researchED Phase 2: researchED Midlands

Good day.

We’re delighted to announce that the first of what is hoped to be many regional researchED conferences commences on 5th April at the John Henry Newman Catholic College, Birmingham. Sleeker and more streamlined than the September conference (i.e. smaller), the plan is to host several of these around the country in a – if you will – roadshow of research.

The line up already looks extraordinary:

  • Dr Matt O’Leary from the University of Wolverhampton, the Centre of Research and Development of lifelong Education (CRADLE)
  • Representation from the National College of Teaching and Leadership
  • The Education Endowment Fund
  • Louise Stubberfield of the Wellcome Trust
  • Daisy Christodoulou, Head of Research with ARK Academies
  • Sam Freedman, Director of Research with Teach First
  • David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust
  • Sarah Kitchen of NatCen Social Research
  • Kris Boulton and Katie Ashford of Teach First
  • Richard Churches of CfBT
  • Michael Slavinsky of the Brilliant Club
  • Pete Yeomans
  • Tami McCrone, Research Director (Impact), NFER
  • Joe Hallgarten, RSA
  • and probably someone called Tom Bennett

As with the last conference, the emphasis will always be, “What’s the best of what we know works in classrooms?” and related questions. With representation from teachers, researchers, and intermediary bodies, we hope to bring together as many circles of influence as possible with an ultimate goal of raising standards in education, driving high quality research, and putting teachers and researchers in each others’ paths.

The response so far from the various communities has been edifying, and a huge number of people have volunteered to give their time to make this work. If you still want to contribute, or assist in some way, do let us know and we’ll see what we can do. It’s been an honour to be part of something that is such a grass roots movement, and frankly, the best CPD I’ve ever had, even including the ones that used sugar paper.

Tickets will go on sale this weekend on the Eventbrite website; costs will be as low as possible, and only ever just high enough to make the event possible. Follow us on Twitter for the announcement. There will be a much more limited number of tickets this time around to reflect the smaller conference, so do book early to avoid disappointment and the inevitable shame of facing your partners and telling them sadly that, “You didn’t get a ticket”. We cannot be held responsible for the domestic conflicts that could ensue.

I hope to see you there,

Tom Bennett

ResearchED 2014

Ben Goldacre’s Keynote at ResearchED 2013

In Part 1 Ben talks briefly about what can be achieved in a decade or two; a generation or three: how teachers and researchers can network to find out what works and to do it.

He explains it doesn’t come naturally to build such structures and systems and that it requires an information architecture to facilitate evidence based practice.

He outlines the basic system and how the network might work based on similar models in other professional associations – notably medicine.

In Part 2 Ben outlines the dangers of teachers trying to do their own independent research. He explains the ways in which a research network can support teachers working in tandem with researchers.

He talks through concrete examples of RCTs (Randomised Control Trials) including the work done by the Education Endowment Foundation and gives an example of one interesting case.

He goes on to suggest further ways this could be developed and the barriers, social and cultural, at this time, that may stand in the way.

He ends with an inspirational rallying call for teachers to get busy on working out what works.

ResearchED 2013: a Reading List

Lots of you have been blogging about researchED 2013. Here are the posts that we’ve managed to track down; if your post is missing, drop me a tweet.

Some of the speakers have also put their notes online:

If I’ve missed anyone off the list, or got your name wrong, then please let me know.

Evidence for the Frontline

The headteacher of an inner–city primary school is stuck. She has just had a meeting with her senior management team to discuss how they can do more for their struggling readers. On the positive side, everyone has contributed really well and come up with some great ideas. Her deputy has suggested that they should provide one–to–one tutoring, but she cannot be sure that the expense is worth it. The literacy leader is certain he has heard of a scheme that recruits volunteers from the community to do the same thing – he is positive he had read it in a magazine somewhere. The Special Educational Needs coordinator thought it might be a problem with the way they are teaching all children to read, and maybe they should look for something that was more effective across the whole school. Now, to add to the confusion, a colleague from a neighbouring school is on the phone, telling her about a really exciting pilot project they are using, which uses a new computer programme to help those who are struggling.

These are the types of questions that are faced every day by schools and colleges across
 the country, whether they are choosing a new literacy programme, developing a behaviour management strategy, or deciding to introduce a new approach to social and emotional learning. In scenarios like these, research evidence still plays a relatively small part in informing professional decision making, with practitioner’s own experience, and that of colleagues, much more likely to influence day–to–day practice. A similar situation might apply to a police sergeant trying to decide on options in a domestic violence case, or a social worker faced with referring a looked after child. Inevitably, too many important decisions are made by best guesses and are overly influenced by politics, marketing, anecdotal evidence and tradition. This results in classic pendulum swings, where new ideas and practices are enthusiastically embraced, found wanting and abandoned, only to be rediscovered in cycles.

