Can evidence-based pedagogy raise levels of achievement?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Last weekend, I spoke on a panel for the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT), talking about whether "evidence-based pedagogy" will lead to a re-birth of the teaching profession. I argued that it could. The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) now are examining what really works in the classroom based on significant evidence. This approach, to me, is in marked contrast to many other educational initiatives that have been imposed upon the profession.Furthermore, the approach of the EEF is not the "top-down" approach of many educational initiatives of previous years. If you look at their "Teacher Toolkit", you'll see that they show you quite clearly what pedagogical approaches enable students to progress most rapidly: you can see at a glance how many months of progress on average a particular approach adds to one's teaching. Then you can click on the link, and download brief and detailed summaries of the approach. I've used this tool-kit to improve my teaching: I was particularly drawn to the approaches that significantly add value such as "Meta-cognition and self-regulation" and "Feedback". The tool kit summaries are quick and easy to read while the detailed reports on the pedagogical approaches offer suggestions for implementing the strategy in one's classroom. I have found the approach of the website tremendously empowering: it is not overly prescriptive, but lays out quite clearly why certain teaching strategies really work, and shows you the pitfalls of implementing a particular approach, as well as positive things to do to boost the quality of your teaching. The approach invites teachers to make up their own minds, to discuss the evidence with colleagues, to experiment with particular strategies in the classroom, and to reflect seriously upon their practice. It is similar in a certain way to what happens in the medical profession, but I would say that there is a more open-minded sensibility at play here; there's an awareness that teaching is not medicine, but may share some similarities. For me, it is about shifting the focus of teaching as being a means of social control to being an emancipatory activity that enables students and teachers to enjoy a measure of intellectual freedom. It is very different from the "top down" approach one saw with the National Literacy Strategies which told teachers what to do, but provided very little evidence as to WHY and HOW it worked. The strategies were implemented in a fashion which did not allow teachers freedom to innovate, to apply the pedagogical approach in an individualistic fashion. I can remember sitting through training days over ten years ago where I was subjected to a barrage of PowerPoints telling me how to implement the Literacy objectives: the DfE trainers were so insistent that this was the right way to do things that there was no room for argument or discussion. It was quickly stamped upon. Over ten years later, we are languishing in the ruins of the strategy -- billions spent and wasted -- and literacy standards not significantly better. The research on the strategies indicate that they didn't work because they didn't give teachers ownership of the pedagogy or curriculum content. The approach of EEF is the opposite: it is all about showing teachers what works and inviting them to experiment in their own unique contexts.

At the SCETT meeting, Professor Dennis Hayes was very critical of evidence-based pedagogy, levelling at it many of the criticisms I would have accused the Strategies of, but I feel are not relevant to "evidence-based pedagogy": teachers were being duped into following worthless research and not trusting their own judgements. Dr Jonathan Sharples, Senior Researcher at the Education Endowment Foundation and author of Evidence for the Frontline, was given the hardest time by the audience, who were largely sympathetic to Hayes' views, being accused among other things of issuing dictats to teachers. I disagreed with them and argued that the EEF wants to open up a dialogue within the profession about what really works. There was much carping about some academic educational research, which was condemned by Hayes as being Marxist, ill-informed and worthless. Having read quite a bit of academic research, I would agree that too much of it seems to have little practical use. However, there is a growing body of work, much of which is highlighted clearly on the EEF website, which is genuinely useful for teachers; it does though need to be "translated" into "teacher speak" so that busy professionals can quickly absorb it. This is what the EEF is doing -- and I applaud them for doing it. This is the way forward for raising standards in my view: we need to get every teacher reflecting deeply and seriously upon their practice, thinking hard about what is motivating children, what is helping children to learn, and what is not. We need to get this dialogue happening in every staffroom and school meeting in the country, instead of having teachers bogged down with mindless bureaucracy.

