clear structure and success criteria for how they collaborate to identify successes and next steps. They can use it to apply grammar knowledge. All pupils have made at least one point progress”.
“When we have used the process developed in the lesson study, the writing has always been improved by the pupils. Also, the process has helped pupils with their communication skills, ability to describe specific aspects of writing and range of ideas used in improved writing”.
“The impact of this has been evident in lessons where I have used the improvement marking strategy that we explored as part of LS and many students in my classes have made good progress with the introduction of this technique in my practice”.
“Many pupils have displayed increased confidence when discussing and revising work. I have noticed a marked improvement in second drafts of assessments”.
“I have developed a greater awareness of strategies that can be used to enable pupils to learn scientific vocabulary”.
Results from the main phase will be available in late 2015. Watch this space.
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Vanderlinde, R. and van Braak, J. (2010) The gap between educational research and practice: views of teachers, school leaders, intermediaries and researchers, British Educational Research Journal, 36, 2, pp. 299 – 316.
Witt, M. (2011) Mathematics and transition, in Howe, A. and Richards, V (eds) Bridging the transition from primary to secondary school, (Abingdon, Routledge).
Let’s start with a basic fact. All facts are constructs. As Martin Heidegger would have put it, no construct is a description of the thing in itself. It is a proposal, a representation, an attempt at a description.
Take a supposed ‘solid fact’. Take, for instance, the fact of gravity. Gravity is a fact, surely. As eggs is eggs, everything is subject to gravity.
Well it’s certainly the case that an attractional force between objects appears to act across the detected universe, but what that force precisely is, is still not agreed. From (apocryphally) seeing apples falling on heads, Newton described this universal force in the way we all learned up to GCSE. Einstein took Newton’s model of gravity and picked holes in it, describing gravity in the way students learn it now at A Level. Meanwhile, post-docs explain to undergraduates that accept Einsteinian models are themselves only inadequate constructs. A better construct is being sought; a unifying theory of forces, still not described by Hawking and co.
Physicists accept readily that they are merely dealing in representations of reality, not reality itself. Perhaps that is why physicists, such as Fritjof Capra and David Bohm, pioneered what they call a ‘new science’, open to the non material, the ambiguous, the paradoxical, the spiritual. Mystery. They know that hard knows of real matter actually dissolve before you can touch them into states of energy and proximity.
By contrast, it is biologists (I confess, my first degree) who tend to be religiously convinced their ideas are unarguable, utterly certain and right. Think of the militant evangelicalism of Richard Dawkins, that great campaigner for the truth that the world is nothing more than nuts and bolts. His epistemological absolutism is, I suspect, a little odd to physicists who know all versions of reality are vague approximations, mental constructs designed to get us slightly closer to the things we can never actually claim, or touch, or control.
Biologists tend to miss this because their world sits somewhere between the empirical experimental machineries of the particle physicist at Cern, and the narrative writing social scientist at the RSA. Biologists dismiss physicists as dealing with forces at a level ‘unable to explain complex, emergent properties of organic life, reproduction and speciation’. At the same time, they poo poo the ‘loose, shoddy subjective non-empirical pseudo-science’ of the social scientist, such as the educational researcher.
The lot of the educational researcher
This, in fact, is the lot of the poor social scientist, of which the educational researcher is one. To be kicked in the face by the ‘hard science’ bully. And perhaps that contributes to the endless existential crisis that afflicts social science research; it certainly seems to be part of the lively energy surrounding the debate around educational research methods and validity that schools are becoming alert to.
The core problem for the educational researcher, as a social scientist, is this: How can I do valid research? He faces methodological challenges unknown to the scientist: Human beings can’t be put in test tubes. They can’t be dissected. They have wills. They have to be asked permission to take part in his project, they slip out of the constraints of the experimental designs set them. He sets up his case-study based study. Five students are absent from the recorded first lesson, skewing his data. He watches ten lessons….. (my! what a lot if observational data he now has to analyse….) yet those lessons were just 3% of three hundred taught that week. How can he generalise from that sample size? What claims can he make that would possibly be valid beyond the limits of that particular experience? Thus the educational researcher feels constantly anxious terrified his research doesn’t really count, or worse, will be counted as ‘bad research’.
Bad science or bad customers?
Some educational researchers retreat to empiricist methods. Quantitative studies are commissioned on huge sample sizes. Claims are made, but how valid are those claims to the real-life of the classroom? For example, what if one study examines 5,000 students to see if they turn right rather than left after being shown more red left signs. Yes, we now with confidence know students turn left when shown red signs. But so what? What can we extrapolate from that? How much weight can that finding bear when predicting human behaviour in complex real world situations where students make hundreds of decisions to turn left and right moment by moment? The finding is valid but is it useful?
Generalising applications from limited, circumscribed data has been a route to poor educational product development. In the rarefied abstracted confines of a lab, or campus, looking at only a few factors in millions of interacting ones, a researcher publishes a claim. Maybe it is a claim about the way the brain processes different kinds of data (just as a random example…..). The researcher states that their claim is a proposal, a construct, an artifice to describe a small phenomenon they observed. It is a way of putting that finding into language. It is not the truth.
But teachers don’t like constructs; they like tools, they like ideas that they can use, can put into practice.
This desire for practical tools creates a market for someone to translate that small, limited, prescribed, tentative claim and turn it into a tool that teachers can use…… hence:
Brain gym, learning styles, VAK, EQ, Thinking hats, mindset….