A new paper published today by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, Evidence for the Frontline, explores what can be drawn from the advances in a range of fields to mobilise research knowledge more effectively across social policy and practice. I frame the issue by looking at the individual elements of an effective evidence ecosystem – production, synthesis, transformation and implementation – whilst at the same time considering what needs to be done to integrate these elements more coherently. As well as looking at gaps in current infrastructure, I also pick out some exciting new initiatives and ideas that can hopefully produce tangible benefits for professional practice.

What is evidence–informed practice?

When trying to clarify what we mean by evidence–based practice perhaps it is easier to start by saying what it isn’t. Evidence–based practice is not ‘cook book’ teaching or policing, nor should it be about prescribing what goes on from a position of unchallenged authority. It is about integrating professional expertise with the best external evidence from research to improve the quality of practice. It is important to remember that there is a huge amount of experiential knowledge that is not captured by research, and, therefore, that an absence of evidence certainly does not mean absence of effectiveness. Hence, whilst the term ‘evidence–based practice’ has historical relevance, perhaps ‘evidence–informed practice’ is a more appropriate term.

An important theme covered in the Evidence for the Frontline report is that the demand for evidence must come from a will to advance standards in practice, rather than being a research or policy–driven agenda. Across social policy and practice, research is too often seen as outside of professional practice; something that is done to practice; practice serving research, rather than the other way around. If we compare this to medicine we see that the communities involved in delivering frontline services are much more infused with a research–facing outlook, so that the people involved in training, research and practice are able to move more fluidly between these different roles.

It is these inherent gaps between research and practice across many of our public services that means mobilising knowledge is so challenging – the wider the gap is after all, the harder it is to bridge. As we discuss, efforts need to focus on ensuring these two worlds can operate with greater synergy and interaction. The ultimate goal should be straightforward: to empower professionals with evidence.

Recommendations from the report


  • Research and development (R&D) should be framed in terms of an ‘evidence pipeline’, which takes developers on a journey from promising innovations through to large scale proven models. This process should be underpinned by research methods that are relevant for the point of development and the resources available at that stage.
  • Whilst more experimental trials (e.g. RCTs) should be welcomed, they should be seen as valuable tools within the developmental timeline of an intervention or strategy, rather than a research panacea.
  • Schemes such as the ESRC’s Knowledge Exchange Opportunities should be expanded, enabling social science researchers to be embedded in frontline services. Likewise, opportunities for practitioners to get involved in Development and Research (D&R) partnerships with universities should be encouraged.
  • Knowledge mobilisation activities should be extended from beyond simply communicating research, to considering how it is effectively engaged and applied to practice. A range of brokerage activities, which support interactions between researchers, practitioners and intermediaries, should be funded and evaluated.


  • A concerted effort is needed to build the necessary time, skills and resources within practice to support research use at scale. Examples of activities that would help include:
    1. Wider training and ongoing professional development opportunities to equip professionals with the skills to understand, find, share and use research.
    2. Recognition for leadership that supports research use within professional settings.
    3. Commitment by organisations to collectively use research knowledge to inform 
    4. Professional networks that can support knowledge mobilisation and share expertise between organisations.
  • Professional bodies, such as a proposed College of Teachers, should be empowered to play a coordinating role in supporting evidence–informed practice and setting professional standards, led by practitioners and at arm’s length from government. There should be strong attachments to university departments and opportunities for cross–over between academics and practitioners.


  • Government needs to ensure there is coordination across different elements
 of evidence ecosystems, including different research databases, programme clearinghouses, dissemination and brokerage activities, as well as capacity building efforts within practice. This is crucial as sectors become increasingly decentralised.
  • To address inconsistencies in the implementation of evidence–based approaches (e.g. restorative justice, formative assessment), as much effort at the policy level needs to be placed on how the evidence is applied as on what the evidence says. Enterprises such as the Education Endowment Foundation should be expanded and replicated to ensure a regular throughput of proven innovations to help get the evidence working in practice.

For further details, please contact Dr Jonathan Sharples

Manager of Partnerships, Institute for Effective Education, University of York

May 2013 update

It’s been a few weeks since our last mail out, but a lot has been happening. We’ve been in discussion with all of our speakers, who are putting together their conference speeches and workshops ready for September 7th. Speakers like Chris Husbands and Doctor Rebecca Allen, from the Institute of Education; Professor Robert Coe from the University of Durham, or Mary Whitehouse, from the University of York; Dr Carol Davenport of the NSLC; Associate Professor Carol Evans of Exeter University; Laura McInerney, Fulbright scholar at the University of Missouri; Daniel T Willingham, Professor of Psychology at Virginia University, amongst many.

