Respectful Scepticism; What we have misunderstood about using educational research in schools
One of the biggest misconceptions we have about the use of educational research in schools is that is has to be some big, profound change that will impact large numbers of pupils to be noteworthy. Macro studies like those conducted by the EEF have their place, but so too do smaller pieces of action research or self-reflection. The actions of teachers in the classroom, big and small, matter.
I’m a EdD student looking into teachers’ perceptions of educational research and anecdotally, I hear teachers cite the ‘big names’, conferences and teacher journals that they use to inform their practice. I love this. As a self-professed education nerd, I do the same regularly. It feeds my passion for finding the best solutions for my pupils.
But what about those niggly bits? The unblog-worthy, small steps to making teaching a little bit easier. They are important too. In the same way that nudge theory helps to make big changes over time, so too does stopping and thinking about not just what we are doing, but how we are doing it.
I was lucky enough to chat to the phenomenal Carly Waterman about this and she introduced me to the idea of respectful scepticism. Similar to the idea of professional curiosity which you will have most likely heard in safeguarding training, it’s the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to question if and how something is going to work. This both protects schools from following fads and ensures that when ideas are rolled out across multiple classrooms, subject and classroom specific adaptations are taken into consideration.
I think this is something that the best schools encourage. Before enforcing an idea, we consider what the impact of this is going to be for classroom teachers and allow that level of flexibility within a process that means it works for everyone.
My ‘Do Now’ Dilemma
At our school, as a large proportion of schools do these days, we start each lesson with retrieval. I personally launched it for our school along with my colleagues in SLT two years ago. The way we do this varies from department to department. For me as a history teacher this means five questions ready to go on the board at the start of each lesson, with an emphasis on aspects of the topic so far that I’m not sure if pupils have ‘got’. This is something that is backed up by evidence. Kate Jones’ (2020) did the leg work for us on this one and summarised the benefits of retrieval practice in her book. She tell us that retrieval practice:
· Aids later retention
· Identifies gaps in knowledge
· Enables pupils to learn more from their next learning episode
· Produces better organisation of knowledge
· Improves knowledge transfer
· Can facilitate retrieval of information not yet tested
· Improves metacognition
· prevents interference from prior material when learning new material.
· provides feedback to instructors.
· Encourages students to study
(Jones, 2020, pp. 31-33)
Retrieval should, therefore, be an important part of my lessons for two reasons. Firstly, because it is evidence-based and will help my pupils improve. Secondly, it is a school policy and I am expected to implement this.
The issue for me is that I teach in a classroom in the English department straight after teaching up in humanities which means that some of my class always arrived before me. As the corridor bottle necks just outside this classroom, a logical teacher will always let these pupils in to avoid them causing more chaos to the lesson change over rush in this busy part of the school.
This means that my pupils have the chance to get riled up before I get there, so writing these on the board is not an option. I would lose them early doors. Additionally, I have a class where a small, but significant proportion of pupils spend time with a pastoral manager throughout the day. So it is not uncommon for pupils to arrive sporadically throughout the lesson. There are pupils who demonstrate challenging behaviour in my class, but this can be avoided with encouragement from the off as I know them well and so sitting down to put questions on the visualiser at the start of my lesson isn’t possible. At the end of the lesson I have to run off straight away to my break duty in the canteen.
Considering these issues, I had to adapt how I was going to do my do-nows to make sure I could get control of the class quickly and ensure that I was asking the right questions.
I like to write in an exercise book and use the visualiser to show pupils how to set up their books at the start of each lesson. I take this book home or my office to plan my lessons in these books. I have one for each class and in them I write my ‘do nows’ at the back, as well as my titles, dates and model answers at the front to help with the pace and clarity of explanations in my lessons.
This simply could not work for this class.
On a practical level, it was a nightmare. I lost the book constantly. Was it in humanities? My office? The classroom? I don’t have the time to faff about with all that. Also, I teach them three times a fortnight and by the time I came to plan their do nows, the areas where they were lacking knowledge were no longer as fresh as they should be in my mind.
I needed a practical solution to my problem.
I decided to sacrifice the last two minutes of my lesson to writing my ‘do now’ as my class packed away. I’d set them off at 9.58 each morning and there would be two minutes of noise and movement before they stood silent again to leave at 10.00. I know that if someone came into observe me in these two minutes, I would look like an awful teacher. However, these two minutes of essentially ignoring my class give me time to write effective questions and keep the book in the classes box so it would not go missing. I decided this was a fair enough trade-off and since doing so, my classroom has been focused, calm and orderly all the way up to those two minutes.
I checked this with the behaviour points I logged over the course of the first half term, and I was delighted to see my hunch that things had improved confirmed in the data. The number of points I gave out for praise went up, particularly in the first half an hour of the lesson. The number of consequences decreased drastically, and I didn’t give out more than a C1 (first warning) for the last three weeks of term.
The classroom is calmer at the start of the lesson, as am I.
Why are these little tweaks important?
This small change isn’t ground-breaking. It won’t ever be turned into an acronym or featured in a book as the ‘next big thing’. However, for me and my 26 pupils, it has made the world of difference. As I chatted to Carly, we talked about the wider implications of our actions in the classroom, but really there aren’t any. The limitations of the work I’m doing don’t matter. It is relevant to my classroom… and that’s enough because that’s where I am going to use it!
If you were to search ‘action research models’ you’d get lots of different variations, but this one is my favourite:
(Kemmis and Taggart, 2005)
This never-ending cycle of looking at something in our classroom, planning how to improve it and seeing if it has worked is something that I think teachers do regularly, but is not always acknowledged by their peers or within the system as ‘research’. This example is in fact research because I noticed an issue, planned a way to improve the situation and evaluated the impact of my actions. It is the adaptation of a centralised policy to meet the needs of my learners.
No one knows your classroom better than you.
The small ‘niggly bits’ that we work on as autonomous professionals can improve barriers to learning, improve our own sense of self-efficacy and improve the culture in our classrooms. Whilst the use of educational research has the potential to be transformational, teachers must have agency over their space and be trusted to adjust whole school policies.
What we needs is brave teachers who are excited to focus on the niggly bits and even braver leaders who are ready to let them.
Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere. In N. K. Denzin & S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications
Jones, K. (2020). Retrieval Practice: Resources and Research for Every Classroom. John Catt Educational, Limited. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nottingham/detail.action?docID=6269344