All entries for Friday 27 May 2016

May 27, 2016

Ralph Tabberer – Without research its a career not worth having

I completed my initial teacher training in the 1970s and had no idea how important research was going to be in my career. Most of my early teaching experience was a battle to get organised and to stay ahead, with material and ideas that would work day to day, and week to week.

I fell into classroom research after two years’ teaching, entirely out of my interest in understanding more of what was happening from the students’ viewpoint.

I worked with colleagues in designing simple exercises to track how students approached learning challenges. First, we paired up students so that one was the observer while another took on a task requiring them to use the library. The written reports of how students struggled to find the resources they needed were unintentionally hilarious until, that is, we realised that our 13-year-olds had no idea how to conduct a proper search. We had never shown them; it wasn’t in our curriculum.

Our work progressed. We asked students to collect the comments and marks they received in each lesson they attended, for one week, and when they played back their written and spoken results, we were ashamed. I still recall one child who spent almost every lesson being told exactly how poor they were. There was no system to our feedback and marking; we were unaware of the accumulated effect.

After a series of these exercises – looking at reading, writing, searching, feedback, problem-solving and more – I deepened my interest in research into the classroom, and into the cognitive sciences, and this has sustained me all my career. In teaching, fashions change – just look at the current debate about ‘mastery learning’ – and it is incredibly valuable to have a grasp of some of the underpinning ‘laws’ of teaching and learning.

I strongly recommend this report in 2000 from US authors who distilled what has been discovered about teaching and learning into five key lessons:

Just read the first section, up to page 31. It is brilliant and there is nothing in neuroscience so far to beat it. It argues that learning is best when (a) teachers start from what students know and feel, (b) there is opportunity for plenty of practice of interesting content, (c) teachers point to the concepts that allow learners to stick the content and learning together, (d) teachers introduce learners to ‘organisers’ that aid retention and transfer, and (e) students are equipped and encouraged to become the regulators of their own learning. I wil come back to this work in later blogs.

I was fortunate in my school career. I worked for ten years in research after those early exercises in our classrooms. I joined a local authority and made my way in advising schools on their improvement strategies. I had the great honour of being appointed to run a government agency – funding teacher education – and from there I moved to take charge of school policy and operations at the Department for Education. That was during the Blair years when his celebrated top 3 priorities were: “education, education, education”. Heady days.

At every step, I was able to approach our work with that foundation in teaching and learning. We did not get everything right – by any means – but I have no doubt that our strengths and successes came in those areas where we knew and applied the lessons of research.

I didn’t know how important research was going to be when I started my career. I now realise there would have been no career worth having without it.

Ralph Tabberer

Professor Ralph Tabberer CB is the former Director General of Schools for England and the former Chief Executive of the Teacher Training Agency. He was Deputy Director of the National Foundation for Educational Research in the 1990s. He now concentrates on international education and is an adviser to Warwick University’s Centre for Professional Education.

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