Leading with Research

Ice Micro

You’d be hard-pushed to find at least one person in every school who doesn’t describe him- or herself as a ‘research-led’ practitioner. I think you’d find it equally hard to find a school that doesn’t describe itself as being ‘research-led’ or ‘research-informed’. I am, actually, genuinely pleased about the way our profession is moving. It seems that there is a community of teachers who want to do things because they work, reading up on academic studies to identify chosen methods. However, something that concerns me is the way in which research is used and thrown about like a buzz-word, sometimes to ill-effect.

When it comes to using research to inform practice, it’s very easy to read something on Twitter, or on a blog, and just accept it as The Truth without actually reading the research yourself. It’s like a national game of Educational Chinese Whispers. Somebody goes to a conference, listens to a convincing and well-researched talk, makes notes, scribbles down a few citations, returns to his/her own classroom and changes the way s/he works. Easy. Sometimes, especially when it comes to leadership (at all levels!), the change in practice is disseminated to whole faculties or schools.

Except, if we haven’t read the research ourselves, then we’re at risk of bastardising it when it comes to applying it to our own practice. There is often – usually – a really specific set of circumstances that meant the research yielded a specific result or set of results. This isn’t just the case for quantitative studies. It’s true for every single piece of research out there. If your context is different to the context of the research then you need to read more. Read around. Look for the meta-analyses and systematic reviews. These should really be your starting point anyway, although reading the literature review in a piece of research will also work well. Christian Bokhove covers this issue perfectly here.

This is true at classroom-level, school-level and national level. Susan Godsland (@SusanGodsland) tweeted this article recently, about Finland and the way that the ‘Scandinavian Model’ is so actively promoted in the USA (and the UK too, although the article is about the States). I would urge you to read it. If you don’t have time then scan paragraphs 2, 3 and 4. It’s salient that the two cultures are so completely different, that we might as well be comparing fish with elephants, which would be a ridiculous and irrelevant comparison to make (Oh. Wait.)

It’s also important that we check our own bias. If we’re entering into research with an open question that we want answered, then the phrasing is important. Whether it’s on Google (which is probably not our friend for this purpose – more a sea of unidentifiable papers with no clear method to validate our findings) or on the CCT database, or whatever access we have to academic gateways, it’s possible to find the answer you’re looking for, almost immediately. You could prove your point within about 5 seconds if you load your question in the right way. Again – read meta-analyses and systematic reviews for balance and for larger-scale evidence of impact. It’s vital that research is used to find answers, not prove prejudice.

Ask yourself – do you know names and titles, or have you actually read the studies? This is not meant to be critical. It’s really difficult to find the time to read hefty, academic texts. I don’t do it half as much as I’d like. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t commit ourselves to changing our practice based on a Tweet or a blog when we haven’t read or understood the original. We should seek to understand alternative viewpoints and not just accept something because everyone is chucking the name around. Take Ebbinghaus and his Forgetting Curve. If you haven’t seen that in your CPD in the last few years then you’ve had your eyes shut. It’s widely misquoted, though. Ask most teachers what that Y-axis is and they’ll tell you that it’s retention. Ebbinghaus’ work does deal with retention – it’s true. However, he was measuring ‘savings’ of time. That is, if you learn something until you have it ‘by heart’, and then wait an hour, then learn it again until you have it by heart, you’ll do it much faster. You’ll make time savings. Your speed of recall will increase and thus your learning time will be reduced. The part that is fascinating – and all of this comes from @davidwees – is that the ‘retention’ remains relatively level on the graph. Time savings increase, but knowledge retention does not. Does this matter for our own practice? Probably not. We know from several studies (including Ebbinghaus) that these methods work. Would it make for a more interesting and insightful experience for the pupils and teachers if we understood the theories we’re so enthralled by? Probably – and we’d probably apply our strategies with the nuances needed for more effective outcomes too.

You can read Ebbinghaus’ original book here and here for free (first link is a scan of the book, second is typed up but I found the data easier to follow in the former).

Ice under a microscope from Google images, listed as free for non-commercial reuse.

Thanks to my friend Deep @DeepGhataura