ResearchEd Rugby, my takeaways (part 2)

Debate: “Education Matters”

After session 1, it was time for a panel discussion rather than a debate, with Andrew Old, David Didau, Tom Sherrington and Karen Wespieser discussing Ofsted, MATs and the role of research in education. My main takeaways from the discussion were:

  • Under the leadership of Amanda Spielman, Ofsted is moving away from passing judgement on teaching & learning, and will be looking more at curriculum and assessment. A lot of the ‘craziness’ which ensued from Ofsted inspections, such as triple marking policies, is gone though there is no mechanism as yet to ensure that this craziness doesn’t recur. The research arm of Ofsted, which had been closed as a cost cutting measure under the last incumbent, will be reformed and will look into what methods work best; it may in time disprove the assertion that there is ‘no best way’. Tom Sherrington, quite understandably given he’s felt the sharp edge of an inspection lately, sounded a more cynical and doubtful note about the objectiveness of Ofsted and wanted to see more research done on the reliability of its inspections.
  • Although there is no evidence that academies are more successful than local authority-run schools, there is tentative evidence that MATs can be more effective in the way they can leverage expertise and move teachers around to where there is greatest need. It’s early days yet, and we need to wait a few more years to judge. The downside is the rise of CEOs and executive heads with bloated pay packages, who are far removed from the day-to-day running of the schools. One possible way forward is to have MATs that are run not as hierarchies but collaboratively by each of the heads in their schools.
  • According to Andrew Old, the main role of research is to disprove poorly evidenced educational practices, such as learning styles. Karen Wespieser made a controversial claim that teachers don’t necessarily need to engage with research, which did not go down so well in a room full of teachers actively engaging in research. Maybe the point is that not all teachers have the time to wade through long and dense research papers, and school leaders could facilitate this by sorting through the most relevant bits of research and communicating it clearly but succinctly to their teaching staff.

Session 2: Dual Coding with Oliver Caviglioli

On balance, this was the session which got me thinking the most. I had vaguely been aware of dual coding but had assumed it meant that adding graphics to text makes it easier to digest. Actually, it’s not necessarily about adding a picture but more about organising the information in a structured way using words and diagrams.

We were given this powerful example of how dual coding works. First, we were made to read a short paragraph and then asked three questions about it.

For many of us, it was difficult to quickly work out the answers. When we were given a diagram representation of the information in that text, it immediately became clear what the answers were.

So why is this? When we store information in our head, it’s usually structured in schemas. But when we talk, we can only get this information out one word at a time, and when the words are out, they disappear. The technical name for this is transient information effect. So when we are listening to someone speak, we put a big load on our working memory – as Oliver puts it so well, we are prisoners of our working memory. Now, working memory capacity varies from people to people, but it is limited. There is only so much we can compute at a time. Dual coding is a way to cheat short term memory by giving you short cuts, as in the example above.

This all has important ramifications for the way we teach. How can we be sure that when we are talking or reading some text out loud as a class, that the information is processed and sinks in? Even if pupils are sitting quietly and looking at the teacher, there is no guarantee that their minds are totally focused on what the teacher is saying. It’s so easy for your mind to stray, even for adults. So it’s worth thinking about ways of helping our pupils understand better what we are explaining through the judicious use of graphical representations. I am going to have to go back and have a think about individual lessons and how to apply the principles of cognitive load and dual coding to them. Lots of food for thought here.

The final part of this session, Oliver showed us how to do napkin sketching, which can be done by everybody, even people like me who struggle with drawing. Here’s what I came up with – ok, not great, but certainly self explanatory, which is all it needs to be.

Session 3: David Didau

Next I attended David Didau’s talk entitled “Whatever the question is, intelligence is the answer”. First thing I learnt was the correct pronunciation of David’s surname – it sounds like die dau rather than did dau. Good to get that cleared up. Now on to the talk itself.

David’s central thesis is that all the desired outcomes of education, such as the ability to solve problems and think creatively, stem from intelligence. The more intelligent you are, the better you can do these things. But how do we define intelligence and, more importantly, can we improve intelligence?

At the moment, IQ tests are the best proxy we have for intelligence, though they are not one and the same thing. IQ tests measure many capacities such as reasoning ability, spatial ability, processing speed etc. It’s been found that many of these capacities correlate, so if you have one, you’re more likely to have the others too. A study (Ritchie. S. “Intelligence: all that matters”) has found that intelligence correlates with the following [0 to 0.5 is medium correlation, 0.5 to 1 is very strong correlation]:

  • Creativity – 0.4
  • Leadership – 0.3
  • Conscientiousness – 0.4 to 0.6
  • Decrease in violent crime – 0.5 to 0.6
  • Happiness – 0.5
  • Mental health – 0.7
  • Education outcomes – 0.81
  • Wearing glasses – 0.4

The takeaway from this is that, contrary to popular thinking, you are more likely to be happy and have good mental health the more intelligent you are, and of course you are also far more likely to have good education outcomes.

Having established the importance of intelligence, David explained that it is made up of two components: fluid and crystallised intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason and solve problems. This is basically what you are born with and you can’t do much about improving it. Crystallised intelligence is your ability to access and utilise information in long term memory, and this is something that can be improved. The more you know, the better you can think. School education significantly improves crystallised intelligence, so this is a very positive message about our ability as educators to help our pupils become more intelligent and thereby improve their quality of life in so many ways.

Part 3 of my notes on ResearchEd Rugby

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