What is the number one shift in UK education I hope to see in my lifetime?

Evidence-based teacher training

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio reads this letter, unaware that it is a trick. He is fooled into thinking greatness is being thrust upon him. Far from nodding sagely at its wisdom, we should realise that Shakespeare’s cautionary sub-plot mocks the idea that great achievements occur overnight.

Teacher training cannot become great overnight, or even by 2015. But the long-term vision must be for teaching to become an evidence-based profession by 2050, with consistently effective instruction delivered in every classroom. To achieve this, teacher training must strengthen its statistical and scientific evidence base: ITT based on our cutting-edge understanding of learning from cognitive science, and CPD based on statistically evaluated practices that impact on pupil progress.

A brief aside on why I feel so strongly about this: my dad was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. This held a particularly bitter twist because he’s a prostate cancer surgeon. He’s spent the last ten years of his career using robotic technology that minimises surgical incision, lengthens life and accelerates recovery. Thanks to the very laser surgery he pioneered, my Dad is now cured of cancer and recovering well. None of this would have been possible without decades of evidence-based medicine, in which scientific research was rigorously applied to healthcare to inform clinical decision-making.

Education now needs the same evidence-based revolution that medicine has benefited from. But sometimes it seems like we are still in the dark ages. The persistent prevalence of brain gym and learning styles in the classroom, despite all the evidence against them, is astonishing. A striking analogy is that ‘learning styles are the educational equivalent of the leech in medicine: popular for a period, but with no discernible benefit’. An increasingly robust evidence base is revealing other education practices that, like the bloodletting of the early modern physicians, have no discernible benefit.

So what would ITT based systematically on the research from cognitive science look like?

Decades of empirical research in cognitive science have shown what matters most in learning: knowledge and long-term memory. Specifying, sequencing and testing broad background knowledge is fundamental to enabling academic achievement. Cognitive scientists have proven that ‘if nothing has been retained in the long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ So effective ITT must train teachers in cutting-edge scientific discoveries on the critical role of broad knowledge and long-term memory in cognition. It must also improve teachers’ own subject knowledge and understanding of core sequences such as grammatical concepts in English.

What would CPD based systematically on the research from statistical meta-analyses look like? For an idea of which teaching practices most impact on student achievement, a good start is John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses relating to Student Achievement. It turns out that direct instruction has one of the highest effects on pupil progress. But as Hattie himself says,

‘Every year I present lectures to teacher education students and find that they are   already indoctrinated with the mantra “constructivism good, direct instruction bad”. When I show them the results of these meta-analyses, they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.’

The experience of many trainee teachers – examples here and here –  is being indoctrinated with – and later angered by – the mantra ‘constructivism good, direct instruction bad.’ Imbibing this unthinking mantra without getting angry about it reminds me of the sheep in Animal Farm bleating ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ as the dictator Napoleon takes over.

So evidence-based CPD would train teachers in how to improve their use of direct instruction, summarised here by Hattie:

‘In a nutshell: the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes   them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have told by tying it all together with closure’.

I haved blogged about what we can learn from Siegfried Engelmann’s pioneering method of direct instruction here.

Evidence-based teacher training could transform UK education. Few other shifts would do as much to get our teachers and students achieving greatness.

For ideas of what other education bloggers would like to see as their number one shift in education, see: http://share.edutronic.net/

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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8 Responses to What is the number one shift in UK education I hope to see in my lifetime?

  1. Pingback: What we can learn from Direct Instruction & Siegfried Engelmann? | Back to the Whiteboard

  2. Pingback: What we can learn from Direct Instruction & Siegfried Engelmann? | Pragmatic Education

  3. Joe – I have spent considerable time in teacher-training classrooms (both ends). I agree with everything you say but am stumped about how we get our schools of education to teach teachers how to teach kids to read. One simple thing. Let’s start there.

    That’s the #1 shift I want, I want to teach our kids to read. It’s very interesting to me that we have made it so hard. It all reminds me of a quote from Freud I think, “There are no adults.”

    Thanks, Rory

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