#ResearchED 2014: therapy for a nervous wishy-washy teacher

Francis Gilbert's picture
Last weekend, I cycled from my home in Bethnal Green to the 2014 ResearchED conference at Raine’s Foundation School and was amazed to see so many teachers paying out of their own pockets to attend a conference about educational research on a Saturday. The impressive attendance, possibly over 600 delegates, was a real testament to the power of social media: this was truly a “Twitter” conference in that the interest for it has been generated because its leading lights are such active Tweeters. What was really good to see was that quite a few of its attendees seemed to be young, passionate teachers intent upon trying to improve their practice and wanting to engage in the intellectual debates around education. The conference was absolutely packed: you could scarcely move in the main entrance hall of the school at the beginning of the day.

I was there with two other teachers from my school: the schedule was choc-a-block with different talks so we decided to divvy up going to different events. Most of the talks, though not all, were about the whys and wherefores of teachers should using research to inform their teaching or how they might do their own research. The movement is led by Tom Bennett, who has been a R.E. teacher at Raine’s for the last ten years and is the Behaviour Guru for the TES as well as a prolific tweeter. He is now leaving Raine’s to teach part-time at another school and have more time to run ResearchED and write. Under his guidance, the movement is going global: there are going to be conferences in New York and the Far East soon I believe.

As I’ve pointed out before Bennett is, by and large, a fan of Michael Gove’s reforms and advocates what one might chararactise as a “didactic” model of teaching with the emphasis being on the “teaching of knowledge”. In his book, Teacher Proof, he ridicules what he perceives to be the opposite of his approach: “voodoo” pedagogy which advocates such inanities (as he sees them) as Brain Gym and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that quite a few of the speakers at the conference are evangelical about what might be termed a “knowledge-based” curriculum and keen to show that the research endorses their pedagogical model. Perhaps for this reason, I felt a little nervous about going to the conference. On the whole, I’ve felt a bit dispirited reading Bennett’s work which I believe unfairly judges teachers like me, who advocate collaborative learning and take people Howard Gardner seriously, as being hopelessly woolly and failing to teach children “knowledge”. Furthermore, I’ve found my interactions with teachers who are strongly supported by Bennett like Andrew Old quite traumatic on the internet because I know I am no match for their witty one-liners and put-downs.

But I was delighted to find that talking one-to-one to teachers who probably don’t agree with me on a lot of things – including Tom Bennett, Andrew Old and Katherine Birbalsingh -- at the conference was a really positive experience. For me, the real marvel of the conference was the way people were talking to each other outside the events: there was a genuinely open atmosphere. Unlike the Wellington College Festival of Education, which I’ve found a bit snooty, there was a real sense that we were colleagues in this “teaching thing” together, even if we may disagree on certain things. I think possibly holding the conference at Raines was an important factor here: this is a non-selective, inner-city school in Tower Hamlets which serves some of the most deprived students in the country. There’s the smell of reality in the place which is the opposite of the rarefied atmosphere you get at places like Wellington.

For this reason, I found the day therapeutic. Many of my worries and anxieties about the Gove-supporters – who I have unkindly called “Gove’s blob” or “the Glob” in the past – vanished. Just as I am not a member of the Blob – Gove’s term for any person who might advocate anything that smacks of progressive teaching methods – Bennett and his supporters are not the Glob. It makes a big difference that Gove’s gone I think: he was a divisive figure who did insist that you were either “for us” or “against us”. There was a palpable release in tension in the air with him gone: I spoke to journalists, academy chain bosses and other important educational chiefs during the day and found them refreshingly open.