From the teaching community we have Tom Sherrington, John Tomsett, and someone called Tom Bennett. We’ve got prominent bloggers, Teach Firsters and Chalk Face veterans like Joe Kirby, Ollie Orange and Stephen Lockyer, to name a few.

From the charity sector, bridging the gaps between school and research, we have Dr Kevan Collins from the Education Endowment Fund, David Weston, Director of the Teacher Development Trust, and Sam Freedman, Director of Research at Teach First, and also- until recently- Michael Gove’s advisor.

And from the broader world of research and education we have Ben Goldacre, scourge of Bad Science; Amanda Spielman, Chair of Ofqual and many more. For a full description of our speakers and contributors, visit the researchED website (see below). There may even be a couple of late additions to the roster, so watch this space…

In addition to this, we’re running a few extra events on the day that should be interesting:

  • A school research room, where school staff will display and discuss projects they’re running in their own institutions
  • Workshops on running research in schools
  • Research projects conducted specifically for researchED 2013
  • Discussion panels where you can shape the debate
  • Book desks where contributors’ books will be on sale

We’ve been back to the venue, Dulwich College, to scout out the best rooms and facilities for the day. The College is a fantastic place to hold this event, and we’re indebted to Dulwich for the support they’ve offered to researched 2013. There will be catering and coffee throughout the day, as well as- compliments of Sage publications- free tea and coffee on arrival. Lunch will be served in the canteen area for most of the day. There’s loads of break-out space, places to relax, meet and network.

We’re in the process of arranging a robust wireless network for the day, as no doubt many of us will be busy putting the world to rights on the internet throughout the day. Please feel free to blog, tweet or share to your heart’s content before, during and after the conference. The venue even has desk terminals if you prefer something less mobile.

Best of all, tickets finally went on sale via Eventbrite. Staggeringly, within 2 days, 40% of all tickets had been sold, which caught us completely by surprise. You can buy tickets here and reserve your place. We might be able to save some tickets for last minute bookings over summer, but at the moment it looks like first come, first served- so book now to avoid disappointment.

Right now we’re putting the program together, designing banners and posters, planning the logistics of the day itself and looking at where to advertise. If anyone wants to advertise in our program or other material, do get in touch with us. We’re grateful, as ever, to our major sponsors, the TES for support, advice and guidance through the whole process.

It’s been a tremendous experience to put this together; the support and good will has been amazing. If this is anything to go by, researchED 2013 looks likely to be a fantastic day.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Best wishes


Director, researchED 2013

Why are we still talking about learning styles?

“It’s kinaesthetic so it’s good.”

Whilst dipping one of McVities’ finest chocolate digestives into a cup of tea during an after school CPD session the other week, a senior member of staff dropped this comment into the discussion. I paused, looked around the room for another sane being, and let out a “sigh” as half of my biscuit tumbled into the teacup with a splash. At this point, ten minutes into an hour-long training session, my ever diminishing will to live was languishing, alongside the remains of my biscuit, at the bottom of a murky-looking cup of tepid tea.

This was made worse when the leader of the session jumped in with “I’m really glad you raised that. The best lessons I see are absolutely stuffed with VAK! How can we replicate this across the school?”

I looked back at my teacup, more seriously this time. Had it been spiked with some kind of hallucinogen? Surely my ears were deceiving me. Learning styles? As in ‘VAK’ theory? The one about the things that don’t exist? I had a momentary lapse of concentration and imagined hitting them all over the head with Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’, but then snapped myself back out of it, willing myself to add something to the conversation. I could not sit back and allow this to go on. “Have you heard about the research regarding learning styles? Apparently they don’t exist. Well, no. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to show that learning styles exist!” I exclaimed, the sound of panic in my voice discrediting me somewhat. I was abruptly fobbed off with a less than robust counter argument: “that may be the case, but I learn best when things are presented to me visually”- a statement met with far more approval than the nonsense I had spouted just moments before.

In that moment I realised how Alice must have felt at the mad hatters tea party. There was no way of reasoning with them at all. The party continued, tea sloshing all over the place and the jubilant cries of auditory learners echoing around the room.

As the conversation descended deeper into madness, I sat back and wondered just how this situation was even possible. How on Earth could nobody in the room have heard that learning styles are no longer a ‘thing’ in teaching? How could a group of well-educated, highly respected professionals continue to promulgate these bad ideas? Moreover, what are the implications of this attitude for the profession? Is the Galaxy High CPD programme unique? Or are too many schools out there still talking about something that doesn’t exist? All these questions raced around my mind as the ramblings of the session leader went over my head.

