researchED 2015 – Working out what works

By Ben Durbin

Monday 7 September 2015

In his opening address at the third of his national conferences bringing together over 860 teachers, researchers, and policymakers, Tom Bennett compared ResearchED to his young toddler. Both born at a similar time in 2013, each seems to have a mind of its own and to grow and develop in ways far beyond Tom’s control.

It’s a fitting analogy for an event, and a movement that continues to fizz and bubble with new and varied ideas, but which this year seemed to have a greater self-confidence and maturity than its first incarnation two years ago.

Even from looking at the programme itself, there seemed to be far less focus on isolated teacher research initiatives disconnected from the wider evidence base and the priorities and systems of the school. In their place were sessions describing ever-evolving approaches to integrating the evidence base into culture, teaching and professional development, as an enabler for realising pupils’, teachers’ and their schools’ ambitions. Alex Quigley (English teacher and research lead at Huntington School) is one of the pioneers in this area, and his double-act with Jonathan Sharples (Education Endowment Foundation) brilliantly exemplified the ways teacher and researcher expertise can complement one another.

There were also sessions which presented established and emerging research findings on the fundamentals of effective teaching: pedagogy, formative assessment, professional development.  Leora Cruddas from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) introduced a fascinating piece of work undertaken by a teacher in his summer break to capture the principles of effective formative assessment in history.  Harry Fletcher-Wood (Teach First) presented a refreshingly honest overview of the implications and limitations of some small-scale qualitative research investigating the characteristics of exceptional teachers in difficult circumstances.

And there were sessions aimed at equipping teachers with the knowledge and tools required to understand and critique evidence used by politicians and the media to support or undermine particular policies or narratives imposed upon schools. My own presentation (more to follow in a blog from Amy Sippitt, my Full Fact co-presenter) explored our project to factcheck the general election earlier this year, and offered a range of tips for the discerning teacher-cum-stats-geek.

Many challenges remain, but throughout the day I saw signs of hope for a new (or perhaps re-discovered?) paradigm, whereby teachers take ownership of teaching, and do not have to outsource professional expertise to the government, Ofsted or self-appointed gurus. At the heart of this lies a sophisticated, nuanced, role for research findings; viewed through the lens of professional judgement; implemented in an incremental and well-evaluated fashion.

It won’t be long before Tom’s tricky toddler reaches school-starting age, and then who knows what the future will bring?