Category Archives: Research

ResearchED 2015: How wrong could I have been?

Back in 2013 I wrote a piece for The Guardian in response to a paper published by Ben Goldacre.  Ben attempted to argue that teaching should become a research-led profession, driven by teachers themselves and reliant on the Randomised Controlled Trail (RCT). It received a few comments and circulated around Twitter for a few days, inflating my ego as well as adding a little bit to the debate. During this time I was contacted by Tom Bennett (who probably doesn’t remember this particularly crucial moment in his life), a teacher and TES columnist and a man who seemed keen to answer (or at least critically discuss) Goldacre’s battle cry. Tom had an idea – he wanted to run a conference on a Saturday in September and gather together as many like-minded teachers, academics and other interested parties in an attempt to debate and discuss teaching as research-led. He had read my Guardian piece and thought I might be such a person. I was intrigued but declined due to family commitments. To be honest, I was also very sceptical – there was no way that teachers would turn up on a Saturday during the first precious weeks of a new term and discuss educational research.

How wrong could I be?


I arrived home at about 10.30 last night; having travelled back from what has become one of the key education conferences in the teaching calendar (the ResearchED National Conference in London). This time last week I had recently returned home from the first ResearchEd Scotland event in Glasgow. The movement (or is it a ‘cult’?) has grown so fast it’s difficult to keep track of all the events carrying the ResearchED brand (it’s even travelled to Australia and the United States). The most amazing thing is that it’s still very much ‘owned’ by teachers, with speakers giving their time for free and seminar rooms packed with eager young (and not so young) minds. I have to say that I’ve caught the ResearchED bug (better late then never, I suppose) and find myself still buzzing from all the wonderful things I’ve seen and heard over the past two Saturdays.

Around 700 delegates gathered at South Hampstead High School for ResearchED15 (most of them teachers – ON A SATURDAY!). If you weren’t there, this is just a teeny tiny taste of what you missed.


Kieran Dhunna Halliwell (Ezzy Moon to those on Twitter) started off my day by using some rather offensive language in her discussion of Race and Culture in the Classroom. Kieran had conducted an interesting survey into how comfortable teachers were with discussions around race, ethnicity and culture (although we all had problems defining these terms). Essentially, teachers really aren’t that comfortable with discussing such issues although, not surprisingly, History and RE teachers are more so. Media representations are a major problem, insisted Kieran; I nodded in agreement, knowing full well that my own students often base their understanding of complex issues on whatever is on the front page of the tabloids.

Next I went to listen to Nick Gibb (Minister for Schools) and immediately wished I hadn’t (but was just too polite to get up and walk out). I listened to a speech that cherry picked blogs, books and individuals that simply supported current political ideology and emphasised the tired old false traditionalist-progressive dichotomy and praised Chinese teaching methods.

Claire_WaghornThankfully, Claire Waghorn managed to banish Gibb to farthest corner of my cluttered unconscious. Her talk was on how South Hampstead High School (our host for the day) was adopting a Growth Mindset approach for pupils and staff. Claire provided the audience with a well-designed blueprint of how interventions should be implemented. There was also some discussion on Mindfulness (another hot topic at the moment).

I was up at 1pm but was too nervous for lunch (I was reliably informed that it was ‘lush’ – cheers Ezzy!). Mark Healy and I were talking critically about Mindsets only Mark couldn’t make it so I was on my own. If you’re interested the slides are here.

Stuart Ritchie (University of Edinburgh) talked IQ tests and used lots of complicated graphs. IQ remains controversial with teachers and although I’m not keen on the tests myself (I suspect partly in fear of being of below average intelligence) I can’t deny they have a strong empirical basis. Stuart certainly believed in what he preached and had the evidence to support every word he spoke (including an MRI scan of his brain). His talk also suggested that A-level Psychology textbooks really need to catch up with the research.

I was flagging by the time I made it to Jack Marwood’s session. We arrived to the sound of 80’s pop sensation Prefab Sprout (according to Wikipedia they still exist!). Jack talked about research and what we understand about what actually works in the classroom. I enjoyed the session but left with the frightening conclusion that nothing we ever do will make any significant difference to the outcomes of our pupils – of course I was very tired by this point and might have misunderstood.

The hard wooden benches in the sports hall woke me up a little (but did nothing for the wonky disc at the base of my spineRob_Coe *reaches for the Ibuprofen* ). I’d arrived to listen to Professor Rob Coe, good friend to the whole ResearchED movement/cult). Pof. Coe returned to the core of ResearchED – How can we know what actually works? The answer I think is that sometimes we don’t but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. His slides are available here.

Tom Bennett drew the day to a close by asking for some volunteers to put some chairs away. Then everyone went to the pub.

Why do so many teachers find cognitive psychology so attractive?

Over the past couple of years teachers have been discovering cognitive psychology, often viewing it as that long-awaited silver bullet that holds the secrets to unending learning. It’s an interesting phenomenon, more so because those who appear most enthusiastic are also those who reject or are highly critical of earlier psychological research by the likes of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, while academic psychologists continue to re-evaluate and extend such work in the light of more recent research.

So is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful? Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) recently tweeted his concern.

Personally I do understand why cognitive psychology (as opposed to behavioural, psychodynamic, social or more biologically influenced psychology) is so attractive to teachers.

First of all, cognitive psychology offers something relevant. Not only does it remain the dominant paradigm in psychology, it also offers useful solutions to the problem of learning. The fact the majority of interested teachers see cognitive psychology as being about memory doesn’t pose that much of a problem despite the approach encompassing a wide range of processes.

