Research Ed 2015

Posted on 06-09-2015


Every Research Ed I’ve been to has been brilliant, and every single one has been better than the one before. Great conversations, great people, fascinating ideas – I loved it all. Here is my summary of the day.

Session One
I spoke about replacing national curriculum levels. You can see my slides here: REd 2015 DC. The video is here.

I have been thinking about this issue for about three years now. It is the hardest project I have ever worked on, but also one of the most rewarding. I am really grateful to the people who came along and heard me speak, who offered such helpful suggestions and comments, and who have said kind things about it on twitter. It was a pleasure to be able to present on this topic. I hope it was of some use.

I’ll add one thing to what I said yesterday. At the end, Joe Kirby asked a question about what the government could do to encourage the approaches to assessment I was advocating, and I said, (more or less) very little. Broadly speaking, I am supportive of the move to abolish levels and hand responsibility for the replacements to schools. I think that in the long term, this will lead to better assessment. However, I did also begin my speech by saying that I thought that most of the systems I see schools designing are simply rehashed NC levels. A few people came up to me after the session and asked how i could think this and be so confident about a school-led system, and I think later in the day Sam Freedman spoke about similar issues to do with the capacity and expertise that schools need in order to make a school-led systems work. So how can I be so confident about the absence of government intervention when I am also saying that most schools are not really using their freedom to do anything new? My answer is threefold. First, most schools aren’t doing anything new, but by definition that means that they are basically carrying on with the status quo. So whilst things aren’t improving, they certainly aren’t getting worse (although of course in many cases schools are spending time and energy for little improvement, which does carry a cost). Second, most schools aren’t doing anything new, but a few are. In the medium to long term, if these new approaches prove successful, they could spread across the system. Third, where is the evidence that government intervention would improve things? There is a real risk that government would come up with a bad idea – after all, they are responsible for levels – and even if they came up with the perfect solution, there would also have to be serious doubts about it being implemented perfectly and as intended in every school in the country. So I think the right move is for government to step back and let schools innovate. And I say this as someone who has had some demoralising times over the past year or two looking at the various assessment systems on offer.

Session Three – Eric Kalenze
I heard Eric speak back in May at the New York Research Ed, when he was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Education is Upside Down. It is absolutely fantastic. But then, I would say that, because it has an awful amount in common with my own book. I have been meaning to write about it for ages but there is so much I want to say about that I never finish the post. Essentially, Eric’s argument is that whilst education is in need of significant reform, most of the current reform movements focus too much on structures, and not enough on content. Reformers assume that the main problem with education is that the teachers aren’t working hard enough, so the solution is to make teachers work harder and set up punitive accountability regimes. In actual fact, whilst there is a problem with education, it most certainly is not that teachers are not working hard enough – it is that the system is in the grip of wrong ideas. He makes this argument – in the book and in his speeches – with the use of some really helpful, clear and amusing analogies, including his central one about how the funnel of education is upside down. Rather than criticise the teacher for unskilful use of the funnel, we should turn the funnel the right side up! Eric’s speech was all about the US system, but it was fascinating to consider just how many parallels there are to the UK. No Child Left Behind is so similar to our exam and accountability regime, New York’s SEDL programme so similar to our SEAL, and, I would argue, the often misplaced priorities that reformers have are similar in both countries too. More to follow on this.

Session Four – James Murphy
I loved this session, although I was slightly annoyed as I had planned to do something similar at a future Research Ed! James presented some of the theories of Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and taught us a Maori word using the theories.

Session Five – Amanda Spielman
I got to this session early so I could get a front-row seat and be able to read all the small print on the axes of the graphs that would undoubtedly be presented. I wasn’t disappointed. In every other session, you could get away with a little light tweeting, but not in this one. If your attention went for a minute, you’d have missed several links in the meticulously presented chain of argument, in the rapid deductions, swift as intuitions yet always founded on a logical basis with which Spielman unravelled the problems entailed in carrying out remarks of exams. In Spielman’s presence, it’s hard not to feel like Watson or even Lestrade felt in the presence of Holmes. Of course, such a quiet air of mastery and pre-eminent intelligence can intimidate and even demoralise, but I guess us mere mortals have to soldier on, knowing that whilst we will never understand the nuance and beauty of exam remarking in quite the same way, we can still make our own much smaller contributions. Though we may not be luminous, we can perhaps conduct light. On that note: she recommended reading Measuring Up by Daniel Koretz. My three-part review starts here

Session Six – Katie Ashford
Katie Ashford gave a really practical and constructive session about teaching literacy. The discussion at the end was also really helpful, as we all discussed the best way to set up reading logs and check for understanding of vocabulary. This blog by Katie gives a good idea of the flavour of the session.

Session Seven – Rob Coe
Rob Coe finished the day off with some cheerful messages. He compared the state of education research in 1999 to the state today, arguing that there have been great improvements: more RCTs, more acknowledgement of the value of RCTs, more government funding for them, and more government interest in robust evaluation of policy. And he ended on a brilliantly positive note, saying that it was trailblazers like those in the audience who could make change happen.

As ever, there were regrets: I missed some amazing presentations, and missed the chance to talk to some great people too. But all in all it was a fantastic day, and I am hugely grateful to Tom Bennett, Helene Galdin O’Shea, Susie Wilson and all the team at SHHS for making this happen.