On September 6th 2015, I wrote a rather dramatically titled piece called ‘Last Night ResearchEd saved my life’. In it I said “I might be late to the party and I don’t feel like a young teacher anymore (I’m about to start my 4th year qualified) but I think it was the right time for me to get involved and I am more determined than ever to become more informed, to question and learn from my mistakes and experiences.”. In this metaphorically laced blog post, 2015’s ResearchEd National Conference is my equivalent of landing in Oz. I left Kansas behind and started on my journey down the yellow brick road. Still on that road, I didn’t think that in April 2017, I would be sat on a sunny Sunday, having attended my 3rd ResearchEd event the previous day, as a Head of Research about to become Head of English. It is true that ResearchEd, although it may not have saved my life (ever the one for hyperbole/bad choices in music), has changed my life.
Without ResearchEd, I would never have been able to answer the question “What do you want to change?” truthfully. This question was posed to me during a discussion with my headteacher in early 2016. That question led me to discuss the use of evidence based practice in education and explain how I was confident that not only was that the direction in which I wanted to go, but the way in which I would love to see our forward thinking and dynamic school going. I have no doubt that at first people saw ‘research’ as something I plucked out of thin air in order to find something to talk about. But that isn’t true. It is, in fact, John Tomsett’s fault…
When John wrote this piece many years ago (and when ridiculously it ended up in his book), I felt both honoured that John knew my name but also rather inadequate and stupid…What was this research he talked of? As the old Educating Essex favourite goes “What does it mean? Where does it come from?”! Thankfully, I now know that research is all about asking ‘what does it mean?’ and ever more importantly ‘where does it come from?’ #nofakenews.
This set me on a little journey of self discovery; I attended ResearchEd; read less blogs telling me what to colour in next and read more books; struggled with log ins; stopped doing many silly things I was doing in the classroom; stalked The Learning Scientists, Carl Hendrick, Tom Bennett; Alex Quigley (who helped me a great deal) and many others; talked about research; got mad when others talked about ‘research’ that they googled the night before; spoke more about research and eventually had the opportunity to do something with it in my school. I have always been a cynic and have never been a fan of people telling me something worked without clear evidence. I have always asked why like that annoying 5 year old and finally, it seemed to me that I could try to use this for some good…!
Since September 2016, I have had the title of Head of Research. Despite in my job interview talking about my vision and giving a very keen presentation on what could change, I knew and still know that these things take a lot of time. Much like Dorothy travelling on the Yellow Brick road I am determined to keep going towards enlightenment despite the many setbacks and issues I know we will meet along the way. Until yesterday, I thought that one possible pitfall would be the fact that I take on the Head of English job after the Easter holidays. During interview for this role, I made clear that if successful I would not be leaving my research role behind despite not being paid for it – I do not want it to be a one-hit (year) wonder! The ResearchED English and MFL Conference provided me with confirmation that the whole point of my Head of English role is to improve the curriculum, our teaching and our students’ outcomes in the best way I can. And I believe that the best way I can do this is through making evidence based decisions and through encouraging deliberate good practice.
So, all I really have to share is where we are now, what I have done so far and what I hope to do in the future as we adapt and change and take more steps along the yellow brick road.
Thus far, I have worked using research to:
Take part in a Research Study:
We were lucky enough to take part in a small research study on students’ visual working memory and how this could link to their reasoning abilities such as language tasks and visual problem solving tasks. Many of our Year 8 students took part in this study with researchers from Northumbria University. They found that when children could detect the visual size and colour changes in the memory of shapes, then this had strong links to the more visual problem solving tasks but not the language tasks. The final paper will be published this year and could have some interesting implications for how we teach older children differently to younger children in terms of tasks.
Integrate Evidence Based Approaches at KS3 English:
Our KS3 Curriculum was overhauled in 2014 with thanks to Oliver Knight and David Benson’s book ‘Creating Outstanding Classrooms’ which referenced how to best sequence lessons although it didn’t necessarily touch on the process of interleaving and spacing. It had some very useful ideas which I believe link closely to many elements of a well researched and structured curriculum which are now keenly promoted such as: Knowledge Organisers, revisiting skills and knowledge and ensuring students are aware of the journey they are about to embark on. In our curriculum, we ensured that we revisit key skills and that units are built chronologically to ensure knowledge is reused. We removed several schemes of work although still have 5 per year group yet I think of these as coherent units. For example, in Year 7, students study the History of Language followed by Beowulf then Chaucer. We could call this one unit but instead we call it 3 despite the explicit links between them.