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Rupert Higham's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 14:14

"What works" is as seductive a phrase as it is problematic. It implies that what we're trying to achieve is clear and uncontroversial. Of course, seeing education as 'progress' towards testable grades is one way of doing this - despite the copious evidence that this narrows, warps and dehumanises the education process. If we stick with the phrase "good education", all valuable nuances remain intact.

In addition, the EEF advocates Randomised Controlled Trials as a preferred methodology. This experimental methodology looks to compare a method of teaching against a control group. In any such test, the teacher's individual approach, knowledge or skill is an unwelcome variable that the methodology looks to factor out in its quest to compare teaching methods 'purely'. Not only is this both insulting and bizarre, it ignores the hard stats: that the highest impact factor in improving teaching is the quality of teachers.

That's not to say that some quantitative research into teaching methods might not be of value; it's just that we have to remain sceptical and circumspect about what that value might be.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 17:58

Thanks for your thoughts Rupert. I share your concern about RCTs, but I think if you read what EEF say regarding various techniques, their RCT evidence is balanced with a more qualitative approach: they use "mixed methods" in my view. Their work is "transparent"; you can see how they got the results they did. This is important. Yes, I agree that when I said "What works", this was a little glib. Still, when you're a very busy teacher, you do tend to go with it!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 16/03/2014 - 21:58

Francis - I completely agree with your arguments, especially the necessity for teachers to take learning theory seriously. Rupert is right that teacher quality is very important, but to be truly effective good teachers have be using approaches that engage pupils and secure cognitive development. Yes, there will always be a debate about what such approaches look like in practice, but that debate should be central to the professional life of every teacher and should be argued in schools in departmental teams informed by practical evidence based research. You are right that teachers individually and even better, working in teams led by a wise, thoughtful and experienced HoD, have to take ownership of what they are trying to do and be able to articulate the reasons and evidence that supports their professional decisions.

I think the 'toolkit' is useful and informative. My only worry is that approaches cannot be quite so clearly defined and separated and that particular approaches classified under the same heading can be very different and vary greatly in effectiveness depending on the detail of the way they are done.

I am sure you are right about the importance of meta-cognition. It is embedded in the Cognitive Acceleration strategies of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey that are described with many examples from teacher contributors in their 2002 book, 'Learning Intelligence', Open University Press.

Rupert wants us to be clear about the purpose of education and I agree that it should not be passing particular exams used to crudely and falsely judge schools The late Philip Adey was drawn into educational research by the problem of difficulty. Why can't individual pupils understand hard stuff, and what sort of pedagogy helps them?

Our education system would be so much healthier if more teachers spent more time thinking and debating such matters.

Regarding New Labour's national initiative roll-outs, the worst for me was the KS3 Strategy, although there were plenty of other serious contenders.

This is an important post Francis.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 09:55

The toolkit is just that - a toolkit. The EFA doesn't prescribe which tools should be used - it presents the evidence in an accessible way and allows teachers to make professional judgements based on the evidence. The EFA admits the evidence shifts and also emphasizes:

"The most successful approaches on average have had their failures and the least successful their triumphs. What we are saying is that the existing evidence so far suggests provides information and insight which we believe is useful to schools as they make decisions about their spending and teaching priorities. What we are not saying is that approaches which are unsuccessful on average can never work or that approaches like feedback and metacognitive approaches will always work in a new context, with different pupils, a different curriculum and undertaken by different teachers."

It admits, then, that "what works" isn't fixed. But most teachers know that - "what works" changes according to teacher style and context. Which is why blanket condemnations of a particular method by teachers who tried something once and it didn't work for them are unhelpful.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 10:22

Professor Hayes had something wise to say about teacher training in response to the Coalition's White Paper on education:

"Those responsible for education policy need to be reminded that in Europe, the study of the science of education has a high priority. They need to appreciate that a passion for a subject may not be all teachers need. For example, in primary schools it is important to understand how children actually develop. We owe it to our children to ensure they are taught not only by the best and brightest, but by those who know what education is and how it differs from training."

Odd, then, that Professor Hayes should have been one of the proposers of the Phoenix Free School (Oldham) with Visiting Professor Tom Burkard who believes teacher education is unnecessary and the best preparation for teaching is being in the armed forces.

