The need for more coherent thinking about teaching & learning – Carole Ford

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During the current cessation of normal schooling many teachers have found the time, and energy, to read and comment on educational research.  Much of the comment relates to new methodologies and the latest trends in educational thinking.  As I read the research, and the associated comment, I am forcefully struck by two perennial features of the research itself and the response to it from the small community of interested readers.  Every innovation has resulted in improved outcomes and every commentator is impressed with the ‘new’ approach.  Why the inverted commas?  Because if you hang around long enough, old ideas often cycle round again, sometimes barely disguised from their previous incarnations.  In few other disciplines is success so ubiquitous or so rarely challenged.

A case in point is the current enthusiasm for mastery learning in mathematics.*  Having been in the mathematics education world since the 1970s, both in this country and the USA, this is the third time in my career that mastery learning has been cited as the great leap forward for mathematics teaching.  The first time I encountered it, I read the research evidence with interest, it caused me to think in closer detail about individual pupil progress and I incorporated some elements into my teaching repertoire.  I cannot speak for how other teachers responded but I can speak for the impact overall.  Did mastery learning live up to its billing and revolutionise mathematics teaching the first time around?  No.  Did it do this the second time it gained currency?  No.  Will we see the revolution this time?  I will put my neck on the line and predict, no.

This typical scenario generates two questions.  Why are new educational methods apparently so uniformly successful in the research phase?  And why do they subsequently fail to deliver the predicted success?  Many new pedagogical ideas are presented as game changers, many have been adopted either nationally or at local authority level, yet, since the 1970s at least, none of them have produced the step change in outcomes predicted by their authors and supporters.  Mixed ability teaching, resource based learning, programmed learning, active learning, inter-disciplinary learning, discovery learning, investigative approaches, problem solving, Assessment is for Learning, Curriculum for Excellence, Brain Gym, collaborative learning and the ‘transformative’ impact of IT.  Indeed, in Scotland, there has been a steady decline in performance relative to other countries despite this plethora of research-based innovation and the best intentions of teachers and schools.

How can we account for this situation?  Educational research is conducted by reputable people following sound experimental protocols.  The studies are done.  The results are analysed, and conclusive.  This new theory or method is indubitably successful when compared to current practice.  The claims may be overblown but they have a basis in observable fact.  The evidence is compelling and unchallenged.  Teachers, either of their own volition or as directed by their employers, change their teaching style or use the new materials.  And the final outcome is, pretty much routinely, no significant change in performance or, as is happening in Scotland at the moment, an actual drop in standards.

There are two possible explanations for this conundrum.  One has been advanced in the past by frustrated researchers who cannot understand why their approaches are not yielding the promised dividends: the teachers are not doing it properly.  The failure of Assessment is for Learning to produce the expected results did prompt one of its creators to complain that it hadn’t worked because teachers hadn’t implemented the programme correctly.  To all the teachers out there who diligently operated ‘Three stars and a wish’, wrote copious feedback on everything a child wrote, and asked pupils to assess their own or fellow pupils’ work, I say, yes you did.  Just as teachers have thrown away their textbooks when asked to do so.  They have stopped delivering didactic lessons and switched to questioning.  They have created independent learning stations, problem solved and investigated, manufactured inter-disciplinary projects, produced a million PowerPoint presentations, not to no avail, but to little or no evidence of improvement.

The second explanation for this research versus reality phenomenon is the one I favour, from personal experience in ten secondary schools, at all levels from teacher to Head Teacher, from numerous class observations of all subjects, and from wide reading of educational research.  The root of the problem is that research programmes operate inside a bubble.  Virtually any new idea, piloted in a few classes, by a few teachers, will demonstrate improved performance.  Even disastrous educational initiatives, such as the phonetic spelling programme of the 1960s, probably looked very promising in the pilot stages.

What goes wrong when the pilot study is rolled out across a wider group of teachers and classrooms?  Why do the methods or materials not produce the expected improvement when the pilot ends and the real world gets involved?  This is actually the wrong question. The correct question is, why do pilot studies always succeed?

It is not that the teaching profession is incapable of delivering the new method; rather that the chosen few in the pilot study are operating in the ideal conditions for learning.  The pilot bubble creates its own success.

The teachers involved in a study are either volunteers or selected.  The volunteers believe in the new approach and are seriously motivated to demonstrate success.  The selected feel special and pull out all the stops to justify their selection.  Both groups are more likely than not to be highly effective teachers, open to new ideas.  Pupils feel special too.  Their work is closely monitored and measured, a sure way to spice up effort.  Knowing that an outcome will be scrutinised affects how people perform.   Under normal conditions, teachers may have an off day or fail to prepare sufficiently on occasion.  Not so in a pilot study.  Once the pilot programme meets the reality of everyday classrooms, with the normal range of effort and motivation, it inevitably fails to produce the same results. 

The result of this pilot study disconnect has been to send teachers, and the education system as a whole, down a series of blind alleys.  It takes time for the educational establishment to acknowledge it is a blind alley, which may result in long periods of less effective teaching and learning.  This seesaw effect between research and reality may also result in the emergence of a teaching orthodoxy which is rarely questioned.  Currently in Scotland, we have a uniformity of classroom approach involving such things as learning intentions, starters, a multitude of short activities, plenary sessions and exit passes.   

Is this level of uniformity successful? It appears not.  As Scotland fails to reduce the attainment gap between the more and the less advantaged, and as it fails to achieve the educational standards of other countries both within the UK and abroad, it is surely time to jump off the treadmill of one bright idea after another, and start thinking much more coherently about teaching and learning.

Educational research builds our understanding of how people learn and adds to the repertoire of possible systems and approaches.  But we need to place much less reliance on highly specific pilot studies and much more on long term evaluations of educational practices in whole school systems.  We will learn far more from successful practice delivered by mainstream teachers on a routine basis.  This may occur in other countries, in geographical areas within Scotland or in specific groups of schools.  Let’s start from evident success and work backwards to see what is responsible for that.  The petri dish of the pilot study is not serving us well.

* Mastery learning is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information.

Carole Ford is a former head teacher and member of the Commission on School Reform