Why schools need to become research engaged

Posted on: 15 May 2015

Teaching should be based on evidence, not fallacy, argues Carl Hendrick, Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College...

A staggering 93% of teachers answered incorrectly when asked if “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).”

These findings, from a 2012 paper published on the prevalence of erroneous beliefs among teachers around neuroscience and specifically how the brain ‘learns’, showed the persistence of the learning styles myth.

This theory has been long debunked as a ‘neuromyth’ and yet this fallacy and many more, such as right/left hemispheric brain differences, still persist among many teachers. This represents a damning indictment of our profession; it’s unthinkable that other social and relational disciplines would not be abreast of the latest findings in their field.

Why has this situation been allowed to happen? One central reason is that education research has not been very good. Many of these myths such as learning styles and ‘Braingym’ have emanated from academic institutions that are often ideologically driven and very much divorced from the front line of the practitioner.

School staff rooms are often dominated by teachers whose only serious reflection on their practice comes from their own narrow experience and confirmed biases, whose only measures of success are standardised tests and who display an open disregard for anything ‘evidence-based.’ This represents a professional practice that Professor John West-Burnham terms as 'long-term self -indulgence’.

So what can be done about it?

At Wellington College we have established a Learning and Research Centre to improve professional development and create a new culture of reflective practice. We have been working alongside a broad range of institutions such as Harvard Graduate School of Education and the exciting new ResearchED movement to mobilise high-quality evidence and make that available to staff and students.

These are three central approaches we aim to take: First, schools need to frame areas of inquiry, identifying what it is they want to know; secondly, they need to know how they are going to 'know' it; and thirdly, they need to plan what they are going to do to measure the impact and applicability of this.

Schools need to be asking their own questions about improvement based on specific CPD and school improvement plans. What may be appropriate for one school may not be appropriate for another and we should have the flexibility to frame our own point of enquiry and direct resources accordingly. Engaging with a wider body of literature around feedback, for example, can dramatically improve what we already know and represent a better jumping off point for confronting an issue.

If research in schools as CPD is to have any impact then it needs to be embedded, a grassroots, practitioner-led movement rather than the traditional top-down model that has had such little impact.

At Wellington we have a three-tier level of engagement starting with a student research council that reads the same literature reviews and helps design and pilot-test surveys, to the staff research fellows, two from each of the six faculties, to a senior team who listen to those teams and plan accordingly.

We need better measures of success and impact. Education research is often about trying to measure the immeasurable. Learning as a phenomenon is largely invisible and resists classification and categorisation.

Through our new Learning and Research website, we are sharing not only research from our staff here but also mobilising high-quality evidence on great learning from people like Carol Dweck, John Hattie and others.

We are also exploring and establishing links with other new research centres including the Tony Little research centre at Eton and other independent schools in the US such as Philips Exeter and Lawrenceville.

This year, at the Sunday Times Festival of Education, we are delighted to host Harvard GSE’s Research Schools International yearly symposium featuring 15 schools engaged in research, and key speakers Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and Pasi Sahlberg.

We hope to have a lively debate and hope to see many of you there.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.