It has felt like a long time coming, but with the introduction of the ITT Core Framework, the Early Career Framework and the new suite of reformed NPQs, we finally have standardised bodies of knowledge in education. This means that teachers entering the profession, and those progressing through their careers, have a much better chance of encountering high quality domain-specific knowledge than ever before. The ‘golden thread’ running through the ITT, ECF and NPQs is designed to ground teacher learning in knowledge generated by the best available evidence and the collective wisdom of the profession. This is something to celebrate.
And that’s not the only thing worth celebrating. More and more teachers are now actively engaging with that best available evidence and collective wisdom; it’s no longer alien, obtuse or inaccessible. Coe and Kime (2021) describe this as ‘new, important and exciting’ in their article ‘An Evidence-based Approach to CPD’. They go on to say, ‘class teachers.. are engaging with research, applying it to practical questions, developing high levels of expertise… and effectively sharing their reflections and insights.’ We’ve come a long way since the dark days of the early 00s, when educational research tended to be held by universities, when there was huge gulf between research and practice, and the only research that did seep its way into the profession was either distorted out of recognition or taken on with little or no criticality.
So we’ve come a long way baby, and I agree that this is exciting, but I’d also assert that merely having this knowledge is not enough. The coupling of the ‘learn that’ and ‘learn how’ descriptors in the ECF and NPQ frameworks point towards this challenge: knowing it and using it are two entirely different things. The descriptors very helpfully distinguish between the knowledge content and what this might look like via school-based scenarios or case studies, but even the best-written scenarios can’t truly tell us how best to apply the knowledge in our own contexts. And our own individual context is key.
Just reading or seeing what works for someone else’s school doesn’t mean it will work for your school. Coe and Kime make the pertinent point that ‘a description of what worked for you should not be mistaken for advice about what will work for someone else’. They go to say that the reader of the research, not the writer, must make the judgement about applicability. Yet time-poor teachers often ‘magpie’ ideas from blogs they’ve read or ideas they have heard about or have seen in other schools without recognising the invisible layers of work that went into making them successful, or thinking hard about whether the idea would work in their own context. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a great idea there, could result in great outcomes here.
So why is this? Why do we fall so easily into this trap? It could be because ‘research’ and ‘evidence’ have become the zeitgeist, but it could also be because we’re quick – as advocates of research – to attribute success too readily. Teachers who have invested in implemented something new based on research evidence are very likely to feel it has been transformative, the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy. Coe and Kime helpfully remind us that there could be other explanations; whilst a teacher who has used an evidence-based strategy might hold the perception that their teaching is now radically different, ‘it is possible that an observer would see no difference’. They also suggest that even if a teacher’s practice has changed as a result of an evidence-based strategy, it’s possible that, ‘its impact on their students’ outcomes has not”. Although the teacher might attribute the change to reading research or applying the evidence-informed strategy, the change could be a result of other reasons like school culture, or feedback from a critical friend. Coe & Kime remind us that ‘our own perceptions of our behaviour, and its causes, are not always trustworthy’, so proceed with caution.
So how can we engage with knowledge, evidence and research, and benefit from success stories in other schools while still exercising some caution? In ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014) Young et al remind us that ‘knowledge is powerful if it predicts, explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives.’ So rather than seeing knowledge as something that exists as an end in itself, and investing huge amounts of time reading the research, maybe we should spend a lot more time thinking hard about how best to diffuse and assimilate that knowledge in our own contexts.
We might think this is something we do already. We already share knowledge in our schools through staff meetings, teaching and learning groups, presentations, online platforms, etc, but it is the diffusion, enactment and evaluation of this knowledge that is most important. How often do we spend time exploring interpretations of the literature or considering the nuances of applying research in our own contexts? How much time do we create to engage in collective sensemaking with our staff about what this means for them, in their classrooms, on this day? How much confidence do we have to question and adapt the research evidence to suit our contexts? With all the fear around lethal mutations and loss of fidelity, are we just a little too scared to put our own contexts front and centre?
We’ve perhaps become a little precious about research, and the knowledge it has produced; assuming wrongly that we can’t tinker with it or kick it around. But why can’t we? Isn’t the knowledge we have of our own contexts just as important? Isn’t the intersection between the research knowledge and the context knowledge the site of most interest? Well perhaps, but there is another reason why context gets kicked to the back of the queue: pressure.
