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Learning From Experience

Ian Horsewell

How can we be the best professionals possible without making all the mistakes personally? It’s true that we can learn from our own mistakes. We have to recognize them, have the chance to reflect on our actions and plan for ‘the next time’, and change our behaviour based on that insight.

Of course, as we tell our students it’s often better to learn from someone else’s mistakes.

As classroom science teachers, we learn a lot from screwing up ourselves. From not labelling the beakers or letting year 7 use powerpacks with 1A bulbs, to mixing up the two Rebeccas in your class during parents’ evening. We learn – perhaps especially early in our careers – from watching our colleagues, deliberately or in passing. It’s sad that for many established teachers, the only reason to watch another’s lesson is as part of the performance management process.

Science teachers in particular can find it hard to reconcile their experience of replicable laboratory research with studies into educational interventions. Perhaps what is needed is to put published educational research into the context of ‘experience with students’ that we’re used to relying on. You could argue that research, at its least abstract, is simply the sum of many classroom experiences.

In the conversation online, my colleague used the phrase “people are not electrons,” – which is true. But isn’t the whole point of science to use models which, while simpler than reality, give us an indication of how reality works? We can model people as particles making up a fluid when we design corridors and stairwells, and that gives us useful information. Nobody seriously suggests that those people travelling on the Underground are actually faceless, indistinguishable drones. But with enough data, and enough people, we can make good predictions about what will usually happen most of the time.

Teachers must feel supported in being both critical and receptive, which means sharing the caveats

We need to leave room for professional judgement, while sharing how the patterns in data might imply how one approach on average works better than another. The argument I had – in this case and others – wasn’t about the bad research that’s out there. It was about the very idea that educational research should or could guide our practice at all. Teachers must feel supported in being both critical and receptive, which means sharing the caveats.

As teachers of exam groups know, averages using large numbers aren’t specific to a small subset, even if homeogenous. We don’t, and can’t, know all of the confounding variables for our students; the kids are all different and there’s a fine line between describing and defining them. We tend to find and remember the results which confirm our expectations, and personal anecdotes feel more powerful than data.

But educational research, imperfect and incomplete as it is, must still be better than nothing. Teachers need to realize that while we can be critical about individual papers it isn’t sensible to ignore it all. Yes, we need to be able to ask good questions about the sample sizes, about the methodology, about sources of potential bias. But then we need to take on board the advice and try applying it to our own classes.

A difference between two interventions might be large or small. The bigger the numbers, the more we should pay attention to that difference as noise in the data becomes less likely. Ignoring the subtleties of different statistical thresholds, why would you ignore that hint when planning your own lessons? Any two classes might be compared without spotting this pattern. Only wider research, beyond what most classroom teachers can take part in, lets us see what’s going on. The difference might be so small or the cost – financially or in time – that we decide it doesn’t matter. But if we don’t ask, then we’ll never know.

Research won’t often give a recipe. It won’t turn us into robots or allow our jobs to be done by computer. What it can do is inform and guide. It can suggest good starting points, or approaches that, more often than not, will be the best way to teach a concept. Often the evidence used to design effective classroom strategies is ‘below the surface’; teachers who claim never to use educational research to improve their practice just don’t realise the foundations.

It’s interesting that many choose to describe teaching as an art, rather than a science; I can see why. But I’d suggest that there’s a middle-ground. Is it better to think of teaching as a craft? It might be ‘in person’ rather than strictly ‘hands-on’, but that word hints more at the professional judgment and individual style involved than the common perception of a science. Crafts traditionally guarded their secrets from outsiders but shared them openly within the group or guild. The second part, at least, is a model we should aspire to. Let’s think of research as just a conversation within a larger staffroom, and maybe we can avoid making all the mistakes ourselves.