Friday 14 July 2017

In teaching, what works? (The answer is obvious when you think about it.) - Guest post from Professor Tim Cain

This week's contribution is a guest post by Tim Cain, who is Professor in Education and Director of the Research Centre for Schools, Colleges, and Teacher Education, Edge Hill University - who asks the question : In teaching what works? (The answer is obvious when you think about it.)  However before we proceed, I think it would be worth making a few things clear.   First,  the post has not been subject to any kind of editorial control - in other words, the topic was chosen by Professor Cain and I've made no changes to the post whatsoever, other than to cut and past the original document into my blog.  Second, I have decided to post the blog without comment, as I believe it's only right and proper that Professor Cain's words speak for themselves.  Third, and I would say this, I think researchers and bloggers working together to raise issues about evidence-based practice should be more common, with bloggers, researchers and teachers having much to gain from the on-line and other conversations generated by this form of communication.  So I now give you the work of Professor Tim Cain.

What works? Consider these scenarios:
Scenario 1: The teacher is at the front of the class, talking and displaying a PowerPoint. The material is well structured and attractively presented, and the teacher’s sense of humour helps to lighten the challenging nature of the material. She doesn’t notice that, near the back of the class, two girls are sharing photographs on a mobile phone and mouthing messages at each other. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn.
Scenario 2: Children are in groups of five or six around tables. They are supposedly discussing a poem they have just read. As the teacher approaches one group, one of the children reads the poem aloud and they make a brief show of discussing the poem’s rhyming scheme together. As the teacher leaves them, they resume their previous conversation about one of their friends. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn. 
Scenario 3: Children are in pairs at a computer, searching the internet for information. When they have found a page they think is relevant, they print it off and glue it to a poster, along with several similar pages. They design a reader-friendly title to the poster but they haven’t read the print-offs very carefully and haven’t noticed that they aren’t all relevant to the title. They’re not learning what the teacher wants them to learn.
People who promote the idea of research-informed teaching often compare teaching with the medical profession: medicine is research-informed and teaching isn’t. Responses to this idea often include the obvious retort that, whereas medicine and surgery (although not all healthcare interventions) ‘work’ without much active participation from patients beyond turning up for the surgery and remembering to take the tablets, education relies totally on active and sustained participation by the students. In most instances, if the students don’t work, they don’t learn. (Unfortunately the corollary is not always true – some students work hard but don’t necessarily learn.)
In his popular and well-informed book Why Don't Students Like School? Dan Willingham points out that students, like everyone else, don’t really want to learn because learning involves thinking and this means hard work. So the answer to the question ‘in teaching, what works?’ is obvious: students do. Of course teachers do too but a hard-working, bright, charismatic teacher can only do so much. In the end, no learning happens if the students are not willing to engage with the subject, extend their abilities, think hard and … well, work. In each of the above scenarios, students don’t learn what their teacher wants them to learn because they don’t work. So when thinking about ‘what works?’ in your existing school, you will include questions such as, ‘is a particular teaching and learning innovation likely to increase or decrease the students’ work-rate?’
This doesn’t mean, of course, that innovations must be geared entirely to the particular interest of students. The idea that, for instance, students will increase their interest in poetry if poetry is taught through the medium of rap music, has not been proven by research. On the contrary, there is evidence that students’ interest in a subject increases as a consequence of learning about that subject, rather than the other way around (Rotgans & Schmidt 2017). However, as Rotgans & Schmidt (2017) acknowledge, students do not learn unless they have some interest in the subject, even if that interest is inspired entirely within a lesson, is only temporary and is limited to the particular situation of being taught the subject. So to extend the analogy, students’ interest in poetry might actually be better increased through the medium of Shakespeare’s sonnets than rap music, but only if they can be motivated to acquire sufficient ‘situational interest’ to put in some work into learning about Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The situation is similar for school leaders who are considering research-informed innovations. Meaningful innovations require school staff to work hard – to think differently and to act differently. Innovations work only if the school staff are sufficiently motivated to work. Again, there is no reason to believe that this motivation needs to be a prior condition. Staff motivation can be generated through, for instance, inspirational leadership, high quality CPD or, most persuasively, clear evidence of greater progress by the students in their own classes (Guskey 2002). But in education (unlike medicine or surgery) it is not the innovation itself that ‘works’; the innovation is not the cure. Rather, the innovation is a tool to be used – well or badly, enthusiastically or reluctantly – by the teaching staff and the students. When considering research-informed innovations, it might not be sufficient for school leaders to say, ‘This is evidence-informed, just do it!’ Instead, they might ask questions like, ‘What will motivate my staff to adopt this innovation?’ What will sustain their motivation over time?’ and ‘What will sustain their motivation in the face of difficulty?’ The trick is to think of research-informed innovations as tools, not cures, and to remember who (not what) works.
Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and teaching8(3), 381-391.
Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2017). The relation between individual interest and knowledge acquisition. British Educational Research Journal43(2), 350-371.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saturday 8 July 2017

