Five research insights that shone a light on 2020/21

13 Jul 2021, 5:00

JL Dutaut selects five contributions to our regular research column that have informed and elightened our year


Are exams really the only option?  

Cat Scutt, director of education and research, Chartered College of Teaching

research - Cat Scutt

Always ready with a perfectly timed evidence-based intervention, Cat Scutt offered a piece on exams and teacher assessment back when this year’s exams were still definitely, definitely going ahead.

And if Scutt is consistent about anything more than relevance, it’s relentlessly focusing on teacher empowerment. Recapping all the arguments for exams, she went on to argue that a mixed system could be made to work, but warned that “moving to teacher assessment […] could damage the relationship between schools, pupils and parents. 

When exams were cancelled, boards produced exam-lite materials. We’ll soon find out whether that was enough to protect that important relationship.


What do we know about the hidden lives of learners?

Harry Fletcher-Wood, associate dean, Ambition Institute

research - Harry Fletcher-WoodIn a touching tribute to the late Professor Graham Nuthall, Harry Fletcher-Wood reviewed the key insights that emanated from his lifetime’s work researching the hidden lives of learners.

With so much focus on cognitive science of late, Nuthall’s appreciation for the complexity of the learning process offers a counter-balance to some of the shortcuts teachers are often presented with. “We must look beyond rituals,” Fletcher-Wood concludes, “learning what students are really thinking and what they have understood if we are to help them.”  

So keen was Nuthall to avoid over-simplification that he was still working on his opus when he passed away. It’s comforting to know others are picking up the baton.


Have changing attitudes made masks this season’s must-have?

Laura McInerney, co-founder, Teacher Tapp

research - Laura McInerney“One day historians will look back on this period with the same sense of wonder with which we look back at WWII gas masks,” wrote Laura McInerney, setting the context in our first edition of the academic year.

Charting teachers’ changing attitudes to mask-wearing in schools over the first nine months of Covid disruption, she found that by September “a small majority of teachers thought the benefits of masks outweighed the disbenefits”.

With mask-wearing mooted to become optional nationally in a few weeks’ time and infection rates in schools reportedly soaring, we look forward to Teacher Tapp’s ongoing sounding of teachers’ evolving relationship with them. In the meantime, we can reflect with McInerney that, indeed, “dystopia is not what it once was”.


What does good online teaching and learning look like?

Jon Eaton, director, Kingsbridge Research School

research -Jon EatonThe Education Endowment Foundation’s Research Schools Network has provided a host of insights straight from the classroom this year, but none has been a more honest reflection on implementation than this, by Jon Eaton.

Looking back on an early foray into online teaching by means of a pre-recorded lesson on Othello, Eaton’s self-assessment borrows Iago’s mocking words: “mere prattle without practice”. He goes on to turn that self-criticism into a teachable moment, drawing on the EEF’s home-learning planning framework.

But perhaps the most powerful insight here is Eaton’s acknowledgment of his real reason for avoiding live lessons: “fear of live public failure”. Live lessons would go on to become the norm, and it can only have been a reassurance to others to know they weren’t alone in that.  

The future may yet hold more closures – but the tools and the confidence to deal with them have been greatly helped by the kind of professionalism evident here.


Is a return to normality what Year 6 pupils need?

Alice Bradbury, associate professor, UCL Institute of Education

research -Alice BradburyWith the cancellation of SATs for a second year running, Alice Bradbury revealed pre-pandemic research on the tests’ divisive effects. Headteacher interviews and surveys showed they caused a variety of ‘dividing practices’ to take place – practices “they don’t want to do, but feel they have to, because the tests are so important”.

No doubt research will reveal the effects of the cancellation on year 6 teachers and pupils – and its repercussions on year 7 and beyond. Meanwhile, we don’t yet know whether or how they will go ahead next year, but one thing is clear: reform could easily negate some of the perverse incentives they create.


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