In particular, listening to Andrew Old’s talk, “How to have a rational argument about education”, was the best therapy I’ve had in years. As I said before, I’ve always found his anonymous internet presence rather scary and found his emphatic one-line put-downs a bit upsetting at times. It was a revelation seeing him in person: I suddenly “got” his tone. I believe now he’s actually not confrontational but just certain he’s right; it’s a very difficult concept to get unless you meet him in person. My amateur video of the talk gives you a sense of his personality I think:


I appreciated the way Old related his ideas about logic to etiquette on the internet. At the end of the session, I told him I liked his talk and he told me he enjoyed my two books, ‘I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here’ and ‘Teacher On The Run’!! Later on, in the pub, we worked out that we’ve both taught at the same Midlands school, depicted in ‘I’m A Teacher…’ and had a bonding experience the like of which I would never have imagined could have happened in a million years a few days ago. Now that I “get” his tone, his “habitus” as Bourdieu would term it, I have found myself re-reading his blog http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ in entirely different light. Although he himself feels tone is unimportant in an argument, my experience of meeting him and others at the conference has made me realize that it’s very important. The internet has been incredible in the way it has brought so many people together to talk about pedagogy, but the real dialogue for me happens face-to-face.

My other therapeutic moments at the ResearchED conference:

  1. Having Andrew Old hand me a TES goodie bag he’d found in the pub because I didn’t have one, only to discover that it was the “Tough Young Teacher” Oliver Beach’s bag!! A few tweets led me to cycle over to Oliver’s place in the East End the next morning. We had a pleasant conversation about the conference.

  2. Tom Bennett taking a “reminder” photo of my copy of Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching and promising to consider Petty and Mike Bell, of The Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network as future speakers. I also had a friendly conversation with him about differing views on group work, which I will do another blog on.

  3. Challenging Nick Gibb about the problems with high-stakes, one-off exams which the Coalition has introduced at GCSE and A level. Another blog here I think.

  4. Talking frankly with TES journalists about the possible Tory bias of the magazine – which they denied with some cogent arguments and evidence – and the whole issue of teachers being paid for their resources, which is now being introduced.

  5. Talking to David Didau, a.k.a. the Learning Spy and author of The Secret of Literacy, about supporting the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and being invited to be a member of the ginger-headed teachers’ club, despite the fact that my hair is possibly no longer ginger. But it once was!

  6. Just feeling the general vibe that teachers are genuinely up for turning this into an intellectual, evidence-based profession which will put us on a par with the medical profession in terms of rigour and dialogue.



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Will Green's picture
Mon, 08/09/2014 - 20:05

'The smell of reality'!! Ha Ha
There does seem to be something in the air at the moment though. Or has the air, in fact, cleared a bit because the majority of secondaries are now academies and so it feels like we can concentrate on what a thriving educational environment might look like instead of who runs it? Notice that I'm thinking about a thriving educational environment rather than referring to 'good teaching'. Too often 'teaching' is confused with 'telling' and the debate appears to revolve around the question of how best to tell somebody something so that they remember it.
The 'progressive' educational thinkers are still highly relevant. I wonder if Michael Rosen considers himself a 'progressive' but I don't wonder why he has produced a book - Good Ideas: How To Be Your Child's (And Your Own) Best Teacher - that states in the blurb "We live in a world surrounded by all the stuff that education is supposed to be about...Learning should be much more fun...Forget passing tests and ticking boxes". That's a pretty damning take on English schooling right there. The system is still exam-led and this remains a central problem because it too often leads to a shallow understanding of what real learning is about: dialogue, overcoming problems both theoretical and practical, practice and repetition, reviewing one's own opinions as well as building up a store of knowledge/facts. We do have the most tested children in Europe (correct me if I'm wrong here) and we do have a remarkably centralised system despite all the rhetoric of 'free' schools and 'autonomy' for academies. The relationship between these two facts makes more sense when you consider the typical amount of knowledge of child development that you would find at a policy level: there is no a deep understanding based on years of experience (i.e. the dictionary definition of knowledge: facts, information, and skills acquired through experience). We have an outdated system led by non-educationalists. That has to change, it needs to be overseen by people who have been teachers, headteachers etc
To work towards establishing teaching as a rigorously intellectual, evidence-based profession is a fine objective. There are still some whiffs in the air though, the smell of reality just won't go away!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 08/09/2014 - 21:09

Thanks for this Francis - I found it really interesting and positive to read.