The school research lead and management gurus: John Kotter - what's the evidence for his eight steps in leading change

A few weeks ago I wrote about the need for school leaders to be appropriately critical of the work of educational and management 'gurus'.   One such guru is John Kotter, whose name is often found in lists of world's leading management thinkers.  Indeed,  Kotter's influence is not limited to business - with the  leading educationalist @Andy_Buck - author of the popular book - Leadership Matters  recently tweeting 'when it comes to change, you can't beat  Kotter'.   

So with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to see whether there's any empirical evidence to support Kotter's most well-known model - the eight step process for leading change.  In doing so, we will draw upon the work of (Appelbaum, Habashy, Malo, & Shafiq, 2012) who looked at fifteen years of literature of change management in order to see whether there is evidence to support Kotter's change management model.

First published in 1995 in the Harvard Business Review and subsequently in 1996 as a book - Leading Change - Kotter outlines an eight stage process for change management
  1. Establish a sense of urgency about the need to achieve change 
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower broad-based actions
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the corporate culture
However, as Applebaum et al note - Leading Change - is based on Kotter's own personal research and business experience, with there being no supporting footnotes, references or bibliography.  That said, Applebaum et al review of the change management literature found support for most of the steps, although no research studies were found covering all eight steps included in model. As such Applebaum et al note that  Kotter’s change management model appears gain its popularity from its' apparent practicality rather than a robust evidence base confirming success in the use of the model.

Nevertheless,  Applebaum et al go onto argue that Kotter's model might not be appropriate for all types of change and they go onto identify a number of limitations of the model.

A rigid approach - Kotter argues that the eight steps should be followed in sequence and that extended overlapping of the steps will compromise success, implying steps are requisite of one another .... (and) where such prescriptions run counters to the organization's culture they will be either ignored or be ineffective 

Some steps are not relevant in some contexts - Some transformations do require not are able to go through certain steps .... examples could include changes with a needs for a great deal of secrecy, where Steps 1 and 4, will be significantly undermined.

Dealing with difficulties during change management ... Companies implementing changes face many difficulties ... but the model is insufficiently detailed to help in all scenarios

Difficulties os studying change management project - Studying changes management projects is inherently difficult, due to their sheer complexity (p775 -6)

The implication for you as a school-leader

That said, Applebaum et al argue that  Kotter's change management model remains a recommendable reference as the model a useful checklist for leaders and managers who wish to bring about change.  As such school leaders and MAT CEOs who wish to bring about change in their schools and/or academy chains might find Kotter's eight steps a 'good-bet'.  However, that's all it is - a good-bet - which increases the chance of, but does not guarantee successful change.  Indeed, school leaders and MAT CEOs who wish to increase further their chances of success, should take into account the individual culture of the school/MAT so the change process is aligned with how things work in your context.


Appelbaum, S. H., Habashy, S., Malo, J.-L., & Shafiq, H. (2012). Back to the future: revisiting Kotter's 1996 change model. Journal of Management Development, 31(8), 764-782.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change: Harvard Business Press.