Does he look happy?

Today I got to rub shoulders with the great and the good at Bethnal Green Academy (second most improved school in the land, dontcha know?) for the Teach First sponsored launch of Ben Goldacre‘s thoughts on Building Evidence into Education.

I somehow found myself on a guest list that included Michael Gove, Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF and sundry academics and educational big wigs. Fortunately there were also a few familiar faces: I was joined by fellow rent-a-gob Tom Bennett who is an old hand at these sorts of affairs and handled himself with considerable savoir faire and aplomb, as well as the ever elegant and debonaire David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust.

Gove opened proceedings by announcing that the best policy is formulated and developed by practitioners, and added that the views of politicians are a poor second to the practical experience of teachers. I was slightly startled, as this belief has remained cunningly concealed for the entirety of his tenure to date. I look forward to being consulted and having my views respected in the near future.

He quickly handed over to the impish and chaotically be-coifed Ben Goldacre who acknowledged the difficulty of teachers being told what to do by outsiders. Evidence in education is actually about “empowering teachers, and setting a profession free from governments, ministers and civil servants”. It would be “bizarre”, Goldacre told us, for the Department of Health to tell doctors which treatments to use and it should be seen as equally odd that The DfE routinely instructs teachers on how to teach. (Mr Gove nodded vigorously at this so presumably he intends to stop doing it.) He set out his stall by stating that teachers should undertake randomised trials as a regular part of their professional practice and that the results of these trials should be widely disseminated to teachers. This would, he suggested, lead to teachers being more thoughtful, critical consumers of educational research and would enable them to generate new ideas for future research.

But what of the accusation that running randomised trials is unethical? If you believe a particular course of action is the best one, is it fair to deny it some students? Medicine and social science are littered with examples of treatments or initiatives which practitioners have been convinced were right only to find that, after reluctantly engaging in ramdomised clinical trials, that they were actually causing more harm than good. The point is that how will we ever know whether our pet pedagogical theory actually has the impact we think it has unless we submit it to fair testing? It’s all well and good to cry that what works is what works, but how do we know? Yes, your exam results might be good, but might they be even better if you stopped whatever it was you so passionately believed in?

Perhaps a more meaningful criticism of epidemiology in education is Ben’s belief that medicine and education are essentially comparable. They’re not. Although patients and students, doctors and teachers might share some superficial similarities there are many more differences. You can reproduce the effects of a drug in controlled conditions and therefore be fairly certain it’s having an effect. You can’t do the same with a pedagogical intervention: teacher quality, student motivation, time of day, a fly in the room, someone farting can all cause wildly unpredictable,  unreproduceable results. Not only that, we have the Hawthorne Effect: a point raised by both Tom Bennett and a student in the audience. If we conduct trials on students we will affect their behaviour just because they know we’re conducting the trial. This being the case, what can RCTs really tell us? And if they tell us something that defies common sense, what then?

Ben told us the RCTs ought to be made straightforward to run and increasingly commonplace; it should be the norm for teachers to be conducting fair tests on new ideas. The problem is that, currently, there’s nowhere for geeky teachers to go to register their willingness to take part in such trials. What’s needed is perhaps a network which connects teachers together so that they can participate in large studies with the view to being able to design their own methodologically robust research questions. Now, where on earth could we find such a network? Whilst it might require slightly more than just a teachergeek hashtag, it wouldn’t require much more. All it would need would be for universities and research institutions to commit to it and we’d be away.

Ben ended with a call to arms, stating that teaching was poised on a “precipice” and that teachers needed to claim their professional independence. Cue more acquiescent nodding from Mr Gove.

Now, this is all fine and dandy, but I a few issues with Ben’s proposals. Firstly, although there is widespread acceptance of the view that the best way to improve schools is to improve the quality of teachers, there is also a well worn and very public discourse that teachers are not knowledgeable enough to be trustworthy. And the problem with that, is that it’s true. I’m somewhat of a rarity in that I spend so much time and effort reading about education research and reflecting so publicly on my practice. Yeah, of course loads of other people read edu-books and blog (many of them much better than I do) but we’re in a tiny minority. I’m constantly shocked about how little many teachers know about teaching.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve become used to enacting top down policy and being rewarded for compliance. How many heads would be happy for their staff to run randomised trials on their school’s behaviour policy? What would happen if something went wrong? And, more crucially, what would happen if you found it was causing more harm than good? Would this finding be welcomed? Currently, being seen as ‘challenging’ is not a good thing. We know that, unless we want our cards marked, we’re supposed to keep our heads down and do what we’re told.

Kevan Collins suggested that we need more professional autonomy and that teachers and school leaders need to act like professionals if they want to be treated like professionals. I agree. But this isn’t going to happen by itself. One audience member made the point that policy makers should run randomised trials on new policy areas before rolling them out across the whole country. This seemed to make perfect sense and be the kind of clear lead an Education Secretary should espouse. I was dumbfounded by the, apparently, apolitical Goldacre say in response that we can hardly expect policy makers to run randomised trials unless we, as teachers, embed the culture in our profession from the ground up.

What Ben fails to understand is the lamentable state of much of the guff that gets touted about in the name of CPD. There is no quality control. Still, in 2013, there are teachers being trained in Brain Gym, learning styles, multiple intelligences and all sorts of other ineffective atrocities. If we really want a future where teachers claim their professional status and commit to being critical and reflective (and I do) then, unfortunately, we need some top down policies imposed to make it happen.

For all the perceived faults with the NPQH, getting rid of the requirement for heads to pass some kind of qualification is a most retrograde step. All school leaders, especially those responsible in any way for the training and professional development of other teachers must be required to complete some sort of professional qualification in education theory and research methods. What goes on in ITT is haphazard at best and then, for the most part, teachers are left to their own devices and abandoned to the tender mercies of ignorant school leaders. Sure, they’re well intentioned, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with!

I’d had high hopes that I’d leave invigorated and clear on how I could set about restructuring my own practice with deep roots in evidence and research. I ended up none the wiser. At the close we were told that everyone obviously agreed with Ben’s ideas, and given absolutely no way forward. We all clapped politely and filtered out in dribs and drabs. The consensus I gleaned from conversations with fellow delegates was that it all sounds lovely but utterly impractical.

So, there it is: a warm. fuzzy, pie-in-the-sky idea which, without clear leadership, will be mere sound and fury, signifying ab-sol-utely nothing! I very much hope all Michael Gove’s nodding translates into meaningful action. But I don’t expect all that much. Obviously, I will continue developing my own professional practice and will attempt to run my own small scale RCTs (I have an idea for a short term trial looking at teaching strategies in the lead up to Year 10 mock exams after Easter), but will anyone else join in?

Judgement: requires improvement

Here’s a pdf of Ben’s paper: see what you think. Am I being harsh?

And here’s an alternative view on the same event: Evidenced Based Practice: why number-crunching tells only part of the story by @drbeckyallen