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 teaching, 8(3), 381-391.
Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2017). The relation between individual interest and knowledge acquisition. British Educational Research Journal, 43(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.