Our research TLC closed its final session for the year with a discussion about whether we should leave research to the experts. We recognised that academic researchers have much more time and they have skills that have taken a long time to learn. There was a feeling that ‘teachers don’t know if they are doing it correctly’ and a sense that practitioner research lacked depth. However, everyone had completed a small research project during the year and one member suggested that he had got to know year 7 really well in the process. Another colleague pointed out that being involved in research in your own classroom was an aid to understanding and interpreting academic research.
In 2013, Goldacre drew attention to the potential of random control trials for improving teaching. Subsequently, the EEF and the National College both ran large scale trials where RCTs were managed by academic researchers. Goldacre suggested that some projects might be too small: that one person running a project in isolation was less valuable. However, the National College’s ‘Closing the Gap’ Project is currently encouraging (and funding) small scale RCTs in school. As a classroom teacher I have been designing my own research as part of this project.
My most recent small scale RCT looked at the impact of ‘DIRT’ when students had written feedback they could apply. It involved structuring ten one hour lessons very carefully so that two groups of students were getting ‘matched’ lessons. Undoubtedly, one of the advantages of completing an RCT is the level of reflection and planning for learning that it encourages. The research also involved designing a comparable and reasonably objective method to provide feedback on A level written work. With thirty years’ experience of teaching my subject, I learned a lot from analysing 90 pieces of written work to a standard format, not least that many answers looked superficially good but lacked thorough explanation.
For 10 hours, I taught my classes knowing that I was formally measuring the impact of my work. I’m sure the heightened awareness led to me noticing more and reflecting more on the impact I was having on individuals. The students for whom ‘DIRT’ was not working seemed suddenly more noticeable.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea that there are no ethical issues in doing RCTs in school and decided that I would fully debrief my students. They were fascinated by the process that we had gone through and keen to offer their view of ‘DIRT’ and its impact. Their feedback was far more incisive and relevant than the response I would expect from a student survey.
Having listened to my students, reflected on my observations as I taught and applied an objective measure very carefully, my feeling was that the impact of DIRT was quite variable. Some students made considerable progress after having the opportunity to apply feedback but for others the gains were less obvious. The statistical analysis matches my professional judgement – the null hypothesis has been supported. It is important however to acknowledge that, without the RCT, my professional judgement would have been considerable less informed and probably wrong because, like many teachers, I enjoy innovating in the classroom and tend to think new things are working.
It would be unethical to try to replicate the results – we can only justify RCTs in school when we expect that students will gain from the experience. However, academic research suggests student engagement with feedback improves progress so there is justification for trying to develop my approach. Having invited a colleague to observe a subsequent lesson using ‘DIRT’ and help me reflect, I read John Tomlinson’s blog on metacognition. It’s a new thing, I’m innovating and it seems to be working. David Didau perhaps would see that as enough, but past experience suggests attempting some research might be a good plan. Following from reading Gary Jones blog on ‘humble inquiry’, my colleague Christina Watson coined the term ‘humble research’ – teachers trying to minimise bias and preconception and genuinely (though perhaps not expertly) discover what is going on in their classroom. As Jones suggests, we need to look at a range of evidence to inform improving learning in our classrooms but for me ‘humble research’ will continue to be part of the mix.
Didau, D., (2015). Do all good ideas need to be researched? [blog] <http://www.learningspy.co.uk/research/should-good-ideas-be-researched/ [accessed 14th May 2015]
Goldacre, B., (2013). Building Evidence into Education <http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b/ben%20goldacre%20paper.pdf [accessed 22nd March 2015]
Jones, G., (2015). The School Research Lead – Evidence Informed Practice and Humble Inquiry [blog] < http://evidencebasededucationalleadership.blogspot.co.uk/ [accessed 17th May 2015]
Stuart, W., (2015). Leave research to the academics, John Hattie tells teachers [TES Connect] <https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/leave-research-academics-john-hattie-tells-teachers [accessed 17th May 2015]
Tomsett, J., (2015). This much I know… The Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit and the Golden Thread of evidence to student outcomes, via deliberate intervention [blog] <http://johntomsett.com/2015/02/13/this-much-i-know-about-the-golden-thread-from-evidence-to-student-outcomes/ [accessed 15th May 2015]