My researchEd 2017

My goodness, it was a struggle to get myself to this conference.  Along with first week exhaustion, engineering works on the Met line and the onset of a cold, I found myself wandering around Westfield Stratford at 9.30am on Saturday morning.  I should have looked at google maps but I wanted to save my battery for the conference and getting home so I decided to ask for directions at the information desk.  Straight down past Waitrose and turn right.  Hmm …  20 minutes later, I am still walking around in the desert that is the Olympic village.  At the Copper Pot, I use my phone to see just how wrong I had gone. Very wrong, apparently.  Eventually, I make it to Chobham Academy and what a beautiful cathedral to learning it really is.  Sadly, I missed Tom’s introduction but managed to grab a programme and get myself into my first session and I am very glad I did.

There has been a bit of a twitter hoo-ha surrounding researchEd of late with some very unfair and unfounded criticism.  Well haters gonna hate and thankfully none of that nonsense seeped into the day.  In fact, it was probably my favourite one yet (and I loved the last one and the one before).

Session 1. Ben Newmark – Why target grades miss their mark.

What a corker to open with, standing room only and hand drawn slides (thanks Ben.)  Now the use of target grades has become a fetish in education which regularly winds up most classroom teachers.  To be honest, I would have been happy to hear Ben rant and rail against the nonsense for a whole hour, but what followed was a forensic analysis of how we have got ourselves in this state with some suggestions for alternatives.  Ben’s transcript is above and much more erudite than I could ever be but the following comments struck me as on the money.

Target setting from KS2 grades in Maths and English is too generic and does not tell us anything useful about other subjects (and often not even in Maths & English itself).

Generic target grades are a flawed approach which wreak havoc across the secondary sector.

Target grades cast a shadow over a young person’s education for over half a decade.  Less is expected of a child with lower KS2 targets, they are put into lower sets, set easier work than those with higher KS2 targets.  I would hope that few of us are setting and streaming students anymore but I guess the whole ‘flightpath’ idea is some form of setting by another name.

Target setting with KS2 data may produce unintended consequences as all students are required to have them on the front of their books and be able to rattle them off to any interested adult.  Does this produce a self-fulfilling prophecy as some students may believe the target is all they are capable of?

There is scant evidence that the use of these generic target grades raises attainment and achievement which is surprising how they have dominated secondary discourse for over a decade.

Evidence from other domains suggests that outcome based grades only work if you are personally committed, they do not conflict with other goals and you have the knowledge go how to achieve them.

Target grades are foolish and immoral.  The FFT never intended for them to be used on an individual basis; they were designed as a means of comparing performance between schools rather than a sticker on each pupil’s book.

Once the DFE abandoned contextual data, most schools shifted to a formulaic three or four levels of progress above KS2 levels as an individual target.  Whilst Ofsted do not demand this type of target-setting, they praised the use of this data and the practice spread like wildfire.  Ofsted never questioned the use of target grades or the evidence they were based on.

Teachers in some schools have their appraisal and performance-related pay linked to these social constructs.  School management has become so focused on this data that we do not know how to run schools without it.

Target grades are a dangerous nonsense, an answer to a question that nobody asked.

Ben’s solution.  Put target grades in the educational dustbin alongside learning styles and brain gym.  We need to replace them with more developmental learning goals, that are subject-specific and measure domain skills and knowledge.

Session 2. Harry Fletcher-Wood Why does good professional development fail.

Harry’s slides are here.

Harry suggests that despite the significant amount of time and money invested in professional development, much of it has little impact in the classroom.

Harry presented us with a range of RCTs which clearly suggest that there is very little evidence that intensive CPD has an impact in the classroom and student learning.  There is an emerging consensus of what good CPD looks like and it contains a wide range of ingredients including content, coaching, modelling, feedback, reflection and so on.  Harry suggests that this can be thought of as the recipe for CPD, however the evidence suggests that even when the recipe is followed and all the ingredients are included it may not lead to better student outcomes.  In one study, staff had participated in 95 hours of intensive and what would be considered well designed CPD that had no discernbile impact on student outcomes.  This is disappointing given the financial and time commitment of such courses.  Is it worth it?  Would we be better of spending more time planning, collaborating or just having a life outside of school.  The evidence suggests maybe.