When we rewrote the curriculum, we looked at how we could ensure we feedback to students on how to do better. We encourage (but have not managed to make consistent) feedback weeks/lessons. This is something that teachers still need a push to do and after yesterday, I am considering cutting out further content to ensure this happens in the best way possible. We use feedback sheets like the following which link to our whole school approach of using ‘mastery’ statements. These statements are often copied and pasted across units – the question’s focus and the text will change but quite simply students are asked in Year 7 to complete the same task as they will in Year 9. This leads to a sense of continuity and success.
We have also included our version of front sheets with every single KS3 unit. This includes the final assessment criteria (as above), the key vocabulary which must be taught in that unit and hopefully used in their final assessments, the key details of the text or content of the unit. I love using front sheets but know I need to do more to encourage this love in the team. I find it easy to test students on this knowledge in their quizzes, identify key words and repeat them each lesson so that even my lowest starters have a chance to use complex ideas and language in their own writing.
The top of one of our front sheets:
These lists also link to our termly spellings sheets which encourage students to identify the meaning of a word as well as spell it.
Create RQT (2nd year teachers) Evidence Based Action Research Projects:
As part of my Teaching and Learning Role as Head of Research, I had the chance to work with 5 RQTs this year. This is a great opportunity as I never had the chance to do such work in my training years and wish I had some guidance. Our teachers in their second year of teaching are called ‘Recently qualified teachers’ and alongside some other more creative tasks, they have been given a specific and focused piece of action research to complete over the year. Initially, the teachers chose their area of interest and then I researched an evidence based technique for them to focus on. This also led to creating the start of our ‘database of research’ which I continue to add to on a weekly basis.
I used Dr Gary Jones’ formula (thanks ResearchEd York!) for creating a research question – the PICO formula. This really provided me with a great structure for their research projects. I summarised the research so it was simple and easy to understand, provided them with the pros and cons of the technique or strategy and some suggestions of how to put it in place. I am really pleased with how well all the RQTs continue to work on their projects and despite the woman hours it took to put in place I feel it is a worth while step towards creating evidence savvy teachers and less teachers like John Tomsett’s Maisie Tubbs!
Example of one of our Research sheets with PICO Question for an RQT:
Year 11 Revision Strategies and Pastoral Approaches:
More recently, I have worked with my own Year 11 pastoral team to include The Learning Scientists @Acethetest approaches to revision. I have a personal interest in this as my lovely tutor group are about to take their GCSEs.
I have presented the strategies to our pastoral team who can now share this with the 10 year 11 tutor groups; we have included the ‘How 2’ posters in our Year 11 Countdown booklet and most importantly, we now to teach them explicitly and practise these techniques in the morning tutor time.
My tutor group have found spaced practice, concrete examples and dual coding the most useful. I think this could have a very positive impact on our students’ revision and hopefully outcomes.
Next steps (and definitely another blog post or two) include leading the English Department forward and embedding evidence based strategies into KS4 as well as adapting KS3 where necessary; using PICO questions or similar in our appraisal process as a whole school; continue to work and support our RQTs; discussing what worked and what didn’t this year and sharing our practice with others across our region.
Perhaps a bit too much like Dorothy, I truly believe that step by step our department and school can have a more evidence based approach and thankfully this is starting to become a little easier as colleagues start to come onboard and understand what it might mean for our students. I am not naive enough to think I have done anything particularly substantial with this role as yet. It is necessary to change the mindset of some that evidence based practice isn’t just about teaching and learning in the classroom but it is about affecting the bigger decisions the school makes so that we can create a truly well formed and cohesive approach to an evidence informed school.
I am forever indebted to Tom and Helene for allowing me to see things differently. I’m off to see the Wizard…