We exist in a profession where accountability compels us to jump to solutions. We’re forced to work with a sense of urgency to design solutions before really understanding the problems we are facing, or considering what implementation really looks like. We might have governors or trustees to report to; we might have limited time frames to work to before the next Ofsted visit. As school leaders, we often feel that the pressure to move things forward at pace and I wonder if that sometimes stops us from applying the brakes and asking the important questions.
The important questions must be focused on the site of most interest: classrooms. In ‘Tight but Loose. A Conceptual Framework for Scaling Up Social Reforms’ (2007) Wiliam tells us that ‘learning… does not take place in schools. It takes place in classrooms, as a result of the daily, minute to minute interactions… between teachers and students and the subjects they study.’
But professional learning based on research evidence still tends to bypass the classroom. Kennedy (2016) says, ‘PD programmes typically meet with teachers outside of their classrooms to talk about teaching, yet they expect their words to alter teachers’ behaviours inside the classroom.’ She calls this ‘the problem of enactment’ – a phenomenon in which teachers can learn and espouse one idea, yet continue enacting a different idea out of habit, without even noticing the contradiction. Why is this? Could it be that when teachers are asked to apply research informed knowledge or evidence-based strategies in their classrooms it is to solve a problem that someone has identified for them? Not one they have identified themselves? Has the amount of time and money spent on INSET explaining Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction had commensurate impact on teacher’s practice? I doubt it.
So how can we design PD experiences that will be truly meaningful for teachers? Experiences that yes, focus on applying research to their classroom contexts, but do so in a way that solves the specific problems the teacher faces as opposed to a generalised problem that a school leader thinks exists? In her paper ‘How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching?’(2016) Kennedy argues that some types of professional development are better than others. She identified that ‘prescribing’ and ‘presenting’ were weaker forms of professional learning, and that using ‘strategy’ and ‘insight’ were the most likely to increase student learning. Kennedy’s research found that PD has the greatest impact on pupil and teacher learning when colleagues are given structured time to sense-make with others, generate insights and then enact the ideas most pertinent to their classrooms.
In ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching (2015) Kennedy suggests that we should design professional development that helps teachers articulate their specific problems using the framework of five persistent challenges that are intrinsic to teaching. They are:
- Portraying the curriculum
- Enlisting student participation
- Exposing student thinking
- Containing student behaviour
- Addressing the preceding challenges
She tells us that by focusing on challenges rather than solutions, we help teachers ‘think strategically about how their actions address a larger purpose, rather than focusing on how to mimic a set of actions that they observe’. When we unquestioningly ‘magpie’ ideas from other schools, no matter how evidence-informed they are, we fail to recognise the invisible layers that sit underneath successful implementation. All we are doing is mimicking the visible elements.
We need to be creating conditions for staff to explore the specific problems they are facing, and consider the complexities and the nuances of the challenges in their own unique context. Approaching CPD through the lens of Kennedy’s Persistent Problems does not imply a pre-specified way of doing things. In fact, she acknowledges that there are many ways of going about it and that those ways, ‘entail a lot of personal and professional judgement’. Kennedy tells us that ‘many portraits are possible’ and that it is our job as leaders of PD to make sure that teachers ‘learn relevant criteria for evaluating different portraits so that they can flexibly design their own portraits over time.’ It is the ongoing process of questioning, predicting and explaining then that will help teachers work out what evidence-informed knowledge is likely to have the most impact in their context.
As Vice Principal in charge of professional learning in a school that I just joined after Easter, I want to hold firm to the ideas shared in this blog. Signposting research and prescribing ways of doing things simply isn’t going to work. Instead, I want to meet people where they are and privilege the journey they have already been on. In their work, Coe and Kime adopt the position that every teacher is a learner. They say, ‘helping teachers to gain new knowledge, to develop insights and understandings of relevant underpinning theory, to build skills and techniques and to acquire and embed new habits, can all be thought of as a learning process.’ By thinking about this learning process, and teachers as learners, hopefully we can begin to focus on not just having knowledge but knowing how to use it.
Coe, R. & Kime, S. (2021) An Evidence-based Approach to CPD. Impact, issue 13. Available at: https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/an-evidence-based-approach-to-cpd/
Kennedy, M (2016) How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching? Review of Educational Research.
Kennedy, M (2015) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283800050_Parsing_the_Practice_of_Teaching
Wiliam, D. (2007) Tight But Loose: A Conceptual Framework For Scaling Up School Reforms. Available at: https://www.dylanwiliam.org/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Papers.html