Headlines are poor proxies for research.

So here goes. The other day Laura McInerney  at ResearchEd Blackpool posted on Twitter this much-repeated list of ‘Poor Proxies for Learning’, asking How many of these are you guilty of thinking will equal learning?

I replied

I have disliked this list for some time. A teacher who achieves these in their class IS doing a fine job. And, if not individually, in combination these will be good proxies for learning. Leaders should not be criticised for wanting to see them.

You can see some of the replies and thoughts on https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“>proxies for learning here. Of course, I understand Rob Coe’s point that busy or engaged or motivated students, or ordered classrooms, or ones where the course is covered are not the same thing as learning, but I worry about the reactions of some teachers and school leaders seeing this list.

  • It sneers at teachers who strive to achieve exactly the things which are on this list.
  • It implies that these conditions are not worth striving for.
  • It may lead some teachers and school leaders to downgrade the achievement of these conditions.
  • It encourages the despairing conclusion that we cannot ever know that learning has taken place until public exams results are in – and that only those matter.

I know I have substituted the word ‘conditions’ for ‘proxies’. I know that this means I am guilty of a category error, where I mistake the difference between a prerequisite for a thing and the thing itself. But consider the position of the teacher teaching a class, or a school leader watching the lesson. When I was teaching (I remember it well – it was not long ago), I would have been delighted if I ever managed to cover the full content of a curriculum, when that curriculum kept changing and growing. If I ever motivated all of my students so that they were interested in what I was saying and engaged in what I wanted them to do, I would have chalked that up as a stunning success. There were very many times when my classroom was not ordered or calm, so I was definitely happy when it was. More to the point, I know that my students did learn better when they were engaged in busy, well-ordered lessons. It took me several hard years to achieve lessons like those on a consistent basis. And, when it became my role to help other teachers, it took much energy on my part (and much more on theirs) to achieve something like those conditions in their lessons.

School leaders should strive for those conditions in their schools. I mean, imagine if they did not. I know that it is not the intention of those who produce and reproduce the proxies list to suggest that they are (all) undesirable, but I do fear that that is how they are interpreted.

Those who publish research on well-visited platforms have a duty to consider the consequences of misinterpretation, and to at least try not to cause it. Some recent EEF reports have been headlined in a way that I feel is irresponsible. For example, what is a school leader to make of this?

New EEF trial results: ‘light-touch’ approaches to research unlikely to impact pupil outcomes

Will they see the ‘light touch’ and think, erm… that’s exactly what I do? For most schools, to be engaged in research and to seek to be informed by research often is a light-touch exercise. They trawl through their twitter feed late at night, look for some promising blogs to read, maybe look to make something more of the connections they have with a local university. Surely to goodness, these are activities to be encouraged. It is not encouraging to learn from an EEF sub-editor that it is unlikely to impact pupil outcomes. Worse still, it might lead some leaders to conclude that that journal club they have running is a waste of time. They should have read the report, of course, and added their own emphasis (as I have here):

While the evaluators from the University of Bristol found no evidence that the programme led to improvements in reading outcomes for ten and eleven year olds, the findings suggests that there may be a relationship between how engaged teachers are with research, and the attainment of their pupils. There was also some evidence that being in a Research Learning Community increased teachers’ engagement with research.

And perhaps they ought also to have read EEF Senior Researcher Jonathan Sharples’ blog . In it, he concludes that the light-touch research approaches described in the report were indeed worthwhile, and he references the 2016 EPPI review.

Importantly, in addition to reviewing different mechanisms to mobilise evidence, they also looked at the behavioural requirements that were necessary for those various approaches to have an impact. This included having:

  1. opportunities to engage with the interventions
  2. the motivations to do so, and
  3. the skills and capabilities to understand and use the outputs.

Dig down far enough into the EEF website and there is everything there the teacher and leader needs to be well-informed. Bravo. However, how many teachers and leaders crack their spade on the hard crust of the top line?

digging_hole001

Headlines are poor proxies for research.

 

 

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Why I am writing Europejski

Warsaw 1987

Author’s photo, Warsaw c1987, taken from the Palace of Culture

I am not sure about the compulsion to write. Many authors, when asked why they do it, reply that they write because they have to, or words to that effect. Are they addicted to it? Does their body require it? Perhaps I am missing out on something. Perhaps the reason I have written so little, and so unsuccessfully, is because they have something I have not got.

But I do write. I do it every day. I didn’t use to. For almost all of my adult life I was a teacher, who wrote lesson plans and reports and comments on students’ work, but little that would be termed creative. I did write a novel, and it took me 16 years: that’s how long a novel takes when you are a full-time teacher. For most of those years I wasn’t writing at all, although the story was always nagging away in the background. I would say, that novel did have to be written: it was the only way I could shrug it off.

Perhaps that’s what the compulsion to write actually is: a shrugging off. Once the idea has entered the head, the only way of dispelling it is to write it out. Write it out on the screen, write it out of the system. That feels true in my case. The novel I am currently writing (for now, I am calling it Europejski) has sat inside me in various forms for thirty years. I did try to write it out once before, in a novella I called Outsidelines. I failed to get it published – and re-reading it now, I see why – but it served its purpose at the time. The ideas I was grappling with then were dealt with and I could move on. The fact that I have returned to the core of those ideas only goes to show that ‘shrugging off’ might be an incomplete action. The idea may be mightier than the pen.

‘The idea’. That makes it sound like a complete thing. It also makes it sound important, original, essential. I wish it were so! My idea is probably none of those things and it certainly is not complete. Mine is shape-shifting, irregular and of a state somewhere between a gas and a solid. It is here right in front of me, but it’s also over there in a yet-unrecovered memory. Writing it out, then, is also an attempt to give it a form, to fix it. The form it takes must be the best possible representation of the original idea. That’s the job of the writer. That’s what I must do.

What’s my idea, and where did it come from? Europejski is a spy story and a political intrigue. It deals with a group of student friends in Warsaw in the late 1980s, one of whom is Irish; ten years later they are forced to confront again what they did as youths, and the implications this may have for the country. This is the form my novel is taking, and the idea of it. It is about trust when it is tested, and about the kinds of love that endure. Or, rather, that’s what I want it to be about – that’s how I want the thoughts in my head to take shape.

How these thoughts got into my head could also be a novel, if I wanted this to be autobiographical. Europejski is not my experience, but my experience has made me knowledgeable of the events I describe and invent. I first went to Poland in 1986 and returned every year until I moved to live there for three years in the early 1990s. I had a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, Marcus Wheeler, who nurtured my historical and cultural interests in the country. I had friends at the Warsaw university at the centre of the novel, some of whom are my great friends still. There were political demonstrations among students and others at the times I describe, and the pivotal moment I have filched from an historical source. I have invented nearly every character, but inevitably for a novel set in a real place amongst real events there are people I name who did exist, and I have made them do things they never did. That’s one of the troubling definitions of fiction: it tells lies in order to get at the truth. I am not a character in the novel; no one I know personally is. I stretched my imagination far enough to embrace students, their families and teachers, some journalists, and a spy and her government controller. I have navigated between three cities across two timeframes.

Nowadays my full-time job is not teaching, so I can write every day. Every day I try to fix the idea to the page. Every day I fail a little. But I am shrugging it off.