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Thoughts on another gap in education

Earlier this year I attended the  International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement ( ICSEI ) in Cincinnatti. At this congress one of the big issues still vexing many of the researchers and educational thinkers was the gap that still exists between the knowledge base of what we know works in improving learning and education systems, and the actual practice that still exists in schools and systems all over the world. If we have research, evidence and data that clearly demonstrates practices and principles that improve outcomes for learners, what is stopping systems, schools and teachers from implementing these? After all, we all constantly state our desire to improve and the need to be better for the benefit of all our learners, and society as a whole, so why wouldn't we try to implement what we know works? Something gets in the way, and I have been wondering what this might be. Unsurprisingly, my conclusion is that there are a number of factors at play which prevent us from implementing what has been shown to work. These might just be some of them.

The first is that we misinterpret findings of research or, worse, we mutate them into something they were never meant to be so that they no longer have the impact expected or demonstrated in the original piece of work. All research findings are open to different interpretations according to one's bias or particular political, social or educational stance. We can all find articles, books and opinion pieces where people have taken the same pieces of research and used them to support their own particular agenda or view. I have seen the work of Dylan Wiliam, Carol Dweck's and Michael Fullan been used to validate practices that are diametrically opposed to each other. There are also a host of well informed pieces of research and conclusions that have been changed almost beyond recognition when they have reached the hands of some of those within the system, and those who wish to supply the system with resources and programmes. We have only to look at what happened with Formative Assessment and AIfL, which quickly became a myriad of techniques and gimmicks as the original messages of Black and Wiliam's work was distilled and finally lost for many. As the underlying principles and messages became lost, so too did the intended impact and people began to question the focus, as they began looking for the next 'thing' to try. I am afraid we can also see the same process beginning with Hattie's meta-research on Visible Learning and Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset research. These too have been quickly turned into resources to be sold and programmes to be bought as we move further and further away from the original findings. What we keep losing sight of is the main messages and the work and time that produced these, because we seem to want everything delivered quickly and simply so we can give it to teachers and schools to deliver. Then we wonder why the impacts are not what the original research suggested they should be.

Next, there are still too many in the system who don't like change. I include teachers, school leaders and system leaders in this. To many, change represents a requirement to move out of their comfort zones and embrace new ideas and practices that fly in the face of the practices that got them where they are in the first place. The 'I know best' school of thought can be very resistant to change and find it very threatening. There are many who feel threatened by change which may challenge their understandings about learning and their own particular role. I still meet teachers and school leaders, who are of the mindset that they have always done things in a certain way 'I have been teaching/leading for over 15 yrs now'. They are the ones who think they have got teaching, learning and the system sussed and just need to be left to get on with it. They will often argue that everything comes around again if you wait long enough in education. The truth is it probably will, if left to such practitioners and thinkers, as they are closed to new thinking, research and evidence that might contradict what they have always held to be true. This group can of course include politicians and others in the system, who have no deep understanding of what impacts on learning, but still have very strong views on what constitutes good learning and good schools, based on nothing more than their own personal experience or opinion. They like to talk of the good old days of education, traditional values, testing, accountability, rigour and other characteristics found in the best schools and systems. Often this group has far more influence than is good for them, or our education systems. Both of these groups need to be challenged. I love the maxim, 'If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got.' If we want education to be better, changes have to be made.

Even when we have been prepared to embrace change, we have also have for many years chased 'quick fixes' and the Eldarado of 'Silver bullets' in education. This is I feel due to the unending pressure schools and their leaders have been under to improve results, and to do it quickly. So we have to be seen to be busy and also seen to be embracing latest fads and trends that are like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in their ability to deliver sustained improvements for all learners. We don't have time to step back, examine claims and counter claims, reflect on evidence and research, as those above us in the system have demanded action and results, and perhaps encouraged a culture where it is okay to ignore all that academic research stuff and get on with the real job. I can think of no other profession where the generators of knowledge that will help the profession get better have been so derided for many years, and have been seen by many as a bit airy fairy. This is a sad reflection for many in the profession and it has been one factor in de-professionalising teaching so that we see teachers as mere deliverers of programmes and resources that are handed to them by others. It still makes me cringe when I hear teachers and school leaders say 'just tell us what to do.' Really? Is that what we want as professional educators? It's not my vision of a thinking professional with adaptive expertise, who is contributing to professional knowledge generation. I think we need to take more ownership of our practice and development, we need to slow down and we need to engage with the research base, so that we take informed decisions about change to give us the best opportunity for deep sustainable development that benefits all learners. There are no 'silver bullets' to school and system development just the hard slog of relentless, informed improvement.

Another approach that is doomed to failure is the 'one size fits all' approach. In this, we look at what is seen to be successful in one school, one area, or even one country and then think we can transplant it wholesale into another school, area or country and get the same results. This is an approach usually favoured by the misinformed, the naive, the ignorant or by politicians. I wouldn't dare to suggest that the latter group might have all of these characteristics, but you do wonder! Adoptees of such an approach often have a lot of stamps in their passports but little understanding of the social, cultural, historical, geographical or economic factors at play in systems in countries like Finland or cities like London, Manchester or New York. 'Tell us what you do, and we will get our schools and systems to do the same, then we can all be at the top of the PISA rankings together' would seem to be how they think, showing their lack of deep understanding of system change, contextual factors at play and of basic statistics. The trouble is that many of these educational tourists have great influence, set agendas and control resources. They haven't got the time to engage critically with research or real 'evidence' and just seem to surround themselves with advisors who have to give them the main messages succinctly in order to grab some headlines. Is it any wonder they lose so much of the nuances contained in most research? They can do a lot of damage, as they deflect everyone in the system from what might be an appropriate agenda on to one that might look good on paper but which in reality makes little difference to the vast majority of learners in the system.

Of course researchers have to shoulder their share of the blame over the gap between what we know and what we do. They too have been part of a culture that has been quite sniffy and dismissive of work in schools and of teachers. True, many are now working to redress this balance and ICSEI is a good example of an organisation that is trying to bring researchers and thinkers in education together with practitioners. This is the only way we are going to break down the barriers that have built up over time, and both sides of this educational equation need to be working at this. At next year's conference, to be held in Glasgow in January, there is going to be one full day dedicated to practitioners sharing innovative practice and knowledge with the researchers and policy makers in attendance. This is a super step forward and still much needed. At the Cincinnati conference I asked a researcher to explain what the messages were from his research for practitioners and his reply was that this was for other to consider. He saw himself as a pure researcher. Therein lies a problem. Surely all research has to have a practical and informative purpose, otherwise what's the point?

I am optimistic for the future. I believe educators, schools and systems recognise the need to be informed by research, and can see that by using such research they can save themselves from travelling up more blind alleys and wasting precious development time and resources. The first step to addressing any gap is to recognise that it exists. It then takes people working on both sides of the gap to work together to minimise it, for the betterment of teachers, schools and systems, but most importantly for all the young learners who could go on to achieve even more than they do now. It would be good to think they could achieve all that they do because of the system, rather than despite it.


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