Cognitive psychology is also science based. There is a strong connection between cognitive psychology and biology and cognitive scientists in general are in agreement with biologists. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists are gradually moving towards neuroscience as way of gathering more evidence to support theories that have been supported in experimental conditions.

Cognitive psychology is empirical. Studies are conducted in highly controlled conditions in an attempt to establish causation. Theories are supported through replication, just like any other scientific theory, and further evidence is added to support previous conclusions. Models are constructed from the data and amended when further data is made available and those that can’t be supported are (usually) rejected. Some models, therefore, (such as Working Memory) are dynamic, shifting in response to new data, similar to models explaining evolution or the formation of the universe. To suggest that cognitive psychology isn’t empirical is too misunderstand the nature of science inquiry.

So, is cognitive psychology the silver bullet?

No, and this is what teachers need to be aware of.

Studies using experimental methods normally take place in highly controlled environments (and some might not even involve humans). Artificial situations can cause problems when they involve human beings because sometimes humans don’t behave in the way we want them to.

For example, participants often display what is known as demand characteristics, that is, they alter their behaviour because of the situation. They might try to ‘please’ the researcher by second-guessing the nature of the study and acting accordingly. Alternatively they might just want to ‘mess it up’ – particularly if the study involves young people.

Related to this is the problem of generalizability. Can we assume that the behaviour in the experimental situation will be mirrored in, say, a classroom situation?

Samples are often biased. There is some concern that many studies use undergraduate psychology students as participants, which in turn could increase the possibility of demand characteristics. Furthermore, researchers eager to support their hypothesis might consciously or unconsciously manipulate the situation in order to get the ‘right’ results, or even reject any outliers in the data (a technique known as p hacking). This isn’t unique to psychology, but it remains something to be aware of.

Finally, keeping up with advances is cognitive psychology could, in itself, become a full-time occupation – just look at the number of papers published each year into memory, not to mention the number of academic journals dedicated to it.

My concern isn’t that teachers are enthusiastic (any promotion of psychology, in all its guises, can only be a good thing) but that some teachers are unquestioningly enthusiastic and others are vehemently apposed to any evidence-based approach (in the same way that many are taking sides in the pointless ‘progressive vs. whatever the other side is today’ debate).

So “is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful?”

Warranted? I think it is because cognitive psychology can inform our teaching. In essence, it’s useful.

Helpful? No, not if it polarizes opinion and ignores all other fruitful avenues.

Justin Bieber, The Illuminati and Educational Research

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

Justin making the sign of the Illuminati

I became embroiled in the most bizarre conversation recently. For some reason my lesson took an unexpected turn when a student suggested that Justin Bieber was a member of the shadowy Illuminati, the centuries old secret sect that reportedly rules the world and made famous by author Dan Brown (so not so secret after all). I then made the mistake of suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be true because the Illuminati themselves didn’t exist.

“They must exist,” retorted the student, “because Justin Bieber is a member, and so is Rihanna.”

The evidence base for this assertion was that one erroneous belief (the existence of the Illuminati) was supported by a second erroneous belief (that Bieber was a member of the said shadowy organisation).

Now this might simply seem like one of these daft conversations we often have with teenagers (and there are many) and yet it can be compared with other assertions made by the likes of purveyors of alternative medicine. One such ploy would be to suggest that the research community refuses to conduct trials on this therapy or that homeopathic remedy because it’s so effective that it would render all drugs redundant and destroy the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. In other words, the absence of evidence leads to the assumption that it must work.

Now, I’m not saying that education works in the same way, but I am drawn to the following quote on learning styles (specifically VAK) which appears in a 2001 edition of a book on accelerated learning by a well known educationalist:

The leading practitioners in NLP have spent many years characterising the ‘typical’ attributes of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. The work is not research based. It is pragmatic and based on detailed elicitation and modelling.

Of course, the standout sentence here is ‘The work is not research based’ – why did nobody hear the alarm bells ringing?

In a similar way, many teachers (and once-upon-a-time teachers) use phrases like ‘it’s common sense’ or ‘I’ve always done it that way and it works’. If psychology has taught me anything it’s that so-called common sense assumptions are often wrong (for example, if a large crowd is present during an accident, help is less, not more, likely to be forthcoming). They often use these common sense assumptions to reject evidence outright, while others will cherry-pick the data that supports their common sense assumptions and reject that evidence which does not (so-called conformation bias) – of course, this is not confined to teachers.

Some things, on the other hand, we need to accept (or leave well alone) because we simply can’t test them empirically. It’s difficult for us to claim that play is or is not vital for learning because we can’t ethically conduct a study where one group of children are deprived of play. One way we can is to study the educational attainment of those children who have been brought up in isolation or extreme deprivation (including feral children). The problem here is that many of these children have experienced both physical and psychological abuse, increasing the number of confounding variables and making it nigh on impossible to isolate one specific cause. Another problem would be defining the concept of play – is daydreaming a type of internal play? If so, then how would we prevent a child from daydreaming?

Accepting that some things cannot be tested is one thing; accepting them as fact because they can’t be tested is something else altogether. Then again, accepting that education should be evidence based is perhaps the wrong road to take and accepting that it should be evidence informed is perhaps a better one.

UPDATE: I have recently been made aware that Justin Bieber has, in fact, been assassinated by the Illuminati and replaced with a robot.