Harry admits that the research on the effectiveness needs to get better with a renewed focus on how evaluate and change teaching habits.  We must consider the importance of school culture on the impact of teacher effectiveness and learn insights from the world of behavioural psychology about how to change norms and habits.  Perhaps we need to challenge to consensus that has emerged around professional development and don’t start with the same recipe.

Session 3. Daisy Christodoulo Improving assessment: the key to reform.

Livestream is here  and her slides are here

Daisy has a long-standing reputation for destroying the sacred cows and myths that surround education.  In her most recent book,  ‘making good progress’ has the whole way we assess and measure progress firmly in its sights.

Daisy’s talk was built around 4 practical assessment errors and suggestions for how we overcome them.  When I read making good progress I thought it had the potential to change everything we do, baby, bathwater, bathtub and taps.  So it was good to hear the story first-hand.

We need to improve our assessment methods as our current poor practice is leading to distorted views about progress and has unintended consequences for young people.  The whole point of assessment is to be able to make valid inferences about a student’s learning.  Our current practice relies too much on subjective human judgement to be useful.

Daisy suggests there are 4 common assessment practices that are not fit for purpose:

1.Using prose descriptors to grade work and give pupils feedback.

Prose descriptors / rubrics / mark schemes are neither helpful nor an accurate way of giving feedback.  The descriptors are too fluffy which often leads to generic feedback …. explain in more detail … which if they could have done so, they would have.  The student does not know how to improve with a prose descriptor.

Suggestion.  Use well-designed multiple choice questions to tease out misconceptions and common errors.  Define descriptors as questions instead.

2.Marking essays using absolute judgement

Using prose descriptors leads to the next problem.  We are poor at using absolute judgement in applying the mark schemes.  It is difficult to place essays on a scale and teachers often lack consistency within themselves let alone within a team or across the country.

Suggestion.  Use comparative judgement as an alternative to absolute judgement.

3.Viewing grades as discrete categories

Grades are a social construct and should be treated as such.

We tend to see grades as real things that a students with a B is qualitatively better than one with a C.  We need to perceive grades as a continuum.  The student with a B may be closer to the one with a C than another with an A.  There is often little qualitative difference  between the grades.

Suggestion. We should report a scaled score with a confidence interval and recognise that grades are lines on a continuum.

4.Thinking that test scores matter!

Goodhart’s law – when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.

The scores themselves are not as important as what they tell us about learning and a students ability.  What can we infer from the scores?  What do they say they can do?  Are our inferences valid?

Suggestion.  Can we use technology such as comparative judgement to enhance human judgement and develop more valid and reliable methods of assessing student progress.

Much of Daisy’s talk was music to my ears as I have often wondered about the validity of applying the very fluffy rubrics.  Her diagnosis of the problem is spot on, I guess it is yet to be seen if comparative judgement is the solution.  However, I would be interested in trying it out.

Session 4: What does this look like in the classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice.  Carl Hendrick and Rob MacPherson

A guilty pleasure.  I am looking forward to their new book and thought this would give me a glimpse into their thinking.  I could not find their slides online, so I will have to make do with the notes I made in the session below.

Research has often been a one-way street, too top-down and done to teachers not by, with or for teachers.  Educational research has been a foreign language which was not expressed at the level of the classroom or the student.  Research has often been interesting but not useful which can be characterised as solutions in search of a problem.  Equally, teachers have not always engaged with research as well as they should.  We have a tendency to reject new ideas (semmelweis reflex) and any decent engagement costs money and is time-consuming.

How do we embed research into schools?

The default position has been to go on a course.  One-off courses are expensive and have little impact on classroom practice.  Is this the only way to learn?

For many schools CPD is a one-size fits all model which does not suit everyones needs.  Often, CPD is tied to performance targets and school development plans which means teachers are not able to choose their interests.  So, what should we do?

Lesson study – high cost, small scale – little evidence it works.  RCT – high cost, large scale – big commitment.  Reading summaries of other peoples research – low cost, individual focus.

Teachers should be encouraged to read research rather than doing it.  Schools need to create space to reflect on the reading e.g. journal clubs.  At Wellington, they had a student research council, research fellows (appointed from the staff) and senior research fellow.

Teachers should become streamlined practitioners, stop doing the stuff that wastes time and focus on stuff that has impact.  Teachers should read, observe, write and discuss new ideas and approaches.

Visiting another school can be better professional learning than a one-off course.

