Research evidence or Professional Judgement?

So, what works?

It is a question teachers ask every day of the week. Whether it is ‘does this mastery stuff in maths work then?‘, or ‘what should I get my students to revise this week?‘, or ‘what literacy programme should I pick for Jane, who is struggling big time with her comprehension?‘ We are questioning machines – and don’t try and get us all to agree on the answers either!

Today was a day out of school for me, leading Research-lead training for a group of teachers and school leaders in North Lincolnshire. I came away inspired by teachers exercising their professional judgement and grappling with research evidence. Some were going back to their schools to ask tough questions, others had lots of new ideas. I took away what I think it the best  new idea to help reading I have heard in ages.

Once home, nursing a cold [say ahh!], I read this blog by Sue Cowley entitled: ‘What Works for What?‘ It was a blog that jarred with my lived experience today and flew in the face of some of my views. I love Twitter and blogging for that. Before social media, I only ever read things I agreed with. I am now much better off for listening to voices like Sue.

Still, I wanted to engage in conversation with Sue and give my perspective as a teacher and school leader, and in particular, to challenge the notion that research evidence is something to be held in opposition to professional judgment. You see, I view research evidence, from RCTs to action research, with everything in between, as helping teachers and enhancing their professional judgement. It is a great extra quiver in our bow, not a stick to beat us with.

Now, for the sake of open disclosure, my school is an Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Insititute for Effective Education (IEE) Research School. We work closely sharing and translating research evidence; training teachers to make informed professional judgements, piloting strategies and programmes that they can better evaluate; whilst supporting schools to undertake their own trials, to find out what works best for children in their school.

The training I led today was for teachers in primary and secondary schools, in a range of existing roles in their schools. We started with this cycle as a handy guide, devised by the EEF:

I have held by Step 1: ‘Identify school priorities using internal data and professional judgement, before undertaking Step: 2, review ‘External evidence summarized in the Toolkit can be used to inform choices‘, for a couple of years now. It has helped challenge, support, and ultimately enhance my professional judgement. I hope I have helped other teachers and school leaders do the same.

Without compromising any confidential information from my training with teachers today, we considered lots of the evidence from the EEF Toolkit and far beyond. We talked about its limitations and how some was simply not useful, or how some research evidence jarred so much with our beliefs that it would never be enacted. We looked at adverts for popular educational products and programmes and took a highly critical eye to them. We considered the “downsides” that Sue Cowley poses in depth.

We have spent part of the training time analysing adverts for popular programmes and educational products. Every school spends countless pounds on this stuff. The national total would dwarf the spending on research projects annually in English by many billions of pounds. If we made better choices in this regard, or ‘just said no’ more, we could save millions.

We spent the day looking at the brilliant messiness of classroom teaching, whist considering how we can, and should, still evaluate our practice and our students’ learning; we scrutinised the impact of ubiquitous ‘revision classes’; we analysed metacognition and what it meant for the classroom. We tackled the theory, practice and criticism of Dweck’s mindset research.

I used this image just like this in my presentation which sums up much of the day:

Engaging with research evidence, for me, is about teachers being empowered to make choices – to exercise their professional judgment – as Sue rightly implores in her passionate blog.

A key message in our training today is being research-informed. We should stop doing some stuff, as well as offering different perspectives from our personal experiences, challenging our intuitions, without supplanting them like some thoughtless mannequins. We shouldn’t buy the latest fad, or even the next viable, seemingly excellent resource or educational programme, without first turning a critical eye on how it works, why it works, and whether it will work in our context – oh, and with what year groups, subjects, classes, students etc. Does that mean trying to “scientise education”? I’m not sure, but for me, that is a good thing.

I don’t know if the training and the professional dialogue we held as teachers today was the stuff of ‘Emperor’s new clothes’. I didn’t think it was, but we should have our beliefs challenged every once in a while, lest we cause teachers any more undue work (or foist more grammar schools on them, regardless of the evidence to the contrary).

In my view we need more evidence and more critical thinking. It boosts our professional judgement no end. I also used the well known aphorism by Dylan Wiliam today – again, bringing evidence together to enhance our professional judgment:

“[In education] ‘what works?’, which is what politicians would love to know about, is the not the right question, because [in education] everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. The interesting question is ‘under what conditions does this work?”


Image via Pixabay:

4 thoughts on “Research evidence or Professional Judgement?”

  1. Philippa Cordingley

    Enjoyed this – as I so often enjoy your blogs. I would add a key question to the what works mantra – what works why – and how. The why and how questiins help us develop practical theories which join the dots and help us personalise our use of research…
    And the deeper and more evidence based our knowledge or our students & the barriers they face to learning is – the better the questions we pose of research and the more accurstely we can put it to work in the service of learners

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  3. A great consideration of a questions I have been grappling with recently. Being a teacher researcher I often wonder whether people value the findings of my studies or the evidence of the studies I have reviewed, or whether they would rather use their own professional judgement and as such turn away for research evidence. I feel it’s really important that teachers engage with research to enhance their professional judgement or just provide some evidence based backing for the decisions they have made or ideas they are trying. If we are to move forward as a profession we must be forward thinking and willing to look outwardly whilst trusting our gut.

    1. Alex Quigley

      Thanks Katy. I think teachers need better support to think, reflect, refine and improve. Our job is so important and yet we are expected to just get better by turning up annually. I think being given the time, training and tools to engage with research evidence, we can create the conditions for professional improvement. There is a lot of finding evidence to support our biases. For me, that is why it is more than just surveying evidence, but training teachers to better evaluate their practice.

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