These tools are created because there is a demand from teachers for them. Teachers are in the business of doing, getting results in a classroom. They want practical things that can help them to that not tentative research constructs. So a company creates those certainties for them. Sometimes the original researcher is involved in the tool development and sometimes not. Sometimes the researcher is in despair with what the teaching profession goes on to do either their subtle qualified claims and constructs.
Neuroscience has been most susceptible to this kind of poor adoption. Sometimes the neuroscience itself has been bad science. More often, the application of the science by teachers has been bad practice. Neuroscience has that seductive appeal, the promise of unlocking the kernel of what learning actually is. But neuroscience does not and, indeed, cannot achieve that. Peering into the neural activity of thirty teenagers rampaging in science, lesson three Monday morning, is currently beyond the scope of the fMRI scanners. Teaching may draw on bits of hard neuroscience but in the end, classroom teaching is a social collective experience. Neuroscience does not adequately deal with collective cognitive affective phenomena. No, teaching is informed by studies inside the brain but it will never be fully described by them. Teaching is a live happening, a collective event.
Proper confidences of educational research
That is why the appropriate discipline to measure teaching and learning must remain social science. And teachers must be confident social scientists when they research the efficacy of their methods. They must be confident in what it can claim and accepting of the limits of their social science research.
So what are the limits and confidences of educational research?
Because studies take place in real schools and schools are particular not abstract instances of education, conclusions from educational research are always open and conclusions revisable. This applies to both quantitative but especially qualitative studies.
When teachers act as researchers into their efficacy of their own schools, they must acknowledge their own impact on the study outcome. There is a major ‘Hawthorn Effect’ when teachers lead internal school research whereby the presence of the observer, as well as the sheer fact of conducting the observations, will by themselves improve results. Hattie’s comparative ‘effect size’ model explained in Visible Learning is one way to mitigate against exaggerating results.
Because studies are done ‘in the field’ rather than in the lab, there is a good chance the findings will be relevant and useful rather than valid but useless.
Social science methodologies (case study, interview, participant survey, observation) are all valid. Quantitative methods (tests, controlled assessments) have some advantages of reliability (sample size, limitation of conflicting factors, reduction of noise) but disadvantages of applicability (how useful are the conclusions). Bigger samples are always better than smaller samples whatever method.
The researcher must know which methodological tools he is using, not claiming to be screwing a bolt when he is bashing a nail. Beware the researcher who does not know which methodology he is using, why and what evaluation of data it will enable him to do by what method.
Beware the heavy boot of higher education. In the perceived academic hierarchy of the British mind, universities look down on secondary schools, which look down on primary schools. For their own reasons (to do with funding amongst other things) universities are piling into school research right now. Their presence is welcomed, their expertise in research design and analysis is vital. However, they generally have slightly less interest in actually improving school education as opposed to measuring things designed to improve it. Teachers want to improve things; this is a noble and arguably more important goal and we need ensure the ‘doers of teaching’ retain control over the ‘measurers of education’.
Research should be as non-intrusive as possible. Ditto above, academics love hefty research design. Schools will quickly become sick of research projects if they intrude too much upon the actual functioning of the school day. Design light projects which are lean and clean.
The real opportunity of a school research project is for teachers to become leaners again. A school should adopt an agreed ‘active-learning cycle’ (e.g. Kolb, Lewin, Honey and Mumford) as the structure through which all its research activities are driven. By adopting a common format for eliciting research questions, implementing studies, applying and evaluating study data, schools will engage staff and pupils with the project’s goals, stages and benefits. Research projects will be coordinated and heuristic not random and whimsical.
Research should enrich the story. Teachers are social constructionists, telling stories that will capture the deeper participation of students. Live, ongoing research enriches that story, makes it fresh, open, edgy… I was asked recently by one school Head participating in one of our Human Ecology Education studies ‘So presumably what you expect to find is X and Y…’ My reply was ‘Not at all! I’m not assuming anything… this is why we are doing the research- to find out!.’ Research actually discovers new things which is what makes it exciting as part of a school’s life. The null hypothesis may be just as interesting and important as the one we expected to find. Heads should be sharing the current research, questions and findings, with their students all the time… it’s better than watching spirogyra bubble oxygen in test tubes.
Someone wise said ‘The unexamined life is a life not worth living’. Educational research is about finding out what works, but it is also about much more than that. It is not, in the end, about collecting more data, or obtaining more knowledge; it is about regaining wisdom, the wisdom to derive pleasure, care and pride in the crafting of education.
A score chart to plan your educational research study
At Human Ecology Education, we have designed a rough rule-of-thumb set of criteria against which experimental designs can be scored. The higher the score, the stronger the study data is likely to be. I have suggested a score above 40 is an acceptable minimum. I hope it will help school-based researchers identify aspects of a proposed study that they can strengthen, giving them confidence in their ability to do research of genuine value. Feel free to take and use it as you see fit!
About Simon P Walker
Dr Simon P Walker is a man who has done too many degrees. After teaching in the humanities, science and social sciences across several research institutions he is now Director of Research at Human Ecology Education. He is a Visiting Fellow at Bristol Graduate School of Education and his specialist field is the regulation of Cognitive Affective Social (CAS) state in students and its impact on educational outcomes.