Characters like Andrew Old coming out of the shadows is good.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 08/09/2014 - 21:16

I wonder if the TES gang still believe that I'm not a teacher, am mentally ill, am being sued by Ofsted, must have all my comments selectively deleted and be banned from posting because I'm so dangerous and that I need to be systematically discredited with my employers being informed that I a danger to them and to society and should be dismissed?

Or perhaps the've come round to thinking perhaps that the people who teach teachers how to use constructivist starter questions in maths don't deserve anything they get for their profound dangerous ignorance?

That's a genuine question if you've any thoughts on it Francis.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 07:28

The ResearchEd conference has become an important event. The importance of evidence about education systems and methodology can't be emphasised enough. Unfortunately, politicians such as Gove, Gibb and Truss use only that evidence which supports their prejudices eg using flawed OECD data to 'prove' the UK was 'plummeting' down league tables; Gibb's assertion that evidence showing the systematic teaching of any method of teaching phonics actually means the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics (a belief which has made a good deal of money for the favoured producers of synthetic phonics materials).

Guest's picture
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 09:19


This site, and you in particular, are guilty of only using the evidence that suits you. In fact it's human nature to use evidence that backs up your view and ignore or dismiss evidence that opposes you.
Only OECD recommendations you agree with are ever championed, the fact the 2000 results can be used for comparison and to demonstrate relative decline are ignored.
Less exams you cry, then complain when AS levels removed.
Every education change and reform made by the coalition is opposed regardless of its merit or whether evidence based or not.
Methinks the lady cries wolf! Again, it cherry time so get picking.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:32

"Every education change and reform made by the coalition is opposed regardless of its merit or whether evidence based or not."

So far as I remember I think it's only the policies which have been invented out of thin air and which are not evidence based which have been opposed. Hence the theme of this conversation is appropriate and your criticism ungrounded Guest. Some of the Libdem policies such as providing free childcare places for 2-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds have not been opposed.

Please do feel free to provide evidence to the contrary by linking to the relevant discussions.

One cause of the confusion between our perspectives may be that for me there have always been two forms of evidence basing. One is in the published studies, data and research and the other is in consultation with the experts who can fluently analyse complex situations on which there is little or no published data and who can predict the consequences for students of making changes.

It's was a feature of Gove's administration that the latter form of evidence basing was proactively dismantles and discredited and the systems for achieving it shut down. Hence concerns have been raised about the consequences of many of the policies which have emerged in this climate.

In normal times those who have concerns discuss them directly with the senior people in education who have been involved in developing the policies and who have thought through these issues. Because such people have ceased to exist we've had to go instead to the civil servants at the DfE who cannot provide this kind of analysis. Hence discussion forums become the only place where concerns can be explored.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 13:58

Guest - we've had this discussion before. The OECD said the 2000 results should NOT be used for comparison. I have said the 2006 results and those of 2009 DO show a RELATIVE decline in league table position . In 2012 the RELATIVE position of the UK rose slightly in Reading and Maths and down slightly in Science. The scores, however, have barely changed: the UK is still at the OECD average for Reading and Maths, and ABOVE AVERAGE for Science in PISA tests. To avoid repetition, perhaps you could keep this comment for future reference.

Few of the Coalition 'reforms' are evidence-based despite protestations saying they are. The academies programme is based on the falling-down-league-tables-in-a-decade scenario which is, as I've said, based on flawed data and ignores other league tables (eg TIMSS) which painted a more positive picture. Nick Gibb's promotion of synthetic phonics is based on international research which shows systematic teaching of ANY method of teaching phonics is an effective way of teaching reading. Gibb seems not to understand the difference between 'systematic' and 'synthetic'.

The 'success' of academies is much-trumpeted but Henry's research shows that non-academies do just as well if not slightly better. But deception about academies has been going on since they first began under Labour.

Gove's examination reform moves in the opposite direction to most of the developed world where graduation is at 18. The abolition of AS levels was opposed by universities schools - I'm actually ambivalent towards them as I feel they can seep into time which could be given to other activities such as DofE Award, Young Enterprise etc but can see the point of them if they contribute towards graduation at 18.

