Enthusiatic skepticism: the problem with becoming more research aware, research informed and research engaged.


De omnibus dubitandum.

All is to be doubted.

Rene Descartes

Oh dear, once you open the Pandora’s box of becoming an evidence-based practitioner, it seems impossible to close the lid and carry on as before.  Perhaps Pandora is not quite the right analogy; becoming research informed has not quite unleashed plague and pestilence but it has certainly shaken many of our beliefs and assumptions and I guess all of us on this journey are holding onto some sort of hope.

Becoming more research informed, research aware and research engaged is an exhausting process which has cast new light into my professional practice.  Some of this light has helped me think more clearly about things whilst other illuminations have unsettled some of my core assumptions about the process of teaching and learning (I’m looking at you Hattie … class size at A-level has no effect!  Hurrumph).  The problem is that you cannot turn the light off,  nor can you turn it down as one set of questions leads mind-bendingly to another.  As former Spice Girl, Melanie Chisolm told us at the turn of the last century, things will never be the same again.

I have always had some nagging doubts about our established practice, some deep-rooted malaise about how things are done in the world of education.  I mean, target grades, I kind of know why they are used as a measure of accountability but how did we get from that to each student having them in the front of their book and on each piece of work?  How depressing if your grade is not towards the top of the alphabet and your progress is constantly in red in the mark book.   How awful that your performance four years ago determines what teachers must grade you against today.  Surely on some level, unconscious bias must creep in so that the existence of this target in the front of your mark book must colour how you see the student’s work either positively or negatively?  What other mechanisms exist that make the target grade the student’s master status?

I guess my social science background has helped lay the foundations of an inquisitive mind and has kept me questioning things.  For example, I feel labelling theory remains as valid a critique of pedagogical practice today as much as it was in the 1960s.  My studies have developed in me a desire to demand proof and evidence before accepting an idea whilst paradoxically an awareness of some of the pitfalls of the research process and the pull of my own unconscious biases.  I guess if my own academic background has taught me anything it is that most hard facts are much less certain than we would like to believe.  We must be comfortable with the nuanced answers and be open to the possibility of not knowing.  The rock of evidence is constantly pitted against the methodological whirlpool of confirmation bias.

I am also aware that I am a product of my own professional timeline.  My teacher training began in the last century at the Institute of Education.  It was a mixed blessing containing a smattering of educational theory (Vgotsky, Piaget, Bloom et al) alongside some more faddish approaches like learning styles with an emphasis on the progressive approaches and experiential learning.  Didactic was bad and group work was better.  I remember writing out ridiculously detailed three-part lesson plans with tick boxes for learning styles, PSHE, SEN, numeracy, literacy elements.  My goodness.  What were we thinking?  These lesson plans became overworked, one-off pieces of professional object d’art – beautiful to look at but of no real value in the classroom.  There was no focus on research evidence in the classroom.  We all tinkered with a bit of action research, as is the wont of the PGCE but it was at best a flimsy attempt at being evidence-based; at worst an exercise in leading questions (would you say you enjoyed my lesson today more than yesterday?).

There was much to learn from cognitive psychology about learning and adolescent brains but there was no significant movement to provide the golden thread about what felt like a disparate list of facts.  We are in a much better place now, with an emerging paradigm from the EEF, detailed evidence from the Learning Scientists and the grassroots teacher-led movements such as ResearchED.

However, our practice often lags far behind the evidence or professional debate.  We do things in schools because we have always done it this way, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons or because of our own confirmation bias.

Becoming a research-aware teacher is a difficult process which is made more so if not everyone in your school is on a similar journey.  I am acutely aware that it is not always useful or appropriate to question every policy and decision but there must be a forum to kick around the ideas, research the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion without being seen as someone who is not rowing the same way?

As a profession, when we question things we are seen as an enemy of promise or Gove’s infamous blob but it is not this way in all industries.  A recent TED talk by Astro Teller the director of Google X explains how things could be different by developing a culture of enthusiastic skepticism which has helped google become the technology giant it is today.  He says that when you work in a dream factory, in order to achieve the big things you must spend most of your time breaking things and proving they are wrong.  This is a messy process but rather than hide the mess, you should run at the hardest problems first.  These guys have created self-driving cars by having culture of professional ambition and open critique or as they call it enthusiastic skepticism.

Enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism. It’s optimism’s perfect partner. It unlocks the potential in every idea. We can create the future that’s in our dreams. Astro Teller

Admittedly, I am a creature of habit and changing teacher habits is one of the hardest things to do.  We can use all sorts of selective data to ‘prove’ our policies and pedagogical habits are the most successful. But becoming more research-aware is a journey which requires the skills of enthusiastic skepticism.  Unguarded enthusiasm for every new piece of research is too soft or too hot.  Likewise, being overly skeptical about potential changes to our habits is too hard or too cold.  We need to find the goldilocks position which will create genuine and long-lasting system change based on evidence. We can only dream big if we can harness the powers of those of us who are skeptically enthusiastic and those enthusiastic skeptics.  We need to run at our most sacred cows with the relentless questioning of a four year old constantly asking but why do we do it this way?



“It’s just the beginning it’s not the end.
Things will never be the same again.
It’s not a secret anymore.
Now we’ve opened up the door.
Starting tonight and from now on.
We’ll never, never be the same again.
Never be the same again.” Mel C.