Evidence for better lessons

What counts for evidence at school? Sam Saunders says that playground observation may be as valid as journal papers.

Teacher and students in libraryHow can teachers use evidence in their work? Much debate on improving education starts from the impatient question ‘what works?’ But I prefer the more useful question ‘how can teachers use evidence?’ This approach accepts teachers' daily problems and focuses on what teachers want to do or are expected to do.

Teaching already involves the regular collection, perusal and use of evidence. Teachers need to know about all their current pupils, and they take care to observe, assess, monitor and record all sorts of things to help those pupils. Each year adds another layer of data and such data does not come only from the classroom. Evidence underlies all other aspects of a school's work. I remember how the mundane detective work I used to do as a semi-retired lunchtime supervisor in a local primary school playground relied on observation, question framing, careful listening, hypothesis building and deciding. Good teachers and teaching assistants, especially in early years and primary schooling, become expert in formal and informal types of quantitative and qualitative evidence-gathering. At crucial moments they form hypotheses and take decisive action. A nearby secondary school that I know of employs a graduate mathematician to support their target setting and outcome analyses. I would be surprised if it is the only one in the country.

Does more need to be added? I would say yes. Overworked as they are, I would still encourage teachers, schools and organisations to look for ways of both doing and reading wider research when the problems they have appear major.

Doing research

Faced with the problem of students not using the library, a sixth form college I worked in took the issue to the Student Council. Student members suggested a questionnaire, their idea was accepted, and they came to me as their sociology teacher to get some help. I explained that questionnaires have a limited utility and we set off on what became a multi-method exploration that observed existing user numbers, surveyed all students on basic patterns of learning activity, ran discussion groups, and conducted a repertory grid analysis of students' personal constructs of good and bad environments. At no point was anyone asked ‘why don’t you use the library?’

Results were shared and discussed. A report was written, including the unexpected insight that many of our students associated the existing library with the examination hall and negative emotions. A new library was created in the college with what we now knew about students' emotional and practical aspirations. Observation, and a survey a year later, confirmed that the new library was a lively part of the college, where study was done, discussed and valued.

The story is not exceptional. Readers will have similar experiences. The point is that gathering and analysing evidence – in other words, carrying out research – is something teachers can do successfully when they recognise a problem.

Reading research

One of the things I find shocking about England’s Department for Education is that, when asked, it has resisted the idea that it should help teachers have direct access to professional research knowledge. I remember visiting a senior adviser in Sanctuary Buildings, the department’s HQ, many years ago, and hearing him express the view that ministers were not enthusiastic about such a development.

When I last checked, the UK's primary list of current research, the British Education Index, was cataloguing five or six thousand research reports per year by subject matter and educational level, with a near-comprehensive back catalogue extending over 50 years. The full index is not available to teachers, and neither are many of the journal articles it indexes. Why not? This is itself a research question. But it is notable that the US Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) offers rich resources.

Google Scholar remains a shifting haystack of some of what is current. Another source, the large Education-line collection, that I helped to establish under the leadership of Philip Sheffield at the British Education Index, has an uncertain future. One could say that for school teachers, hunting out relevant published research is a daunting research task in its own right.

The strongest provocation to do (or read) research is having a real problem. The strongest armour for resisting the plausible schemes of ideologues is to be well-informed by relevant, well documented research that shows how things might turn out in real life. There is no magic ‘what works’. But most teachers have enough magic about them to be able to look up now and again, and create or consider evidence that could be applied in their own classrooms.

As Professor Michael Bassey wrote: ‘Users want to know what may happen in their situation if a particular action is taken. Teachers, for example, are likely to be interested in what has happened in other classrooms insofar as it predicts what may happen in their own classrooms.’ (Fuzzy Generalisations and Best Estimates of Trustworthiness)

Sam Saunders is a researcher, and has been a teacher and a project worker at the British Education Index. You can email him at j.p.saunders@leeds.ac.uk.

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