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rED Brum 2022: Reflections from a ResearchED Newbie

A lifetime or so ago, back in 2018, Tom Bennett came to my school to give a talk to staff. I remember it because towards the end of the session, Tom talked about ResearchED and the conference events that were held on Saturdays across the country. I remember reacting with an almost visceral ‘urgh – no way!’ There was no way I could give up an entire Saturday for something like that – the idea seemed like madness.

And then something changed.

I wasn’t aware what it was exactly that had changed. Not until I read Zoe and Mark Enser’s recent book ‘The CPD Curriculum’. In it, Zoe talks about her own shift in mindset and the all-important difference between professional learning and professional development. She talks about professional ‘development’ as something nebulous, disempowering, and ultimately dissatisfying because it is all too often dictated by external drivers and centres too much on outcomes and evidencing that development rather than feeling it. Professional learning is different. Zoe talks about how seeing herself as a learner again felt empowering, and how taking charge of her own professional learning meant that she “grew thirsty to read books and research my subject and the theories which underpinned pedagogy […] wanted to spend weekends and evenings on Twitter talking to other professionals about the work we do and to hone the practice I had been developing for years.” I recognise this, because that’s exactly what has happened to me. Taking ownership of my professional learning, and seeing myself once again as a learner, is exciting. CPL shouldn’t be something onerous, done unto us, and outside of our ownership; we shouldn’t resent the time spent on it, because that time is an investment we are making in ourselves. This is exactly how I viewed my Saturday at ResearchED Birmingham, and the mindset I was in as I entered Ark Victoria, excitedly clutching my canvas bag and programme, note-book at the ready.     

Morning Keynote: David Didau (stepping in for Christine Counsell)

Christine Counsell wasn’t able to attend to give her keynote address, so David Didau stepped in at short notice. I have to say, if that’s the talk he’s able to give at short notice, I’m keen to hear one of his full talks! David’s premise was that using the curriculum as a model of progress is actually harder than we think. The simplicity of the idea is alluring: if students are progressing through the curriculum then they are making progress. But what if they aren’t? What if assessments don’t show the students are making progress? David argued that the obvious answer to this is that the assessment is flawed, the curriculum is poorly sequenced, or the curriculum related expectations aren’t anywhere near as specific as they need to be. The more specific the curriculum related expectations, the more likely it is that we will teach them. For example, intending to teach students ‘how to write an analytical essay’ is so vague that I could easily end up congratulating myself for successfully teaching this when in reality I’m going to be receiving a wide range of essays of varying standards, some of which may be more analytical than others, in innumerable different ways, ultimately making it impossible for me to judge whether they have objectively met this curriculum related expectation. Much better to teach students ‘how to write a thesis statement beginning with a subordinating conjunction and using a list of triple/quadruple adjectives to frame the arguments they will develop’. This is so specific that it’s going to be crystal clear to me whether or not students are able to do this.    

David also made the point that responsiveness applies at a curriculum level as well as at a classroom level. We know that when checking for understanding in a lesson, the feedback we get from students defines our next move: whether to reteach, provide individual support, or move on. David extended this responsiveness to the curriculum; if our classroom practice indicates that a majority of students can’t answer correctly, this should guide us towards evaluating carefully the design of that aspect of the curriculum, or of the item’s sequencing within it. We also have the power to design assessments which perform this evaluative function; rather than all assessments focused upon discriminating and differentiating between students, we can design an assessment to evaluate the implementation of the curriculum where the goal is that all students can (and do) achieve 100%.

Golden Nugget: teach what you will assess and only assess what you have taught. Disadvantaged students aren’t able to navigate failings in our curriculum, so not teaching what you assess and not assessing what you’ve taught means that you’re disadvantaging them further.

Session 1: Doug Wise ‘From Atomic Habits to the Watchful Eyes Effect: A Research-Informed Day in the Life of an Assistant Principal’

Session 1 was quite a competitive slot, with at least 4 speakers vying for my attention (including Mary Myatt!) so I took a bit of a gamble on Doug, and I’m so glad that I did. Doug took us through a typical day in his life as an Assistant Principal. I found so much to relate to in Doug’s talk (we both oversee T&L provision, are both English teachers, and both teach Year 11 groups) and his typical day felt so familiar to my own. So when he started outlining the research evidence behind those dozen or so tugs on our time that occur throughout the day I suddenly felt personally connected to the research in a way I hadn’t before.

