Using evidence to support teaching and learning: A cautionary tale.

Several years ago I read Making Minds: What’s wrong with education – and what should we do about. It was written by Paul Kelley, headteacher at Monkseaton High School in the north east of England. I was a little awe struck by Kelley at the time (and still am) and in retrospect see him as the forerunner of all the evidenced informed hype in education that has taken hold in the last couple of years.

Kelley was (and still is) and educational visionary. Drawing on neuroscience and the latest findings in circadian rhythms, he partnered up with leading researchers (including Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at Oxford University) and began to test, analyse and implement a number of revolutionary ideas at the school.

The two main innovations were:

Spaced Learning. Based on research developed by Doug Fields at the Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States, it concerned the nature in which memories are strengthened. As Kelley explains:

Remarkably the important factor was time.  Fields and his team found a pattern of 3 stimulations spaced with 10 minute periods without stimulation triggered the response that strengthened the synaptic pathway permanently- creating a long term memory.  I saw an opportunity to use the same pattern in education. A team of students, Angela Bradley (a talented Biology teacher) and I then created what has become known as Spaced Learning.  We ran trials with surprisingly positive results.

[…]I was hoping to link up with other researchers who had applied his research to learning.  He told me he didn’t know of any, and that put huge pressure on me to conduct further detailed research which we did in 2007-2010. The surprisingly positive results were validated. Unfortunately they were so positive they questioned the validity of conventional teaching itself.

We were lucky to secure funding to create a resource to help other educationalists use Spaced Learning- they are here on the site. At Monkseaton there has been training for hundreds of people, and now there is digital resource in English for everyone to use as they see fit. Italian and Chinese versions are on this site.

Later Start to the School Day: The second innovation was based on research by Russell Foster, chair of circadian neuroscience at Brasenose College, Oxford, in turn supported by some of the work Sarah Jayne Blakemore was doing at UCL. Research has discovered that, as teenage brains develop, they are more likely to go through a stage where their 24 cycle (or circadian rhythm) doesn’t match that of adults. The implication is that teenagers are more alert later in the day, are impelled by their circadian cycle to sleep later and wake later in the morning. For Kelley, the conclusion was simple – start school later in the day. In 2009 Monkseaton High School, therefore, became the first school to start lessons later (10am) to account for the differences in teenagers’ circadian rhythms.

So did it all work?

In 2010, a report by Tyneside Council reported GCSE results at 34% (A*-C) in English and Maths (below the national average) and branded the school ‘inadequate’, however the school recorded a rise of almost a fifth a few months later (the highest in the history of the school).

Nevertheless, in 2011 Ofsted designated the school ‘satisfactory’. Kelley unexpectedly resigned as head in 2012 and the following year the school was given a ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.

… so, at face value, the situation appears confusing.

The question of whether the initiatives worked is also complicated. GCSE grades certainly increased but a number of different variables need to be considered, such as implementing a rage of evidence-based initiatives simultaneously. Also, the general upward trend in GCSE results nationwide might have contributed to a proportion of this rise.

The evidence on which the experiments took place might have been sound but the implementation might not have been. A series of Randomised Controlled Trials might have been useful but even then it would have been necessary to include other schools in order to reduce the likelihood of extraneous variables impacting on the results. I’m not aware of any replications outside the original school either, so any results might not be valid or reliable.

There is much to learn from the Monkseaton experiment, it was the forerunner of all that’s buzzing in education at the moment but was perhaps too naively designed and implemented to produce any useful data (I haven’t been able to find any outside Kelley’s own book but feel free to point me in the right direction). It also suggests the headteachers really do need the courage to give this kind of thing a go, but preferably not alone!

Finally, remember that although individuals like Ben Goldacre produced the spark, we are all standing on the shoulders of amazing educational revolutionaries like Kelley.


1 thought on “Using evidence to support teaching and learning: A cautionary tale.

  1. Dylan Wiliam

    The achievement of 16-year-olds attending a particular secondary school is uninterpretable without evidence about their achievement at age 11, which is why value-added measures of school performance, despite their problems, are, by some measure, the best indications we have of a school’s scholastic performance. Ideally, we should want such value-added measures to include measures on the demographics of the students attending a school—a school should not get credit simply for recruiting particular kinds of student who happen to make more progress than their peers—but such “contextual value-added” data is no longer produced for schools in England

    Below are the value added data for Monkseaton High School (asterisks denote contextual value added, while the other data are uncorrected value-added ratings for the school) over the last nine years.

    2013 value-added: 1012
    2012 value-added: 989
    2011 value-added: 993
    2010 value-added: 984*
    2009 value-added: 975*
    2008 value-added: 996*
    2007 value-added: 1000*
    2006 value-added: 1004*
    2005 value-added: 984

    I leave readers to make their own judgements about the school, but I think there is a pretty clear trajectory of improvement over recent years…


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