Research won’t ‘tell teachers what to do’

Professor Dylan Wiliam believes that education will always “fall short” of being a research-based profession.

Dr Wiliam (pictured), emeritus professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, told the conference that although he believed research evidence to be important, it would “never tell teachers what to do”.

He said: “The classrooms that teachers work in are just too complex for the research to ever say ‘this course of action is bound to be better than that course of action’, so teachers will always have to exercise professional judgment.

“Teachers have to be professionals deciding for themselves whether the research is applicable in this particular context with my particular students in the context of what I’m teaching them.”

Speaking about particular research methods, Dr Wiliam explained how randomised control trials (RCT) were an effective research tool. Using statistical power was the chance that a big enough effect could be found, but he questioned whether or not education experiments were ever big enough to do this.

“If we have a slightly biased coin, we toss it ten times and we get six heads and four tails, that might be evidence that it is biased. But the problem is that it might not. It could just be a chance variation.

“If we throw it a thousand times and get 600 heads and 400 tails then I think we are on much safer grounds concluding that the coin is biased. So the size of the experiment matters.”

I don’t think it’s important for all teachers to be engaged in actually doing research

Speaking about the future of education policy, Dr Wiliam said: “In my perfect universe, every teacher would have to improve.

“It would be non-negotiable . . . to keep your job you have to get better at something. And you always have to get better at something for which there is research evidence that shows that getting better at this is going to help your students.”

He added: “I want all teachers to be engaging with research, I want all teachers to be pushing their own practice and developing their own ideas of how to improve their classroom work. But I don’t think it’s important for all teachers to be engaged in actually doing research.

“Teachers who want to do it should be supported . . . it’s great if teachers want to write up what they’re doing and share it with other teachers. If teachers want to do masters degrees and PhDs that is great too. That should be their choice.

“What I think should be non-negotiable, is the idea that every teacher should be getting better at something that is likely to benefit their students.
“But the first challenge is time; teachers’ time is very busy. Stephen Covey [an American educator, author and businessman] used to talk about a man trying to cut through a big lump of wood with a blunt sword and somebody says to him, ‘why don’t you sharpen the sword?’ and the man says, ‘I haven’t got time’. At the moment our teachers are too busy sawing to give themselves time to sharpen the sword.

“Time is always a constraint but teachers need to find enough to reflect on what they’re doing and reflect on research evidence, so that when they come back to their classrooms they are actually more effective than they were before.”


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