I always try to get to work early; I value that golden time when the site is still asleep and no one else is around. Thanks to Doug’s talk, I now know why that time is so precious to me. He cited research by Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke (2008) that found that although interrupted work is performed faster, this comes at a cost as those participants working in interrupted conditions experienced more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So although I may not be at my most efficient in those early mornings, the reason I value that uninterrupted time is that it helps me maintain a sense of balance and of calm in amongst our otherwise frantic, hectic, and interrupted work conditions.

I also already knew that being out and visible on duty and during transitions was important, but if I’m being honest there was always a tinge of ‘I-know-this-is-important-but-secretly-resent-it-because-I’m-so-busy’ to my outlook. Doug cited research by Nettle, Knott, and Bateson into the positive impact on behaviour of the ‘watching eyes effect’, and James Clear’s view in Atomic Habits on the importance of keeping up positive habits. In the same vein, Doug used research to back up the power of SLT spending time ‘on call’ in setting the social norms of behaviour for students in the classroom, shared with us the dangers of experiencing negativity bias on lunch duty and therefore the subsequent importance of sweating the small stuff, and the importance of being mindful of Rebecca Allen’s “imagined classroom” when conducting learning walks. Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly because of its familiarity, I strongly suspect that no one who attended Doug’s talk will be in danger of spending their next meeting discussing the colour of the bike shed…

Golden Nugget: Google Parkinson’s bike shed problem: a fiver says you’ll be able to think of an example of doing precisely what he warns against within the last week.

Session 2: ‘Rethinking CPD Evaluation’ – Beth Greville-Giddings

Beth’s session was FULL-ON, in the best sense of the phrase. She began by outlining what recent publications have summarised about effective CPD – in particular the EEF’s recent guidance report on the topic (which I highly recommend and can be found here). One thing that Beth said really struck me – that our beliefs and assumptions influence what we might select from an available pool of data. I think this is something that it is particularly important for us to be cognisant of as Teaching and Learning leads. There is a huge body of educational research for us to draw from, but we must ensure that our own preferences do not bias the selection of research that we choose to bring into our schools. For me, our selection should be unwaveringly focused on effectiveness; our best bets are those things which research tells us are most likely to be highly effective. 

Beth provided a really comprehensive overview of three well-established, existing models of CPD evaluation – one linear, one cyclical, and one non-sequential. I agree with Beth’s view that the non-sequential model is one of the most helpful as it takes into account many different types of professional development and many different starting points. This chimed powerfully with my own experience of professional learning and the experiences of colleagues I’ve discussed this with; our learning can be triggered by a piece of reading, a conversation with a colleague, a tip-off on Twitter: or a conference. From that experience, we move forward in different non-linear ways, pursuing our learning through action and into evaluation. This was where the rest of Beth’s talk then centred, on the inherent difficulties of engaging in any kind of meaningful evaluation of such a complex process. The CPD evaluation cycle that she had been working on, painstakingly identifying common barriers to professional learning, points where the message behind a CPD session might be filtered out by its participants, and advising us about how this knowledge can help us to overcome those barriers, provided a valuable tool for me when moving forward in my own journey of professional learning.     

Golden Nugget: meaningful professional learning isn’t going to be sequential; it’s going to be messy, but in that messiness lies its real value.

Session 3: Breaking (then making) Productive Classroom Habits’ – Mike Hobbiss

I experienced a real watershed moment during Mike’s talk. Perhaps this was influenced by listening to Mike right on the back of Beth’s earlier session when she considered the barriers to CPD being effective, but I’ve found myself coming back to the ideas Mike was talking about several times since hearing him speak.

Mike began by sharing Kraft and Papay’s 2014 research into teacher improvement asymptotes, proving that teacher improvement levels off after those initial ‘sink or swim’ training years that we all remember so fondly(!) in which we improve so drastically. The key then to improving after this point is in changing our habits. Mike’s talk explained why this is easy to say, but incredibly difficult to actually do. Habits, I learned from Mike, are particularly exasperating little creatures: ordered, structured action sequences that are automatically elicited by environmental cues. Crucially, they are insensitive to goals, rewards, and outcomes, which is what makes them so difficult to shift. Here’s the kicker: the habits that took up residence in my teaching in those first couple of years were formed out of necessity to survive the classroom. The problem is that now that I no longer need to just survive in the classroom, many of those habits have actually become maladaptive and are at odds with effective teaching, such as continuing to talk whilst the students are trying to work (one of the ‘bad habits’ Mike discovered to be most prevalent amongst teachers, and one that I know I have!)

