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Worlds Apart

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Lee Elliot Major on the challenge of getting research to impact on education practise

As I revealed the next slide, there was an audible gasp among the 200 strong audience. I knew at that moment I had lost the crowd. Whatever I said next, everyone’s mind was focused on the big fat zero that sat at the bottom of the impact table staring out from the screen. As I turned to face the angry faces, I saw that the throngs of hard working, decent teaching assistants (TAs) had turned into a lynch mob.

On reflection, presenting the findings of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit to TAs at the end of a long hard term was not the best idea. This guide to the best (and worst) bets for improving results in the classroom shows that TAs have on average zero impact on the attainment of children. Now as I told my audience that doesn’t mean we should sack all classroom assistants. But it does mean better training, preparation and management are needed to enable the 220,000 of TAs in our schools (costing the public purse over £2 billion a year) to help our children learn.

Sadly this nuance was lost as the discussion descended into an increasingly fractious argument. No amount of caveats and constructive comments could calm the enraged ranks of TAs. All they could see was an attack on their livelihoods. I returned to London that Friday afternoon feeling like I had been mauled in a playground fight.

This admittedly was one of the more contentious toolkit talks I have given to schools during the last two years. The experience highlighted the potential evidence has to improve practise and policy, and the power a succinct accessible summary of research can have. But it also demonstrated the huge challenge of enabling evidence to actually impact on classroom practise in a constructive and useful way.

I’ve been reflecting on all this, as I prepare a talk for an Institute of Education this week on how research can impact on policy and practise.

What I will say will seem blindingly obvious, but is almost universally ignored. My ‘take home’ message is that we must acknowledge the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of media, academe, policy and practise – if we are to reach the promised land of evidence based practise. We must recognise that communication is as an academic might say a ‘highly non-trivial task’.

Each of these worlds has its own jargon, beliefs, rules, aims. Like working with different countries, we need to embark on genuine translation and efforts from all sides to make it work.

As a former news editor, my one piece of advice to reporters was to spend as much time on the writing and presentation of articles, as gathering the news itself. What’s the point if no-one will read what you have found? I now hold the same view for the work of an education foundation: our toolkit has been successful as we spent many hours thinking carefully about how to present the often abstract and complex findings of education research.

But after years of working with schools, I’m afraid I’ve had to re-assess this rule. To affect genuine change – this is just the start: much more has to be done, and in the schools themselves. Powerfully presented evidence isn’t enough. There are countless examples of things we know work, but fail to embrace. We don’t do exercise – even though we know it’s good for us. Doctors still fail to wash their hands regularly – the most simple of medical safeguards.

For evidence-based education to work, we will need to free up time for teachers to consider research. We may need to create research leaders in every school. Inspectors may need to encourage the use of evidence more when they visit schools.

This I’m glad to say is the increasing pre-occupation of the Education Endowment Foundation as it strives to find out what works in schools. It won’t be an easy task: as with the assembled TAs during my talk, we all tend not to want to listen to evidence that confronts our own prejudices – even when the messenger has the best of intentions.