Making Little Research Big – A Meeting With Kevan Collins

Posted on April 2, 2014

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Since becoming members of the Teacher Development Trust’s ‘National Teacher Enquiry Network’ a number of opportunities have come the way of Canons High School. The latest of these was a general invitation to NTEN members to meet as a very small (I hesitate to use the word intimate) group with the CEO of the Education Endowment Fund, Kevan Collins. Thankfully, being a member of the ever-connected smartphone generation I was able to respond almost instantaneously to the invitation and secure myself a seat around the table to discuss the relationship between research and education – the archetypal ‘hot potato’ and equally archetypal ‘hot button’ issue du jour.

David Weston democratically framed the terms of the debate through the use of this Google Doc which invited participants to reflect upon the following key questions ahead of the meeting.

How can we encourage schools to engage with evidence when making decisions about teaching and interventions?

How can teachers and schools participate in larger scale research?

How do we help spread the most effective practices around the system so that they are embedded and understood?

What role do the EEF and TDT’s NTEN have to play in these issues? What about other organisations?

The use of this doc (a version of flipped homework, I guess) also allowed us and Kevan to have a flavour of the upcoming debate that helped us – I think – make best use of the short time we had available.

And so to the meeting. Kevan Collins kicked us off by explaining the remit of the EEF, which he said was threefold: the synthesis of evidence, giving money away and finding out how to mobilise evidence from research. All of these, he explained, were overarched by the key moral question of how to ‘close the gap’ between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The following discussion revealed a lot about the problems the system (including the EEF) faces in achieving both that overarching goal and the three levers with which we might achieve that goal in a research-informed way. We challenged him on a range of issues from teacher workload to closing the different gap between schools and universities (and consequently theory and practice) to the problems with research-uninformed leadership and improvement planning mechanisms.

On the first of these he advocated that schools and government need to change the rhetoric about evidence: “It’s about doing less, not more” he said. Although I suspect that I won’t be the only one giving a hollow laugh at the ever-present notion of temporal ‘efficiency savings’ in education, he did make us think about how we might rid ourselves of over-elaborate marking policies, SLT-driven initiative overloading and such things. The question of “what are we going to get rid of, even if it might be working but not working as well as something new?” has never been more necessary.

With regard to the gap between the worlds of Academia and Scholastia (I’m claiming that as another neologism, but if it isn’t then I’m equally happy to have found a word I didn’t know existed!), he indicated that the EEF are looking at this through the use of a large trial that will look at the “communication of evidence” by measuring awareness, understanding and changed behaviours with impact. Alongside this they will be conducting another piece of research into how groups of schools can build capacity to become research-informed alliances. I really hope that we get to work with him on this one.

By far the most interesting (and challenging) things he had to say were with regard to leadership and improvement planning. He articulated more clearly than I have heard before, a concern that school improvement planning is rooted in a compliant, managerial paradigm and that this is a world away from the ideal of research-informed school improvement planning. If we are to empower our school staff working at the frontline to be “discerning consumers of research” (as Stuart Lock paraphrased from someone really clever) then we need to place all of their efforts within the context of discerning leadership.

There were a few areas of personal interest where I felt Kevan had less to say to us about the EEF’s work. He was a good advocate of Big Research in the form of large-scale Randomised Control Trials in education (in fact, a far better advocate for RCTs than Ben Goldacre at ResearchED last year), but didn’t offer much hope that the EEF will do more to back the growing momentum behind lesson study to help us ensure that Little Research can be better connected to effective methodologies.

He also ardently gave the case for having a key focus on pupil outcomes for ‘closing the gaps’, when I would rather see a focus on developing the professional research practice of teachers and other school staff so that they can be empowered in their equally (perhaps greater) ardent focus on closing those gaps.

And finally, in this section where I felt I left with more questions than answers, I come back to the lack of connectedness in the systems of research in the UK. Although he listened intently to concerns that we have move from a university-dominated schism between theory and practice into a potentially school-dominated schism between theory and practice, there wasn’t any suggestion that the EEF seem poised to step in and prioritise funding for genuinely collaborative partnerships between universities and schools.

All of that said, this was a very interesting meeting for a whole host of reasons, not least of which was the fact that Kevan is a man who clearly understands the concerns of the profession, is still very much connected with it and wants to hear how we think his organisation can help those of us who do it day in and day out be better at adapting our teaching from an evidence base. A couple of points that he made struck a chord: that “nowhere has our accountability anywhere in the world” and that he was “wrestling with” how to enhance knowledge creation from the classroom.

Most intriguingly of all, though, he seemed to give a hint that an ‘anti-toolkit’ (of classroom practices which have been clearly proven not to work) might be on the way. I’m sure he’ll win the hearts and minds of many a teacher and school leader if that does happen.

My big ‘take away’ from the meeting was that the professionals around that table had a huge amount to offer this debate and were completely at ease in constructively challenging and offering ideas to the man who has within his hands the control of vast sums of money to make the dream of a research-informed education system a reality. Coupled with the work of organisations such as the Teacher Development Trust and teacher-driven events such as ResearchED, we need more of these confident leaders (using the autonomy that Kevan completely supported) to ensure that we don’t let this opportunity pass us by.

And in that spirit of confident school leadership, I would like to add a ‘take away’ that I hope Kevan Collins left the meeting with. By all means, value the Big Research to answer the Big Questions that the system urgently needs addressing, but don’t let the EEF become dominated by them. Teachers don’t merely want to become “discerning consumers of research”; they also want to become “discerning producers of research”. Many of them already are.

Our classrooms are dripping with contextual significance and to engage us the EEF needs to tap into this: by making available the funding that will help us to find the time to be researchers; by prioritising the links with universities so that we gain the knowledge needed to become informed researchers; and by promoting the outcomes of such collaborations (even the Little Research ones) so that we become respected researchers with impact beyond our own classrooms.

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