The Universe is full of Galaxies

I went home that day feeling deflated. I wondered if I was going mad, if I had dreamt that learning styles weren’t real, and that in fact they were the cornerstones of good teaching. I wanted to know if Galaxy was alone in the universe, or if there were other schools out there that still believed in this stuff, too. Sadly, it seems that quite a few institutions are still talking about learning styles, most worryingly this outstanding school, which was endorsed by OFSTED in their ‘best practice videos’. Their webpage states that “lessons are differentiated to match different learning styles”. Furthermore, many people on Twitter have been sharing awful VAK related stories or blogs, each one as frightful as the next.

Learning styles don’t exist

The enigma of learning styles is best explained by American cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham. This video explains the problems with the theory so clearly that even dopey old me can get my head around it. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting that learning styles do not exist, and that therefore we should not be instructing students according to these false preferences.

So, I come back to my original question: why are so many people still talking about learning styles? Perhaps it’s because the theory seems to make a lot of sense. As Willingham states, some people have better visual memories than others, in that they have clearer, more distinct mental images than some. This may be where the confusion lies. Maybe, we are mistaking this to mean that we should therefore be teaching according to these cognitive strengths. But, as made clear in the research, this is incorrect. It is the case that some content is better presented visually, instead of auditorily or kinaesthetically, but this does not differ between learners. As Willingham makes very clear in his video, if asked to think of a person’s voice, you will hear it in your head. Whereas, if asked to think of a dog’s ear, you will likely picture it in your mind. The content is what makes the difference here: not the individual learner. Therefore, any suggestion that we should be catering to different learning styles when teaching is straight up, purely and simply, incorrect.

Perhaps it is this misconception that has caused so much confusion at schools such as Galaxy, and is the reason why people are still banging on about it. I thought about this carefully, and decided that I would address this next time. Next CPD session, I shall be fully prepared to make this point, and everyone will understand and balance will have been restored to the universe.

Why is it never as easy as that?

Changing mindsets

So, the following week, I returned to the CPD group ready to impart Willingham’s wisdom. I even took my laptop with me, just in case anyone wanted to see the video. I was feeling pretty apprehensive, but reassured myself that nothing could go wrong. I even decided to opt for a Hobnob this time; perhaps a more robust biscuit would help to bolster my confidence.

I always get pretty nervous when speaking in front of colleagues; this occasion was no exception, despite the biscuit boost. I shared the reading I had found, and explained as eloquently as I could the findings of the research into learning styles. I was expecting one of two reactions: obstinate refusal to listen, or absolute acceptance. Instead, I got apathy and OFSTED.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s not a viable theory, it’s what OFSTED want to see.”

This made me very sad indeed. When did teaching become about pandering to the whims of a bunch of miserable old coots in suits instead of doing our best to help students learn?

Until these recommendations come from the top, many teachers won’t listen. It doesn’t matter if theories have been debunked by science, or even (in many cases) if experience dictates the opposite of what the theory proposes, schools are bound in OFSTED-shaped handcuffs. ‘Learning styles’ is just one of many theories that is simply a part of the fabric of our education system, and until schools and teachers start questioning them, they will stay put.

I know very few teachers who regularly read education blogs, or keep up to date with the latest research and journal articles. This isn’t because they are lazy or don’t care, it’s because often they aren’t aware that this stuff is out there, and frankly, are often too busy to go away and read about it all. Teachers can’t be blamed for that. The only way this information can be disseminated to all teachers effectively is through CPD.

Although we can’t expect all teachers to keep on top of every single new piece of educational research, we should at least expect that those who deliver and orchestrate CPD sessions are only promoting accurate and current ideas, instead of snake oil. The Teacher Development Trust is working to improve CPD nationally, and projects such as Tom Bennett’s ResearchED are raising awareness of the need to question what we think we know about pedagogy, through rigorous research.  Ben Goldacre’s report on RCTs in education is also a step forward; perhaps encouraging more teachers to question what they think they know will create a more rigorous approach.

With so many developments in this area recently, perhaps the scenario I faced will soon become a thing of the past. The momentum is rising; all we need to do now is get the rest of the teaching profession on board. Easier said than done, but that won’t stop those who are dedicating themselves to improving the profession through science and research.

It’s an exciting time to be in education; let’s hope that snake oil becomes a thing of the past and improved CPD, RCTs and events such as ResearchED are what drive the profession into the future. There may then be more to look forward to in a Galaxy High CPD session that biscuits, tea and nonsense.