Rupert Higham's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 11:06

I'm all for teachers being deeply involved in discussion about the best ways to teach. I believe that we, as do our colleagues on the Continent, should develop and celebrate 'pedagogy' as something like 'the art and science of teaching'. To this end, I currently work with a democratic group of schools committed to integrating teacher-led and academic research. These teachers share their research-informed experiences through conferences and articles. Of course, it would help greatly if teachers were afforded any time to collaborate, were trained for longer, and focused on teaching and learning in that training rather than on bureaucratic file-filling.

As someone who has engaged with the EEF very recently, I understand their good intentions in promoting 'what works' - and also know that their commitment is to do that principally through large scale RCTs that 'iron out' differences between schools and teachers in order to speak of impact size distinct from form and context of delivery. EEF is not independent; it is highly influenced by Government priorities.

'Mixed methods' research almost always leads with either a qualitative or quantitative approach, and illustrates with the other. With EEF, it is clear that the stats are the driving force. This is very much in line with the high-profile, government-sponsored interventions from celebrity epidemiologist Ben Goldacre, who tells us that education, if it wants to improve, should be more like medicine. They are looking for ways to promote teachers' consumption of research rather than engagement with it. There are a plethora of organisations out there trying to make generalised research available to teachers in easy-to-find, easily-digestible formats, but with little success. It is teachers' active participation in the research process in their own contexts that makes the difference.

The 'teacher toolkit' is clearly a useful resource that is walking a tightrope between teacher autonomy and government desire to impose simple, 'proven' approaches (such as synthetic phonics). In the use of it, and similar evidence-based approaches, two dangers remain: firstly, the threat of sanctions from above if approved methods are not used; and secondly, the tendency to sideline the 'why' in favour of the 'how'.

In the light of this I remain sceptical of a focus on 'how to progress students most rapidly', and doing so in ways that reflect the 'way children actually develop'. So often, such phrases assume a particular model of progress or development that we as a community of educators should constantly be questioning and refashioning - along with the students themselves. In such a highly politicised educational climate, it is often more valuable to be inspired by example than led by evidence.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 13:04

Rupert - How can it ever be better to be 'inspired by example' than 'led by evidence'? Example is much less trustworthy eg Yuri Geller's spoon bending feats (I reveal my age). Charismatic practitioners can get good results by accident in ways that don't transfer.

Yes, all proposed approaches imply particular learning theory assumptions. Mine frequently come back to Piaget and Vygotsky. Teachers have to be equipped to discuss the learning theory assumptions in the context of any pedagogic proposals. That is why teacher training needs an academic base and why 'training on the job' will never be enough.

Rupert Higham's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 13:26

I'm sorry, Roger, but I don't think this responds to my post at all! The second paragraph, I think you'll find, is completely in line with my previous remarks. The Yuri Geller analogy, I think, is a perfect one for being wary of linking educational strategy to 'performance'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 13:50

Rupert - Sorry If I misunderstood.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 14:41

I have found the EEF Toolkit remarkedly useful in relation to helping hone in on appropriate and effective strategies best suite to particular situation facing schools (i.e. contextual) and in the broader general scenario. However, and prior to the publication of the toolkit, I also found the approach and shared strategies of the EBTN (Evidence Based Teachers Network) extremely useful, effective and insightful:

My position is similar to Janet's and I've no doubt others) insofar as all these things are useful tools to help guide and advise colleagues on the use of T&L strategies and interventions that are effective and perhaps more importantly they and their pupils are comfortable with: tools within a bigger toolbox that can be adjusted and calibrated to support the goal.

In crude minimalistic terms what is being debated is professional collaboration and partnership through openness and sharing for the benefice of the pupil and the teacher.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 17/03/2014 - 23:55

I agree with Roger on the importance of your post, Francis.

The following remarks, by Andreas Schleicher, are taken from a report in the OECD Observer in 2013.

"Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. High performers pay great attention to how they select and train their staff. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes."

