Tom Sherrington, headteacher at Highbury Grove School, north London, on how research can be absorbed into classroom practice in a meaningful way

The aim of my talk was to look at four different kinds of research and get people to consider the extent to which teachers accepted their findings and how they might allow it to influence their practice.

First was John Hattie’s meta-analysis of homework research. Compiled from 160-plus studies, Hattie generated a “relative effect size” to see what the effect might be if teachers use homework (versus not).

I had previously written about this topic on my blog, and Hattie himself wrote a note explaining that the results of his research are dependent on the way that it is implemented – for example, there are large differences in effect sizes between primary and secondary, and across variables such as class size, streaming, etc.

The second piece of research I presented was Robert Bjork’s research into memory. Many of Bjork’s ideas derive from experiments where people (often university students) engage in controlled trials. In these trials the participants learn and recall material in various ways.

In one example participants are presented with information about birds and butterflies in a blocked sequence, and then in an interleaved sequence. The subjects’ capacity to use that information is assessed at a later time.

The experiment found that, on average, people learn more effectively when material is either interleaved or spaced, even if they perceive that they’ve learned better through learning material in a block. Though the sample sizes seem small – 100 or so and sometimes less – the experiments have been repeated with similar results. There are grounds for considering the results indicate “a truth” about how we learn.

Does this mean teachers should interleave when planning pedagogy? It seems sensible if it helps students to remember. But transferring the assumption of what works when memorising discrete information (as in these studies) to the sorts of complex synoptic learning tasks students counter in the curriculum might not be the same thing. There might be more information we need before we can say that it would work for our purposes.

Different people will absorb research in different ways, but all can be useful

The third example I gave was from Learning to Learning, authored by Mary James et al. There is a whole section of the book dedicated to research evidence.

In one study, 37 teachers were interviewed, and 27 of them had their lessons video-recorded and analysed. Numerous conclusions were drawn including the idea that a few (20 per cent) showed in their lessons “the spirit of Assessment for Learning” (AfL, a type of feedback system for students); whilst the others modelled a more rigid “letter of AfL” approach. Those showing “the spirit of AfL” were only judged to have delivered more effective lessons but, on interview, were more likely to accept responsibility for overcoming external pressures and creating solutions to problems.

Some bold claims are made from this small study, eg, the suggestion that “the spirit of AfL” is inherently positive. But that appears to be based more on a value than evidence.

The final example I presented was an MA thesis, written by one of my former colleagues. To complete it, my colleague had engaged students in extended dialogues about upcoming written work. The writing the students then produced was considered superior to their prior pieces. The teacher interviewed three pupils and found out what they thought of the process.

While the results of this thesis might not be considered “rigorously scientific”, it did tell the teacher something about useful about her practice and about the students.

I contrasted these pieces of research to show that there are limitations and issues with all types of studies. Furthermore, different people will absorb them in different ways. The large-scale study with averaged-out findings is set against very small-scale studies with detailed findings relating to one context, but all can be useful.

To engage with any research numerous questions need to be asked about its purpose. Teachers should get behind any research findings to examine the details rather than taking headlines at face value.

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Tom Sherrington is Headteacher at Highbury Grove School in north London