The problem with seductive research

I love education research. It’s my job and I also spend a lot of my spare time immersed in it. Let’s get that straight from the get go.

 I love education research.

But there’s a problem with the current fixation on education research. Yes, it is important to engage with it to avoid edu-myths, folklore pedagogy and to raise the status of the profession as well as developing efficient and effective systems and approaches. However, great research doesn’t necessarily make great teachers. Neither is it a direct correlation between the more research you read or know, the better a teacher you will be. In fact, there is actually a potential negative correlation in some respects in that if your job is predominantly solely about the research and not about actually doing the work of a teacher or school leader then you are becoming further and further removed from practising what the research is preaching and therefore pedagogical rust can creep in.

On a recent session I was leading, I likened it to Joe Wicks’ “Lean in 15” approach. His Lean in 15 cookbook is full of recipes, information and approaches about how to become healthier, fitter and to potentially lose excess weight through a combination of diet and exercise. I could read Joe Wicks’ book all day long and parrot back what he says and look at the pictures and memorise the lists of ingredients and pontificate about the importance of integrating pulses and greens into my diet and how I need to exercise regularly but it won’t make me any healthier. I could write or blog or speak about it but it won’t make me any fitter. Neither will just everyone else reading Joe Wicks’ book affect their health either. The changes only come when you get into your kitchen, assemble the ingredients, cook the greens, put on your trainers and do a few lunges regularly. The other important consideration is that I could not read Joe Wicks’ book and I could just use common sense. I could stop eating rubbish, go for a few runs and recognise that watching the TV all evening isn’t going to give me the body of an Olympian.

Before the current sharp focus on educational research there were still great teachers in the system. Great teachers doing great things and often ending up doing exactly what the current research is championing. And they didn’t need to spend hours digesting articles or debating the finer points of the phraseology around what type of questioning or feedback mechanism they were using; they just got on with it. They got on with the job of teaching, worked out what worked and what didn’t and thousands did a stirling job.

Now I appreciate that many didn’t.

Many approaches were often a waste of time; they were simply wrong or maybe inefficient and there was, as there always will be, room to improve and develop the system. But the point is that now we are somehow championing engaging with research as a panacea, as a surety that by engaging with it this will develop great teachers. After 24 years in teaching, leadership and headship across scores of schools I can tell you that research can make great teachers exceptional, good teachers stronger but it won’t necessarily make all those who are underperforming or at a stage in their career where they are in need of development improve their practice.

 It is the time old question of whether teachers are born or made. I believe that yes, some people seem to be simply born to teach. The processes and approaches outlined in research seem almost innate to them; they are able to build exceptionally positive relationships with children unconsciously and when you walk into their room there is something almost unquantifiable about their practice – it is, as Sir John Jones describes it,  “magic weaving”. And this is the same in any sphere of work or any sport or any aspect of life, some people just seem born to do it; their personalities, life experiences, knowledge and skill blend seamlessly to make them absolutely perfect for that role or that discipline or that activity.

 And we should not shy away from recognising this.

Some teachers are just unbelievably ruddy good and they’d have been stellar whether they’d read loads of research or not.

Engaging with research often then gives them even more of an edge but it wasn’t actually necessary for them to be brilliant in the first place. Everyone has worked with someone like this; you may even be in this crew yourself but it would be foolish and wrong to say that it is the research which developed these talented individuals, as many of them honed their craft long before the current focus on engaging with research.  Just off the top of my head I can think of Gill, Gilly, Claire, Mick, Matt, Di, and Riz who are all the type of teacher who makes your jaw drop when you watch them in action, day in and day out,  so seamless and effective, beautiful and brilliant is their practice.

For other teachers, research is useful to help them identify the underpinning theory behind approaches they may use. It provides a useful springboard for for conversation and development and it provides a shared metalanguage and robust foundation upon which to build effective practice.

But the research itself changes nothing.

 Reading the research changes nothing.

Talking about the research changes nothing.

Writing about the research changes nothing.

You only get lean in 15 when you get into the kitchen and start seeing how those ingredients actually work together; when you’ve got your trainers on and you’re lunging around your lounge or jogging around the block. Only then can you begin to reflect on the effectiveness of an approach. It may be that although the Lean in 15 book recommends a certain recipe, you don’t have the utensils in your kitchen necessary to action it, just as in some schools there are not the facilities or resources to action a research championed approach. You may find that lunging exacerbates an ankle injury so you need to find an alternative to the lunge.

Change only comes through action and all action following research needs to pass through the filter of realistic enactment.