He goes on to outline compelling elements of the best performing education systems internationally:

"Not least, they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control and accountability to professional forms of work organisation. They support their teachers to make innovations in pedagogy, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to stronger educational practice. Often in education, the policy focus is still on the provision of education, in top school systems it’s on outcomes, which means shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, about creating networks of innovation. And the most impressive outcome of world class school systems is perhaps that they deliver high quality across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent learning. They align policies and practices effectively across all aspects of the system, they maintain coherence over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented."

Francis, I think this remark by Schleicher connects with your views when you summed up the importance of teachers and their capacity to challenge their own learning, "We need to get this dialogue happening in every staffroom and school meeting in the country, instead of having teachers bogged down with mindless bureaucracy."

Love or hate the impact that the PISA dialogue is having on education globally and the controversy about Shanghai's ranking, Schleicher makes some very pertinent remarks that go to the heart of what is happening to education in our country under the present regime and the influence this has over public perceptions. Teachers are at the heart of the system. Their professional development needs to go forward in a particular climate that is virtually impossible to establish under present circumstances.

Andy is right to say that there is an ongoing debate about professional collaboration and partnership in teaching and by teachers. The conditions of 'openness and sharing' that he alludes to are difficult to establish in a system where much of what is counted and measured helps to divide because it emphasises competition over cooperation (learning with and from other professionals) at all levels. And coming back to what Schleicher says about maintaining coherence over sustained periods of time, what chance that in our politically driven, short-term system of education governance? How can we establish consistency and coherence over policy when after five years of one brand of meddling political interference, we may well find ourselves lumbered with a completely different one. Time to ditch the dummies and create a National Commission for Education, free from party political dominance, as called for at:

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 18/03/2014 - 09:12

Rupert - You are right about the importance of high quality experienced teachers. The problem is that we are losing them. See this excellent Guardian article.

This is about driving out core access to subjects like drama, but the same sort of pressures also mitigate against teachers having the time, energy and encouragement to engage in professional debate about pedagogy - that and the increasingly managerial top-down, command and rule, macho 'chief executive', payment by results culture of school leadership.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 18/03/2014 - 14:31

Francis - I was very interested to see what the 'toolkit' thinks about school uniform.

"There is a general belief in the UK that school uniform supports the development of a whole school ethos and therefore is supportive of discipline and motivation. However, there is no robust evidence that introducing a school uniform will, by itself, improve academic performance, behaviour or attendance."

On another thread I saw a reference to Ofsted commenting negatively on the dress standards of teachers in a school inspection. Responses included one to this effect. 'How can you expect pupils to wear their ties smartly if teachers don't?'

The answer is obvious. Don't require pupils to wear ties. They are dangerous in science and workshop based lessons, very uncomfortable in hot classrooms and constant energy sapping inspection regimes are needed to prevent the numerous unsightly 'St Trinians' and their male counterpart pupil variations. It is often stated that shirts, ties and jackets are needed to prepare pupils for the demands of work. When did you see Steve Jobs or Bill Gates wearing a tie - or students at the world's best universities?

I am actually in favour of school uniform. In my view it should be cheap, practical, serviceable, smart and requiring of easy enforcement by the school. The main (only) advantages of uniform are in keeping expensive fashion trends out of school life and making it cheap for parents to cloth their kids. Black shoes (not trainers), grey trousers/skirt, school logo polo shirt (no tie) and/or school logo sweatshirt do the job fine.

The main reasons for the proliferation of expensive blazer/shirt/tie combinations are snobbery based PR combined with pricing the children of poor parents out from applying.

Thanks to the toolkit we now know that fancy uniforms are not necessary for good schools and quality learning.

Someone needs to tell Ofsted inspectors and school heads and governors need more courage in specifying an evidence-based dress code.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/03/2014 - 08:40

Roger - you're right about uniform policy being another way to discourage disadvantaged children. When the school has a single supplier and that supplier charges considerably more for uniform than chain stores, then only parents who can afford the extra cost will apply.

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