School leaders should allow autonomy in professional learning, trim the fat, create more time by rethinking everything.  We need to get more creative with INSET and plan a sequence of collaborative professional learning rather than the sage on the stage, why not teach-meets, go to a library for a day?  We must create a positive culture and praise the achievements.  (Antony Seldon gave out chocolate in staff meeting to anyone who had published something!).

What does this look like in the classroom?

A research-informed teacher will have a streamlined classroom – an adiaphoric classroom.  A lot of what we do is a waste of time and not based on evidence.  What do we need to do to ensure our students are successful?

Research should reduce workload not increase it.  We should all read ‘the canon’ on learning – teachers greatest hits (Deans for Impact, Rosenshine et al).

Session 5. Has Growth Mindset Grown Too Far.  Martin Robinson.

In short, yes.  Martin details the rise of Dweck’s concept, it’s current misuse as a panacea to all our problems and the lack of substantive evidence to prove that a growth mindset can improve outcomes.

Session 6. 50,000 small solutions to the big problem of the new curriculum. Alex Quigly

This was possibly my favourite session of the day.  Alex offers an alternative to whole school literacy initiatives and aims to empower all teachers to consider how they can tweak their practice to help bridge the communication gap.

We assume children know more academic language than they do, in one day a student must be able to switch between 6 different academic codes.  This requires a level of dexterity that some students do not have.  The gaps in educational attainment are best thought of in terms of gaps in vocabulary and communication.  David Crystal suggests you need a vocabulary of 50000 words to cope with school, those who do not have this will probably not make it in school or life.

We tend to ignore many of the tier 2 words as we assume that students know them and we focus on tier 3 but this is an error.  We need to modify our teaching practice and pick up these important high frequency words.


As children shift from fiction to non-fiction books in Year 5, the language expectations are more complex as there are more tier 2/3 words.  The language demands are hardest at GCSE – do our students understand all the words we are using?  We need to know 95% of the words in a text to understand the meaning.

“Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities – not just skill in reading, writing, listening and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history and the arts”  E. D. Hirsh, ‘A Wealth of Words”

What do we need to do?

We do not know enough about how children learn to read in secondary school so they can read to learn?

Do whole school initiatives work?   Is DEAR an effective use of time because students need to learn how to read differently in different subjects.  What makes a good paragraph in English may be different to what a science teacher expects and so on.

We need to grow their vocabulary and develop their word consciousness, give them word wealth.  We need students to read more actively, become more aware of how words are used in different subject disciplines, recognise parts of words, prefixes, suffixes, word families.  We need to help them develop strategies for working out the words they do not know to unlock the different layers of meaning.  We need to help our students learn to spell.  We need to teach them the etymology and morphology of the words we use, work out the common spelling patterns and commonly misspelled words.

“Virtually every word’s spelling can be explained by its language of origin, meaning and/or sound structure.  Odd and truly unpredictable spellings such as ‘of’, ‘aunt’ and ‘does’ are only a small percentage of words in English.  Louisa Moats ‘How Spelling Supports Reading.

We have a duty to help our students break the academic code of our subjects.  Academic vocabulary has a high proportion of complex works and complex spellings, higher proportion of nouns, adjectives, and prepositions, more abstract and more informational density.

Alex proposes a range of practical strategies around the mnemonic SEEC as a means of closing the vocabulary gap.



Session 7: Dual Coding: Get Going Oliver Caviglioli

I could not think of a better way to end my researchEd 2017 that to spend an hour with the inspirational Oliver Caviglioli.  I should have toddled along to the Amanda Spielman session but I thought that one would be recorded so I could watch it later.  Oliver promised the session would contain lots of practical ways for us to improve our use of dual coding and that we would go home disappointed that it was such an easy trick.

Oliver gave us some of the theory behind dual coding with the ideas of schemas and the limitations of working memory.  I enjoyed the aside about George Miller ‘taking the piss’ about the Magic Number 7.  Words and language are not permanent and need hooks to help them become part of our mental models.  People learn better from graphics and words rather than from words alone.  But, only if the images support the concepts.  If the graphics are just decorative and without content they may produce a redundancy effect. The use of images reduces the cognitive load of the working memory.  Poorly organised knowledge cannot be readily remembered.  It is our job to teach our students how to use and generate good knowledge organisation.

The highlight of the session was a whistle-stop tour of a range of easy strategies and a lesson in how to do a napkin sketch.