It is these more subtle skills and knowledge, those of the adaptations you need to make on the fly for your context and classes which truly make or break the success of teaching and these are the ones which are never outlined in the blunt research but which are the knowledge of the skilled and experienced teacher.

These are the everyday decisions made, they’re based on a sound understanding of how classrooms actually function; how children actually respond; how to balance that lesson alongside everything else the teacher and pupils have to do that day; and the knowledge of how schools are organised and how they function. Research often takes none of these myriad contributory factors into consideration but it is this rich knowledge and careful balancing which actually decides the relative success or failure of any approach. But this cannot be outlined in any single research paper, book, document or approach. Each of those often deals with a single aspect, devoid of the rich context of the whole school or classroom setting and this is one reason why research alone will never truly improve all teachers.

Only actually being in school, actually doing the job, actually being front and centre with children, staff and communities is the only true given, the only true guarantee to truly refine anyone’s practice. It is only in the process of doing the job that any development can truly take place. Anything else is just theory. It’s just words, however beautifully crafted or intellectually seductive they are. If you want to get better at riding a bike; you need to actually be on the bike not just reading the manual.

Great teachers will always develop in classrooms with or without a sharp focus on research. Research can make good teachers better by providing focus and structure for aspects of their practice but it will not make all teachers better just by engaging with it. Neither is there a direct correlation between how much research you read or know about and how good a teacher you are. That is akin to simply standing there holding Joe Wicks’ book and then stacking up in your arms another 15 books on how to get healthy or eat well. Yes, you may know more about the theory behind health but you’re not going to get any better unless you start eating broccoli and get your trainers on for a run. 

I love educational research, I really do. I find it fascinating and immersive and powerful but I am also worried about the fixation on its worth in comparison to direct experience. The CCF, the ECF and the new NPQs’ focus on research is a great way to encourage colleagues to focus on research but it concerns me the amount of the associated courses which fixate on engagement with research over engagement with practice and practising teachers and leaders. The renewed models see colleagues hunched over screens not visiting other schools, or working in contrasting settings, or hearing real and authentic speakers deliver innovative and personalised contextualised content from a standpoint of years of direct experience not just years of library reading.  If I wanted someone to teach me how to fly a plane, I’d want the pilot to teach me, not the person who’d designed the plane itself. Yes, I need to know what each button or lever or dial does and why it’s there but I need the experienced voice to teach me how to fly. Many of the resources for the NPQs are so heavily scripted that even when an experienced leader is delivering the session, there is simply no room for them to deviate from the scripted content.

No one gets in a car for their first driving lesson and thinks that the way to learn to drive is to chat with the engineer who designed the engine and its component parts. You want your driving instructor next to you.

The design and delivery of these programmes then should therefore always be made up of those who have actually done the job associated with the course about which they are writing. It is somewhat of a scandal therefore that national courses and qualifications are often being written for school leaders by course developers who have never run a school or held a senior position for a significant period of time or across multiple settings. If a developer has never led a school or turned a school around or been a school leader during an inspection or led across multiple schools for a significant period of time then how can they devise an effective course? How can they advise other leaders about what they should be reading or how they should be working? How can they select the most appropriate research for a job they have never actually done? It is at best conjecture and at worst, utter guesswork. 

In the rush to focus so sharply on research theory we run the risk therefore of devaluing experience and practice. It is easy to engage with research too. It is easy to read books and journals and to assimilate the information from them to make them intellectually seductive but it is really hard to run a school. The experience and practice and knowledge of those in schools doing the day to day job needs championing as the twin pillar to research. Currently research is somehow eclipsing the need for developing a robust focus on the “How” not just the “what” or the “why”. We need to begin re-championing  the need for authentic, experienced voices across the sector to provide the filter and the foil for the research. We need to hold those in highest esteem who are managing to actually run their schools or trusts or classrooms most effectively – they need to be our edu-superheroes and the voices towards which we turn our attention. We need to hear from and learn from those experienced voices who have taught and led successfully for decades in multiple settings; those colleagues who have ridden the waves of fads, changing political and policy landscapes and who have, throughout, continued to actually deliver. These should be our champions. These should be the people to whom we listen, from whom we learn and who we hold in the very highest professional esteem. We can amass research swiftly but we cannot amass experience at the same rate.

Research is powerful, research is great, research is interesting, innovative and has great potential but no one turned a school around or taught consistently effective lessons from the pages of a journal or the chapter in an edu- book. Real actionable change comes from changemakers who are walking the walk and talking the talk, not just reading or writing the books. It is time to do the research around who are our experienced voices, those who are doing great things across the sector and then share the practical wisdom as widely and with as much fervour as we do that contained within published research.

It’s time to get our collective trainers on – I’ll race you.

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