The only reforms which have merit are the Pupil Premium, the reduction in equivalence given to non-GCSE exams (tended to be used more by academies than non-academies to boost results) and the Goverment's recognition (thanks to ex-Business and FE minister, John Hayes) of the importance of careers education and guidance. But what a pity the Government just pay it lip service.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 15:55

Janet and Guest. Here we go again.

Rather than rehearsing my disagreements with both of you I would like to draw attention to a new study published by Save the Children called 'Read On Get On'. It was widely covered by the national media earlier this week. You can find it here.


This is a highly confused study. I have thought about posting about it on LSN but the study is such a complex mixture of the good, the bad, the misunderstood and the misleading that I have been too cowardly to attempt it.

It starts off by arguing that English children's reading ability is in decline and that reading ability and reading for pleasure at an early correlates strongly with later academic performance and with other more general 'good outcomes' for individuals and for society as a whole and is therefore VERY IMPORTANT.

If you read the newspaper coverage you will struggle to find any reference for the evidence that reading standards are in decline. It certainly cannot be found in the trend for KS2 English SATs results, which continue their inexorable upward

Is the paper then arguing that in the high stakes (for the school) pressure to improve KS2 SATs scores, that reading for pleasure is suffering? Well no, which is a pity, because I would go along with that.

The evidence, it is claimed, is in the results of international testing, which point to two trends.

1. That the proportion of English children that read well and read for pleasure is lagging further and further behind other countries. The study points to PISA and PIRLS for the evidence.

2. That the real villain is economic inequality, and various sociological data is produced comparing proportions of poor readers/not reading for pleasure children, by gender, ethnicity, social class and relative affluence. This produces familiar patterns - eg white working class boys fare worst in all comparisons.

OK, the traditional left will be happy with that - all you have to do is reduce economic inequality and educational inequality will also automatically reduce in step.

The problem is that this research, as usual, ignores cognitive ability and does not consider what might happen in all the comparisons if CATs scores were controlled for. What would happen is that all the correlations with inequality would become much weaker, leaving the pattern that no-one on the left likes: that almost all poor educational outcomes are driven by low cognitive ability AND that poor average cognitive ability accumulates in socially deprived communities.

Of course economic and social inequality is a very bad thing leading to all sorts of bad outcomes and a strong dose of socialism is the much needed remedy, but this will not address low cognitive ability. Only educational reform can do that, and the marketisation/competition model of such reform produces the opposite effect. Grades are inflated at the cost of deep learning and cognitive ability fails to improve or actually declines especially in the most disadvantaged communities with the lowest mean cognitive ability where improvement is most needed.

The mechanism imposed by marketisation is the replacement of developmental slow learning approaches by fast results behaviourist 'knowledge-based' cramming.

The further the paper goes on, the more confused it gets, ending in various simplistic remedies for improving reading performance of our children, without grasping the nettle of specific literacy/dyslexic difficulties.

Finally, I do not accept that children that fail to read early in the school system are necessarily blighted for life. My experience of profoundly dyslexic family members and close friends, that have gone on to great things in career terms supports this view.

If you base your pedagogy on the principle that cognitive ability (ie general intelligence) is not only real and important, but is plastic in nature and can be raised by the right sort of teaching (eg that espoused by the 'slow education movement' )then optimistic opportunities for reformed teaching and learning begin to emerge as suggested in this post by Francis Gilbert and the following one by Will Green.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 07/10/2014 - 19:37

There's no point pretending that that those who object to systematic synthetic phonics are advocating some other form of phonics. That excuse went out of the window when they all opposed the phonics check and they had to admit that the so-called "phonics" they wanted to teach was of a type that would not result in children who could actually do phonics.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/09/2014 - 07:55

Roger - thanks for the link the the Save the Children report. I'd missed it. From your account it already appears out-of-date: the latest PIRLS shows reading ability of 10 year-olds in England improved since 2007.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 07/10/2014 - 19:41

The Julia Donaldson ORT phonics books are blooming brilliant.

They aren't systematic synthetic phonics, they're just normal phonics.
Of course children need word recognition strategies too....

Get you're head out the ideological clouds Andrew and engage with reality.

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