Can evidence-based pedagogy raise levels of achievement?

16 March 2014
Local Schools Network
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Last weekend, I spoke on a panel for the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT), talking about whether “evidence-based pedagogy” will lead to a re-birth of the teaching profession. I argued that it could. The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) now are examining what really works in the classroom based on significant evidence. This approach, to me, is in marked contrast to many other educational initiatives that have been imposed upon the profession.Furthermore, the approach of the EEF is not the “top-down” approach of many educational initiatives of previous years. If you look at their “Teacher Toolkit”, you’ll see that they show you quite clearly what pedagogical approaches enable students to progress most rapidly: you can see at a glance how many months of progress on average a particular approach adds to one’s teaching. Then you can click on the link, and download brief and detailed summaries of the approach. I’ve used this tool-kit to improve my teaching: I was particularly drawn to the approaches that significantly add value such as “Meta-cognition and self-regulation” and “Feedback“. The tool kit summaries are quick and easy to read while the detailed reports on the pedagogical approaches offer suggestions for implementing the strategy in one’s classroom. I have found the approach of the website tremendously empowering: it is not overly prescriptive, but lays out quite clearly why certain teaching strategies really work, and shows you the pitfalls of implementing a particular approach, as well as positive things to do to boost the quality of your teaching. The approach invites teachers to make up their own minds, to discuss the evidence with colleagues, to experiment with particular strategies in the classroom, and to reflect seriously upon their practice. It is similar in a certain way to what happens in the medical profession, but I would say that there is a more open-minded sensibility at play here; there’s an awareness that teaching is not medicine, but may share some similarities. For me, it is about shifting the focus of teaching as being a means of social control to being an emancipatory activity that enables students and teachers to enjoy a measure of intellectual freedom. It is very different from the “top down” approach one saw with the National Literacy Strategies which told teachers what to do, but provided very little evidence as to WHY and HOW it worked. The strategies were implemented in a fashion which did not allow teachers freedom to innovate, to apply the pedagogical approach in an individualistic fashion. I can remember sitting through training days over ten years ago where I was subjected to a barrage of PowerPoints telling me how to implement the Literacy objectives: the DfE trainers were so insistent that this was the right way to do things that there was no room for argument or discussion. It was quickly stamped upon. Over ten years later, we are languishing in the ruins of the strategy — billions spent and wasted — and literacy standards not significantly better. The research on the strategies indicate that they didn’t work because they didn’t give teachers ownership of the pedagogy or curriculum content. The approach of EEF is the opposite: it is all about showing teachers what works and inviting them to experiment in their own unique contexts.

At the SCETT meeting, Professor Dennis Hayes was very critical of evidence-based pedagogy, levelling at it many of the criticisms I would have accused the Strategies of, but I feel are not relevant to “evidence-based pedagogy”: teachers were being duped into following worthless research and not trusting their own judgements. Dr Jonathan Sharples, Senior Researcher at the Education Endowment Foundation and author of Evidence for the Frontline, was given the hardest time by the audience, who were largely sympathetic to Hayes’ views, being accused among other things of issuing dictats to teachers. I disagreed with them and argued that the EEF wants to open up a dialogue within the profession about what really works. There was much carping about some academic educational research, which was condemned by Hayes as being Marxist, ill-informed and worthless. Having read quite a bit of academic research, I would agree that too much of it seems to have little practical use. However, there is a growing body of work, much of which is highlighted clearly on the EEF website, which is genuinely useful for teachers; it does though need to be “translated” into “teacher speak” so that busy professionals can quickly absorb it. This is what the EEF is doing — and I applaud them for doing it. This is the way forward for raising standards in my view: we need to get every teacher reflecting deeply and seriously upon their practice, thinking hard about what is motivating children, what is helping children to learn, and what is not. We need to get this dialogue happening in every staffroom and school meeting in the country, instead of having teachers bogged down with mindless bureaucracy. You can find a podcast of the event here.


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  1. Interesting that Professor Dennis Hayes is so opposed to evidence-based teaching and seems to have used ‘straw man’ and ‘ad hominem’ type arguments.
    This fits with what Thomas Kuhn describes in his ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962). He describes that, when there is a fundamental change in the underlying thought-processes (triggered by new evidence) it is the top professionals who are most hostile.
    It is this sort of paradigm shift we are now seeing in education. I find that effective primary school teachers are the most supportive of EBT (it chimes with what they already know) while staff at university education departments ( and some teacher-training colleges) are the most hostile.

    from Mike Bell
  2. Yes, Mike, it’s interesting to see the resistance in some quarters, particularly from so-called experts. And yes, I think this collation of the research that you, Petty and the EEF have done is creating a paradigm shift in the profession because we realise that it actually works!! It means teachers take ownership of pedagogy, instead of having it imposed upon them. For me, it is an EXPLICIT endorsement of what I’ve suspected for a long time, but never seen so clearly “pulled together” as EEF and you at the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network have done.

    from francisgilbert

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