I spend a significant amount of time watching Twitter; in particular teachers and educators on Twitter. I call this research although I know I am deluding myself as at best it is usually procrastination. I am beginning to notice with interest that Twitter is causing the power balance in education to be shifted slightly away from the centre with a number of grassroots initiatives that look as if they are influencing policy for example a few high profile Tweachers meeting with Ofsed and the Headteachers Roundtable .
Among the many topics currently being debated in this Twibe is evidence informed teaching practice and Random Controlled Trials (RCT). This interest has been particularly apparent over the last 18 months or so. I see the trigger being a presentation given by Ben Goldacre a doctor, academic and author of the Guardian column Bad Science and the book Bad Pharma.
Twitter is causing the power balance in education to be shifted slightly away from the centre.
This presentation was given at Bethnal Green Academy on 14th March 2013 on a TeachFirst Platform clearly endorsed by the government. In my memory Michael Gove; the Secretary for State for Education was also on the platform; unfortunately now I struggle to find reference to this. This is a heady mix of contentious figures for many in the teaching profession. An event located in a ‘new’ academy that could be seen as the brain child of Gove; Gove who is often seen as the enemy of the teaching profession. To compound this TeachFirst is an organisation that many in the teaching profession have reservations about.
As you can see he says some great things and much of which I agree with; such as the need to improve the use of evidence to inform teaching practice, the need to go beyond isolated trials and to develop a more systematic approach to this research. He suggests that this can be done by developing links between academics and teachers so that research is driven by the needs in the classroom and that teachers become more critical of research as a result of an understanding of the process. This is empowering for the teaching profession and in my opinion a shift in approach to research leading to change in teaching practice that is long overdue. Indeed this article is such a powerful narrative that we use it as a pre-interview reading task for PGCE interviewees to inform a group discussion that is part of the selection process.
Goldacre’s speech can also been seen as the trigger of a grassroots teachers movement ResearchED that has harnessed Twitter to rally teachers to pick up the banner and start this process of developing a systematic approach to research informed teaching and teachers taking an active role in the research. ResearchEd was launched through Twitter with its first face to face event in London in September 2013 at which Goldacre spoke.
This momentum has continued this year with a number of regional informal ‘unconferences’ where academics and teachers come together. In my opinion there is a long way to go but I am pleased that the first steps have been made and hope that Twitter continues to facilitate the growth of the movement and the dissemination of its products.
I would like this community to think carefully about how they will implement this research as although I celebrate this shift to involving teachers in evidence informed teaching practices I have some reservation about Goldacre’s (2013) premise that RCT are ‘the most fair test of what works in education’ he himself adds a caveat of ‘wherever they are practicable’. I am not suggesting that research and evidence should not be used to inform effective teaching practice far from it, my concern is related to how this research is undertaken. Education and learning is a messy business which Goldacre recognises and makes a case for the fact that so too is medicine. Indeed the practice of medicine is complex , however I would say the education is messier as the learning process is impacted by so many factors most are not even apparent in the classroom.
The classroom is a complex environment where learning does not take place in a vacuum.
To demonstrate this consider some simple evidence often collected in school; lateness to ‘tutor’ the first session in the morning when tutor groups congregate with their tutor prior to going to lessons. You could have a child who is repeatedly late to ‘tutor’. This is a simple piece of data that often leads to a set of procedures that are frequently related to sanctions. Intervention for lateness is important as there is evidence that poor attendance is linked to poor performance and poor life outcomes for the child. The issue is about how to intervene as there may be a number of reasons for the lateness although admittedly it is often related poor choices made by the child. It could equally be related to the child having caring responsibilities, chaotic home lives, bullying, or mental health issues. This does not even consider the impact of the teacher, other staff or the physical layout of the space all of can which impact the learning environment.
Since the classroom is a complex environment where learning does not take place in a vacuum. I would therefore argue that caution needs to be taken when using a positivistic approach such as RCTs to help to understand the process. Although I fully appreciate that there is security in the certainty of this ‘hard science’ approach there is rarely a simple yes or no answers to such complex issues. I would like to suggest that this Twibe of Tweachers and academics related to ResearchEd consider a more interpretivist approach that recognises this complexity in particular the SPARE Wheel (Burden and Nicholls 2000). This was proposed by the late Professor Bob Burden and colleagues and is based on the premise that as education is complex, pretending otherwise is disingenuous and results from a positivism approach in these situations, are problematical as they fail to recognise this complexity. SPARE Wheel can be seen as an action research model where you consider the following elements in a circular manner to continuously refine your understanding of the situation.
Thesize, nature, context and ethos of school as well as the attitudes of those involved to the proposed change.
Considering who initiated the change, why do they think that it will work and what do they hope to achieve. The commitment of those involved. The clarity of planning, the timeframe and the implementation process. The capabilities of those involved.
Monitoring of the implementation of plans. Do the teams know what is expected of them, are they appropriately prepared and trained? Is it going smoothly? If not what are the potential obstacles? If there is a comparative design how comparable are inputs and outcomes.
The reactions to the process are going to be complex and are likely to be related to the expectations and beliefs of the overall group and of specific groups or individuals. These reactions will impact on the results of the study.
Evaluation of the process rather than a perceived end product. This will feed into the ongoing process although it is recommended that a point of time needs to be identified so that informed decisions can be made about whether to continue or to alter the study.
Like many, Goldacre included, I would like to see the end of poorly designed research that is only relevant to specific groups and situations being used wholesale to inappropriately justify changes in teaching practice. The expectation is that the SPARE Wheel approach gives a better understanding of the process so that more informed decisions can be made about future use of any intervention. Hopefully this growing online and face to face movement will help with the sharing of experiences and expertise within the network to facilitate dialogues that lead to more effective research in the classroom that informs every teacher’s practice.
Burden, R.L. & Nicholls, S. L. (2000) Evaluating the process of introducing a thinking skills programme into a secondary school curriculum. Research Papers in Education 15,3, 293-306
Burden, R.L. (2008) ‘Illuminative Evaluation’. In B. Kelly, L. Woolfson and J. Boyle (eds) Frameworks for Practice in Educational Psychology.(pp 218-234). London: Jessica Kingsley.
Goldacre, B. (2013) Building evidence into education Bad Science. Available at http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b/ben%20goldacre%20paper.pdf [Accessed 13 May 2014)
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, oggin.