The lightbulb moment for me in Mike’s talk was that CPD that targets knowledge alone most often fails to have any impact. And two thirds of CPD targets knowledge alone. Instead, our value is in adopting a model of instructional coaching that is individualised, intensive, sustained, context-specific, and focused, providing teachers with the opportunity to engage in deliberate practice to change their habits at a granular level.        

Golden Nugget: teachers not changing their habits has nothing to do with them not being motivated to do so. Habits live, not in the rational pre-frontal cortex, but in the motor-loops of our brains, which is what makes them outcome insensitive. To change our habits, we need the opportunity to engage in the repetition of desired behaviour in the presence of relevant environmental cues.  

Session 4: ‘It’s Never Just Talking! Valuing the Discourse’ – Sally Stanton

Sally’s talk was the last elective session of the day, before the closing keynote. She shared with us her experience of developing the curriculum within a small MAT and impressed upon us the importance of valuing the discourse about curriculum that we have with those we line manage. This is something we’ve been considering as a SLT at my school in detail recently, receiving individual coaching on managing effective line management meetings, so Sally’s advice really chimed with my own recent experiences. (For anyone interested in developing this area of their practice, Mary Myatt and John Tomsett’s book ‘Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders’ is an excellent starting point.)

Sally’s talk was full of practical advice, such as the importance of separating operational conversations from those regarding curriculum so that curriculum discussions are not sacrificed to immediate pressures and concerns. She was particularly helpful in providing advice regarding reframing information in curriculum conversations, giving examples of how a line manager might be able to reframe a discussion about Year 11 forecast data within the context of improvements to be made to a KS3 curriculum. Sally was also passionate about the importance of curriculum leaders being able to engage with debates in their subjects around the different ways it can be taught, and spoke knowledgeably about the work she is doing within her current role to facilitate

Golden Nugget: the questions that we ask signal what we value.

Closing Keynote: Daisy Christodoulou 

I love the clarity with which Daisy Christodoulou speaks about assessment. She articulates so precisely the problems that arise from using written prose statements as an assessment measure. If you haven’t read her book ‘Making Good Progress’, it’s really worth a look.

After quickly illustrating how even a seemingly uncomplex prose statement can return false impressions of students’ ability, Daisy went on to offer practical solutions. Her premise was that formative assessment can be done through multiple choice questions (MCQs or sometimes they’re called hinge questions) and whole class feedback, and summative assessment should take the form of either a standardised tests with scaled scores or comparative judgement.

I’m a huge fan of MCQs (which is sometimes considered unusual for an English teacher) and I agree with Daisy that they are a much under-utilised tool in our tool-kits as teachers. Many people dismiss MCQs as too easy, but Daisy proved they’re anything but; the key is in the design of the question, and in particular in the wrong answers, or distractors. Make the distractors plausible, or fail to tell students how many right answers there are, and you instantly up the level of challenge; make the correct answer to easy to guess, and you drop that level. Daisy proved this by asking a room of 700 teachers the capital of Moldova. Of 5 possible options, if 4 were Paris, London, Hong Kong, and New York, odds on that almost 100% of the room would return the correct answer. If all 5 options were more plausible, you’re going to get a much more accurate picture of who knows what. (Turns out that out of 700 teachers, pretty much no one knew the correct answer!)

Daisy’s final flourish was to outline to benefits of using comparative judgements. As an English teacher who has spent hours and hours wrestling with vague prose statements such as ‘writes with sophistication and flair’ that are almost impossible to objectively judge, comparative judgement sounds like the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll definitely be checking out Daisy’s No More Marking project in much more detail.

Golden Nugget: when designing a MCQ, begin with the wrong answer; this should be drawn from your knowledge of the most common misconceptions students make.  

What Next?

I have pages and pages of notes, photos of slides on my phone, and two new books to get stuck into. My head is still fizzing with inspiration and ideas for how I’m going to share what I’ve learnt with my colleagues. Probably most significantly for me though, and my professional learning: the first thing I did on the journey home was to Google when and where the next ResearchED conference was. And then book my ticket.

Thanks to Amy for writing this great summary. If you have ever thought about blogging but want some help to get started just get in touch!

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