Knowing thy impact- Is disengagement of many the price of a research engaged few?

As a fresh-faced NQT in 2003 it didn’t take long for me to hear a colleague say something along the lines of “I’m not chucking that, it might not be popular now but give it 5 years. Everything that goes out of fashion comes back later”. Fast forward to Easter 2016 and after looking at the new GCSE PE specification, I almost blurted out the same line “I’m glad I didn’t chuck those resources, this new exam spec is just like the pre 2009 one. I knew they would come in handy again”.

As you move through your teaching career, it’s easy to sometimes see education as deeply cyclical in nature. Curriculums, ideologies, polices and ‘drives’ stuck on a loop that sees them come in and out of fashion every few years in the minds of politicians, school leaders and teachers.

Becoming research engaged is an example of one of the ‘newer’ educational ideas. Just to be clear from the start, I believe 100% in this. For too long our profession has been at the mercy of external ideas/companies/money makers looking to promote (i.e sell) the next big educational tool that will increase learning and outcomes for our students.

The problem is we’re a pretty easy audience to sell an idea to, I’m yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t want their students to do better. If you tell me something is going to help and I think it might, I’m going to get on-board, especially if it has been “proven” by someone.

So in our desire to help our students, we have opened our classrooms to all manner of  educational fads. So reflecting, asking the question ‘How do we know this works?’ can’t be a bad thing. It helps our profession question and remove the “snake oil and pseudo-science” Tom Bennett (Director and founder of researchED) suggests plagues the profession.

We now have a growing number of teachers actively engaging with educational research, attending research conferences, reading published journal articles, discussing the impact of research on our teaching and as someone who is engaging myself in this movement – it’s brilliant.

But I do worry sometimes that in our attempt to become research informed we might in fact be disengaging many teachers from the process.

For many schools and teachers, the starting point for engagement with research often is the popular work of Hattie and his ‘Visible Learning’. Great, let’s all be sure to “know thy impact” of what we are doing. But hang on, it seems Hattie’s work might not be as watertight as we had been led to believe according to Dr Gary Jones.

Okay so ignoring that, let’s instead go with what we know does work; mindsets, everyone knows and understands Growth Mindsets and the drive in schools to engage with this research has been more than significant. Oh, now seems as if the research behind Dweck’s work is also being questioned (See David Didau’s: Is growth mindsets bollocks?).

So is all this reflection a bad thing? Of course not, but if we are trying to engage a whole profession we must consider the impact of our actions. If you are interested in Educational Research you will of course be interested in finding out exactly what does and doesn’t work.

But if you are research new or dare I say, research cynical, the weight of information telling us what we think doesn’t work might lead to a simple decision being made to disengage with research. Being told something that you have used is now proven to be ineffective (Learning styles is a good example), or perhaps worse, something you were recently told was proven to improve outcomes (Growth Mindsets, Visible Learning) is now being questioned isn’t helping anyone’s enthusiasm for a research engaged profession.

As a colleague recently said to me, tongue in cheek (I hope), as we were discussing the importance of our school becoming research informed “Yeah great, for the next few years, until someone else comes along and ‘proves’ what we are now doing is in fact now a load of old tosh”.

So what’s the best way forward, stop reflecting and accept what we are told?

No way, let’s reflect on what works, let’s engage in discussion but always consider the impact of these discussions on those on the peripheries of the debate. Using social media to call out fellow professionals who we now know/believe to be incorrect in their practice (Via the twitter hashtag #VAKoff for example) is not going to engage the masses and just comes across as undermining and disrespectful of fellow professionals.

Concentrating the debate on what works (The EEF toolkit for example) as opposed to spending our time stressing what doesn’t work is surely going to be more productive in the long term.

If not I worry we are at risk of repeating the very same argument my colleague presented back in 2003 “Better not throw those VAK resources away, it will be back in fashion in a few years”. Which we know really is a load of old……………