The Enormity of my Ignorance (or what I learned at CEM 30)

At the beginning of his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb talks about the size of Umberto Ecco’s library, a reputed 30,000 books. The point he makes is that the value of those books is not in which have been read, but rather those which are yet to be read. The knowledge yet to come.

Well, following a brilliant day at CEM’s 30th anniversary event, my library has just got a little larger, both metaphorically and, within a few days, literally.

The keynote was by Professor John Hattie, on blistering form discussing the impact of what we do (“Almost everything enhances learning”) suggesting all you need to have a positive impact in the classroom is a pulse. The trick it seems is to have a significant impact and we were left in no doubt that practitioner and leadership expertise will trump structural change. He also stressed the importance of valuing what we do, “Success is all around us. We don’t need to go to Finland.”

He was followed by Professor Steve Higgins discussing meta-analysis, it’s history and it’s significance. The full presentation can be found here.

The more I listened to what he was saying the more I wanted to know what a Special school data specific EEF toolkit would look like. Would the outcomes of the analysis be the same?

Professor Maggie Snowling then talked about interventions for language learning impairments and comparative analysis of phonological approaches and oral language work.

Following Dr Christine Merrell’s piece on evidence based strategies for supporting children with ADHD there was a group discussion.

Now my first additional bit of reading is a booklet developed by Dr Merrell as part of her study called, “Working with difficult children in Primary Schools”. Not necessarily the wording I’d choose, but the evidence indicated this booklet had an impact and I’d like to know why. As Professor Robert Coe mentioned later, maybe we need more booklets.

During the discussion I decided to ask a question. Now I don’t know why, but in these situations I get really nervous awaiting the microphone in a way I never get speaking to an audience. A sense I suspect of feeling on thin intellectual ice, but ask it I did, heart pumping.

“Given the recent investment in, and reorganisation of, the legislative and administrative structures which govern access to Special education, is now the time to conduct a meta-analytical evaluation of the interventions and organisational structures evident in Special Schools?”

The response from the panel was positive but short on detailed response, so Professor Coe brought Hattie in. Whose response was “Have you read David Mitchell’s book? The details are different, but the story is the same.” In saying that he was referring to the evidence of significant impact of different approaches in mainstream.

The book, which is my second addition to the library is “What Really Works in Special Education” Routledge (2007). Now I’d be delighted if any other Special Ed types would contact me to let me know that you also hadn’t heard of this or read it. Please, tell me I’m not alone! There is also a companion website which I am yet to explore which can be found here.

This was all before coffee.

After we heard from Professor Dr Eckhard Klieme on measuring the quality of classroom teaching, Professor David Andrich discuss the controversy in PISA, which I almost understood, and Professor Peter Tymms. Professor Tymms was particularly engaging discussing interventions. His critique of the National Literacy Strategy and it’s lack of impact was incisive and his parting shot that, “Politicians pensions should be tied to Pisa.”, made the point that rarely are those who implement change held accountable for its impact or lack of.

This was followed by Professor Andreas Demetriou talking about aligning developmental and educational analysis, which whetted the appetite with a brief description of what sounded particularly interesting from a Special Education perspective. So next added to the list is the research studies associated with this. I didn’t collect the references but will seek them out.

Professor Paul Newton then talked brilliantly of the tension between judgement and statistics with regards to exam standards and managed to make norm referencing entertaining. I think he might have also explained why everyone since about 1998 seems to have better A-Levels than me, although that might be wishful thinking.

It was finally the turn of Professor Robert Coe to discuss the challenge of connecting research and practice, with a nod to the role of movements like ResearchEd.

So, a few bits to read, but an inordinate number of questions now playing on my mind. They will settle in time and some will disappear and some will stick, but what they have done is raise the spectre of just how much I don’t know about what I do.

In his keynote, John Hattie stated, ‘When a teacher walks into a classroom and says my job today is to evaluate my impact – all good things follow”. Well I walked into a conference today and I reevaluated my understanding and I think some good things will follow.

A Few Thoughts on ResearchED14

Before I try and summarise my experience of attending ResearchED14 I think it is important to make a small observation.

For those in the media or the general public, who belittle teachers, how hard we work and the role we fulfil, I’d like to point out that today was a Saturday, a Saturday at the end of the first week of term, which hundreds of teachers were spending improving themselves professionally without payment. Some had even brought their children, such was their commitment (don’t worry there was a crèche). An excellent example of how teachers go the extra yard to ensure that the children they serve get the best education possible, and it won’t have been the only example across the country today I’m sure.

So, the sessions…….

The first was Marianne Lagrange, from Sage Publications, talking about how to get started with research. This was an excellent discussion of the key things to consider when developing a research mindset and presented with such eloquence and clarity that the accompanying slides could be provided to staff as a quick start guide. Hopefully they will be made available by ResearchED, but if not then I am sure they were being tweeted live as photos.

The second was Dylan Wiliam discussing the challenges of research within education. Entertaining, informative and thought provoking analysis of education research as a body of knowledge. He even mentioned SEN, for which he gets additional kudos, reflecting on how the effect size can be greater in SEN due to the smaller number of individuals involved. Something to consider if we are to build a stronger research community within and across Special schools.

This was followed by David Weston talking CPD in a room which defied physics by managing to fit more people into the space than it seemed possible. Some fascinating observations about the nature of CPD in schools, the impact it does or doesn’t have and how to improve it. As I work in a school which is considering buying into the National Teacher Enquiry Network I had some familiarity with his aims. I have to say I found the arguments compelling and am persuaded that this organisation could have a profound impact on schools.

The final session of the morning was Phillipa Cordingley talking about a comparative study of ‘strong’ schools and ‘excellent’ schools in terms of meeting the needs of vulnerable students in the mainstream. It reflected on their common characteristics and had my mind racing about how this could be replicated with Special schools in order to try and establish a set of common indicators of highly effective Special school provision. Watch this space…..

Lunch was Pizza and conversations about the setting up of a national school based educational research network. This was attended by a number of research leads in schools, (a role I have just taken on for the Oxfordshire Teaching Schools Alliance), academics and school leaders and set out the initial framework of a future discussion. A further meeting to take place in the latter part if the Autumn term was mentioned and a Special Ed themed one was being talked about on Twitter too! Result.

I only managed one session in the afternoon, partly as I had to leave before the end anyway, but compounded by the fact that Sam Freedman’s talk on policy making was full. Really disappointed to have missed it.

Who I did get to see though was Tristram Hunt and I was pretty impressed. There wasn’t anything particularly revelatory, with a strong focus on teacher quality, but his delivery was relaxed and some of the quips hit the mark. He also responded fairly well to the questions and I have tremendous respect for any politician who is willing to take spontaneous questions at events such as these. No mention of SEN again but this wasn’t the time to challenge that perpetual oversight, not least because I was in the balcony and would have had to resort to shouting. Not very dignified.

So to summarise, this was a fantastic event. There needs to be greater representation of Primary and Special, but that has been acknowledged. And anyway there was enough content that transcended phase and sector that I defy anyone not to have come away from today energised and inspired by what they had heard and experienced.

Finally, let’s not forget this was set up and organised by working teachers. A remarkable testament to the state of the profession, a profession that on today’s experience is in rude health.