Research Ed, Riverdale School, New York

Posted on 07-05-2015

Every single research ED conference I’ve been to has been amazing, but this one, for me, was the best yet. Mainly that’s because I got to hear new voices – either people who were completely new to me, or people I’ve read and heard a lot about, but never met before. I love the research ED format of having lots of short speeches: it forces the speakers to distil their message, and means that you are able to pack an incredible amount in. I learnt so much from the day and I have taken away a long reading list I need to follow up with. Here’s my summary of the day.

Session 1: John Mighton
John Mighton is founder of JUMP, a maths programme. He gave an overview of the programme and the research behind it, and some of the success it’s had. He also quoted one of my favourite papers – Herbert Simon’s Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology – and referred to another one I hadn’t heard of by Louis Alfieri: Does Discovery-Based Instruction Enhance Learning?  JUMP has mainly been used in Canadian schools, but I was surprised to hear it had been trialled in my home borough of Lambeth, in London. I need to find out more about that too!

Session 2: Me
I was speaking in this session (about my book), and annoyingly had been scheduled against two edu legends: Tom Bennett, founder of research ED, and Valarie Lewis, former principal of the incredible Core Knowledge School, PS 124. I visited Valarie’s school two years ago, when she was still principal. It is amazing, as is she – fortunately I was able to talk to her afterwards and get a potted summary of her session.

Session 3: Gary Jones & Betsy and Diana Sissons
I did want to see Betsy and Diana Sissons in this session, but unfortunately the room was full up by the time I got there! However, I saw some tantalising tweets from their session, which was about teaching vocabulary. I definitely need to read more about their work. Gary Jones is a fellow Brit, and spoke about evidence-informed research, with reference to some of Chris Brown’s work on this.

Session 4: Ben Riley
This was probably my favourite session of the day. I had corresponded with Ben before the conference about the work he is doing with Deans for Impact. Ben has brought together a great team of people, including Dan Willingham and Paul Bruno, to design a teacher training curriculum based on the principles of cognitive science. As well as introducing some of the elements of the curriculum to us, Ben also talked a bit about the history of other professions and the ways they have changed and adopted new ideas. This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, and which has relevance to a lot of discussions we’re having in the UK at the moment, particularly those around a Royal College of Teaching. Ben also referenced a book about the history of medicine by Kenneth Ludmerer, and one about the history of management by Mie Augier and James March.

Session 5: Angela Logan-Smith
Angela is another amazing Core Knowledge head teacher, of Goldie Maple school in Queens. I was also lucky enough to visit her school two years ago, and again, it was great to hear about all the success her school has had. I was particularly interested to hear that the teachers in her K-8 school now specialised according to subject, instead of grade level. That may be one of the implications of a knowledge-rich primary curriculum.

Session 6: Karin Chenoweth
This was an unexpected bonus of a session. I hadn’t heard of Karin before and wasn’t really sure what the session would be about, but it was fantastic and I found myself nodding along at every point. Karin had done lots of interviews with successful leaders in schools in challenging circumstances (including Angela at Goldie Maple), and tried to distil what makes them successful. For example, successful heads keep a ‘laser-like focus on what pupils need to learn’, and for them, ‘evidence trumps opinion.’ Her presentation included videos of her interviews with staff and children at some of these schools, including one lovely video of a fifth grade pupil talking about how much she loved learning new things. I found out later that Karin had actually written a nice article about my book on the HuffPo website last year.

Session 7: Dan Willingham
This was the session we had all been waiting for, and despite that, it still managed to exceed those expectations. What was so amazing about Dan’s presentation is that it felt like we were hearing something really new – it wasn’t on the subject of any of his three books, but was instead called ‘the challenge of persuading believers’. The first half was a review of the research on the cognitive biases we are all subject to, and the second was made up of Dan’s own advice and tips on trying to change people’s minds, given the nature of these biases. It was genuinely fascinating, and I didn’t want it to end. On the first half, the subject of the cognitive biases we are all prey to, I am always reminded of the TS Eliot line: Humankind cannot bear very much reality. On the second half, I have been mulling over Dan’s advice ever since. He recommends picking your battles – sometimes it’s better to be at peace than to be right, and also that persuasion takes time – often, all you can do in one conversation is to plant a seed.

Session 8: Robert Janke
This was another unexpected bonus. Robert spoke about some of the common errors, biases and flaws in statistics and research. He also gave us all a helpful handout with some of the most common examples. He is the author of Errors in Evidence-Based Decision Making: Improving and Applying Research Literacy.

As well as all of these sessions, there were other highlights. I got to meet Paul Bruno for the first time, and Robert Craigen for the second. Eric Kalenze gave me his book, which I’m really looking forward to reading. I didn’t hear Lucy Crehan speak, as I was trying hard not to go to the sessions of people I can easily hear at home! But her session sounded great, and her project is a fantastic one. I missed Mary Whitehouse’s session for the same reason, but was delighted to be able to talk to her more than I ever have done in England. Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale school, was a wonderful host, and Riverdale school the most beautiful place. All in all it was phenomenal, and has certainly planted a lot of seeds in my mind.