I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Research Ed English and MFL conference yesterday. My main focus for the day was to improve my knowledge of how to use research effectively not only to enhance my own teaching but also to help me in the task of improving the design of the KS3 English curriculum at my school.
In terms of an overview of how and why to use research, I found the session on the English Teacher as Research Lead extremely valuable. This session focused around the issue of how and why to turn knowledge into action. Dr Gary Jones introduced us to the concept of the ‘knowledge mobiliser’ the person whose function is to turn knowledge into action and summarized some very useful research by Vicky Ward (Ward, 2016) into how to turn knowledge into action. This session provided some really useful pointers for clarifying my thinking about prioritizing our needs in developing our new KS3 curriculum.
Gary also discussed the Teacher Development Trust report on Developing Great Teaching (Higgins et al, 2015) which examines the evidence on what makes effective CPD and provides detailed advice on what schools need to consider when planning for effectiveness. He helpfully summarized this as ‘bake it in, don’t bolt it on’: effective CPD focuses on the two or three things that matter, needs to be sustained over time (a minimum of two terms) and, crucially you need to identify the things you will stop doing.
I found Gary’s session really helpful as a framework to help process the messages for the rest of the sessions I attended. As head of learning and research at Wellington College, Carl Hendrick is doing the job outlined by Gary Jones, and amid a scathing takedown of enquiry-based teaching methods in English, illustrated by hilarious tales of his hapless experiments with ‘engaging’ lessons at the start of this career (step away from the sugar paper) the serious takeaway from his session was around using direct instruction to reduce the cognitive load on pupils. A short passage from Jekyll and Hyde provided ample evidence that the ‘turn to your partner and discuss for five minutes’ strategy is supremely unhelpful in unpicking complex texts and this was underlined by a quotation from Sweller ‘If the learner has no concepts in long-term memory the only thing left to do is to blindly search for solutions’. I walked away from this session with a reading list that will keep me going for quite some time, bolstered by Carl’s parting message that as teachers it is unquestionably better to spend more time reading the good-quality research that is already out there and less time trying to do our own.
Amy Forrester’s session provided an example of how to use research to develop classroom-based teaching strategies that really work. Like so many of us, her KS4 classes were struggling to memorise quotations from their literature texts. Using research on the benefits of retrieval practice (Karpicke et al, 2016) she designed a series of highly-structured tasks that pupils did over an 8-week period. Measuring the number and variety of quotations that pupils were able to use in assessments before and after the 8-week period produced some really impressive results. This session was really helpful for me, because while I was aware of the research and have been, I thought, using it, via adapting Rebecca Foster’s Five a Day starters for my classes, Amy’s adaptation of the concept was so much more rigorous, structured and measurable that it has given me a much clearer roadmap to follow for embedding retrieval practice into my lessons.
Another great session came courtesy of Lyndsey Caldwell, Faculty Leader for English at the Cherwell School, who outlined how she has transformed the English curriculum there. Using the example of the play pump (info here http://objectsindevelopment.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/10-problems-with-the-PlayPump.pdf ) she pointed out the not uncommon problem within English departments of adopting well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective approaches to teaching and learning. At Cherwell School, three underlying principles have shaped Lyndsey’s approach to the English curriculum: Prioritise Knowledge, Crafted Direct Instruction and Standardised Formative Assessment. She referenced (as did Carl Hendrick) two major findings from Rob Coe’s Sutton Trust report, What Makes Great Teaching (Coe, 2014): Pedagogical Content Knowledge and Quality of Instruction as the guiding principles of her work.
Lyndsey put forward an impressive and impassioned case for explicitly building vocabulary in a very structured way from the very beginning of KS3. Again, the importance of using word lists and knowledge organisers to agree and explicitly teach the most important information for each unit of work was stressed. Another fascinating idea for me, was Cherwell’s practice of storing direct instruction lessons on Youtube to enable pupils who have missed out on learning to catch up. Drawing on the work of Hirsch, Lyndsey also stressed the way in which Cherwell have enriched the cultural value of the texts studied while reducing the content of the curriculum and eliminating poor-quality and low-value tasks.
Vocabulary instruction was also a theme in the highly enjoyable session from Arlene Holmes-Henderson on research by the Classics in Communities project into introducing Latin in schools. She made a persuasive case for using Latin lessons to help close the attainment gap through its impact on literacy development in low-attaining primary pupils and shared some impressive-looking data from primary schools in a number of areas including Solihull. I have some personal experience of this from having run a primary school Latin club as an enrichment activity and Arlene’s session has refired my enthusiasm for reintroducing this as an enrichment activity for Year 7. Arlene also helpfully pointed out that the organisation Classic for All provides grants to schools to purchase textbooks.
Many thanks to all of the speakers and especially to Tom Bennett for organizing it and providing the stand-up comedy. In his opening address he promised a day of ‘all killer, no filler’ and he totally delivered. Research Ed rocks and that’s even without the amazing bonus of meeting all the fab Team English peeps I have followed on Twitter for so long. Roll on the next one, but meantime I have plenty to keep me busy.
Coe, 2014, What Makes Great Teaching, Sutton Trust http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-Makes-Great-Teaching-REPORT.pdf
Higgins et al, Developing Great Teaching, 2015, Teacher Development Trust, http://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/DGT-Full-report.pdf
Karpicke et al, 2016, Retrieval-Based Learning: Positive Effects of Retrieval Practice in Elementary School Children, Frontiers in Psychology, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00350/full
Ward, V, 2016, Why, whose, what and how: a framework for knowledge mobilisers http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep/pre-prints/content-pp_evidpol-d-15-00047r2;jsessionid=57do5cip1ni5u.x-ic-live-02