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  • Writer's pictureclairevharley

How do we know?

Much of what we believe we know in education is based on what is quantifiable. The data that we commonly use in schools is derived from standardized testing, leading to predictions of pupils' future achievements. While there are debates about the usefulness of predicted grades and other internal data as a source of information, I won't delve into that debate here. However, I believe it's important to explore our understanding of truth and knowing in education.

Most of us have likely heard of or read Daisy Christodou's (2016) Making Good Progress, or at least heard about how this book has significantly influenced our understanding of assessment. Similarly, the widespread implementation of Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction and the recent resurgence of mini whiteboards have heightened our focus on checking for understanding. Effective testing and checking for understanding are two important ways of knowing, but what else is there?

As a qualitative researcher, it's no surprise that I'll advocate for more perception-based inquiry methods in schools. However, as an Assistant Principal responsible for curriculum and assessment, I also understand the practical aspects of this topic. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of different forms of data that we can use for quality assurance, but what are they? How can we ensure that we are using them effectively? Collecting data with the aim of improving pupils' progress is a valuable pursuit, but without a full understanding of the methods that will help us thread together the different ways of understanding, it could be a waste of time.

Who knows?

I've been researching phenomenography lately, which is based on the idea that we can explore a phenomenon by examining it through the perspectives of different actors. Phenomenologists argue that there is no one 'truth,' but we can gain insight by layering the understanding of different actors (Green 2005). I've worked as a Head of Department, a job that I absolutely adored, but one of the strangest things I experienced was when a member of SLT had a completely different perception of one of my team's teachings than I did. How could that even happen?

The obvious answer is that we had experienced that person's lessons differently. Due to factors such as frequency, understanding of subject context, and the starting points of that teacher, we could look at the same lesson and see completely different things. While this might initially seem like a nightmare, I see it as an opportunity to initiate genuine inquiry into how observations work within a school. If we have differing views of how a lesson is going, it's not about who is right, but how we got there that takes priority. It implies a lack of alignment as an organisation, or perhaps a need to reconsider on what basis our judgements are made.

Additionally, removing elements of bias from drop-in observations can be achieved through the use of programs such as Step Lab. I've used Step Lab for years in my work in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), but I've only recently started using it school-wide. Observing the difference between my perceptions and the reality of feedback given across the school is humbling and incredibly useful.


So how do we know?

There are many ways that we have started to look at different perceptions or gain knowledge of whether something is ‘working,’ such as:

• Pupil and parent voice

• Behaviour data

• Lesson drop-in data

The methods below I've only ever seen used as part of action research projects when they are used in schools, but I think that they have a place in our working lives.

Teacher reflective journals: Teachers are our most important and valuable ‘knowers’. Who knows their classroom and children better than their teacher? This can be achieved through detailed summaries of lessons, a few lines jotted down looking at a particular ongoing occurrence, or even a score that is recorded by a teacher at the end of each lesson. This information helps us to understand the feelings of the teaching, the frequency of a particular event in a classroom, or even how it is handled in the long term. The data that could be collected here is endless, empowering for the teacher and also an opportunity for us to shift from a top-down way of thinking.

Teacher voice: I was talking to a friend whose school uses Teacher Tapp as a way to gain a better understanding of teachers’ views. They said this was transformational in their pursuit of knowing what was really going on in the school. This useful tool provides schools with an anonymous, instant set of data showing us if what we think is working, actually is.

Critical discourse analysis: Rather than looking at what someone is saying, look at how they are saying it. The structure of the sentences, the stories, and the examples we give show us more about what we think than the opinions we give. Say, for example, if middle leaders feel as though pupils don’t respect their authority – rather than taking this at face value and assuming that middle leaders need training in how to be assertive, look at where these events are happening. Where are they? Which pupils? What exactly happens? What you will find is that if you match up different teachers’ accounts, you may find the issue isn’t with all pupils, but one group. You may find that the canteen is the place these interactions are happening.

As I summarise, I realise that the examples I've given here are teacher-centred. This could be my own personal belief that teachers deserve more voice in schools, my experiences, or perhaps I've stumbled on a gap in our concept of knowing. We focus on data generated through other actors in a school and may have forgotten where teachers can fit into this more actively. In any case, our concept of 'knowing' in schools has expanded in recent years. It has improved for the better. But there is still work to be done, biases to unpick and voices to hear.



Christodoulou, D. 2016. Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

Green, P. 2005. 'A rigorous journey into phenomenography: From a naturalistic inquirer standpoint.' in J. A  Bowden and P Green (eds.), Doing Developmental Phenomenology (RMIT University Press Melbourne).

1 comment

1 comentario

Tanya Andrewes
Tanya Andrewes
10 abr

Thanks for sharing your perspectives Claire. A very interesting read. The example about middle leaders is very powerful in illustrating the complexities of what is known and by who.

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