A Self Improving Education System

I’ve just completed a review of a joint publication by the RSA and British Education Research Association ‘Building the Capacity for a Self-Improving Education System’. It argues compellingly for the increased role of research in teacher education and public schooling. The review is forthcoming on ThinkTankReview.co.uk


In Better, doctor-writer Atul Gawande relates the story of Viennese obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis. His research – which showed that the leading cause of infant mortality was the failure of doctors to wash their hands – was widely ignored on its publication in 1847. It was twenty years before anybody took this idea seriously, and several decades before it became common practice.

Gawande is adept at framing systemic challenges and finding solutions in unexpected places. He visits the Cheesecake Factory – a US chain restaurant serving consistent quality food – and asks how such a system is able to achieve that consistency and quality for 80 million customers. This is in stark contrast to health, where pioneers develop expert practices, but no good means exist to spread them.

His work echoes two challenge facing UK education today. Research into effective practice is barely taking place in schools and classrooms, and it is not leading to evidence-based common practices. Despite its challenges, health is years ahead of education in this regard. Teaching hospitals are the norm, many doctors publish and there is increasing structural engagement with new research.

Ben Goldacre – author of Bad Science – developed this idea in a paper for the DFE last year, Building Evidence into Education, saying education should learn from the process medicine has gone through to build its understanding of best practices around hard evidence, randomised control trials and intelligent systems and cultures for spreading new knowledge.

It is this thread that the RSA and BERA pick up in Building the Capacity for a Self-Improving Education System, making an important case for the role of research in the daily practice of teachers and schools. At its heart is a compelling vision for increasingly evidence-based public education, but as is often the case, the recommendations fall down on the complex issue of system-wide implementation.

The teacher-as-researcher is a popular idea in education reform, and a strong one. Teachers in the world’s leading school systems – Finland, Singapore, Shanghai – devote significant chunks of their career to adding to the depth of expertise in the field of pedagogy. Practitioners in this country reflect regularly on their desire to transpose the latest advances in neuroscience or psychology to the classroom.

In the self-improving education system, ‘every learner is entitled to teaching informed by the latest relevant research’ and ‘every teacher is entitled to work in a research-rich environment’. This will be supported by ‘a common responsibility for the continuous development of research literacy’ and ‘multiple opportunities to engage in research and inquiry’. This is all supported by a virtuous cycle of research commissioners, enlightened school leaders, and attentive policy-makers.

It is a nice vision. But as they say, vision without execution is hallucination. Improving teaching and learning practices is not just a question of new ideas, but of new methods of systemic implementation and human capital development – the training and support of hundreds of thousands of teachers and school leaders.

The RSA and BERA do touch on this, laying out a set of recommendations for implementing the self-improving education system. But they all smack of using the same old policy tools to do new and better work. There’ll be a change to the Teachers Standards, Inspection Framework and Initial Teacher Education. A National Network of Research Leaders in Education will be set up. All fair enough, but is it really enough?

Atul Gawande’s fundamental insight is that yes, the development of new knowledge through research and innovation is important – the new surgery, the tastier teriyaki salmon, the new classroom assessment technique – but what really counts is developing systems to turn this new knowledge into common, consistent practice. The old dog of our education system isn’t well prepared for this new trick.

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