ASK THE EXPERT – CARL HENDRICK

19 January 2018

Carl H

Name: Carl Hendrick

Role: Head of research, Wellington College

What does evidence informed practice mean to you?

There is a wonderful phrase by John Keats which I think illustrates this best. ‘Negative Capability’ refers to a state of mind in which the individual is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” To me this means the evidence informed practitioner is aware that there are very few certainties in education, only a series of considerations that we can adopt to arrive at a richer approximation of what we should be doing in the classroom. If anything, embracing evidence in education leads to more uncertainty and scepticism and when you look at the kind of nonsense that has been foisted on teachers in the past, it’s a good thing too.

Why do you think it is so important to embrace evidence informed practice?

It’s important because without evidence, we are relying on mere folk wisdom, hunches, cognitive biases and at worst, dogma. I firmly believe there is an ethical imperative to provide the best possible conditions under which the students in our charge can flourish and this means asking difficult questions. Evidence cannot answer all of these questions but it can provide a beacon of sorts to provide light where before we were stumbling around in the dark.

Which piece/s of research has had most impact on you?

The one comes to mind is the Dunlosky review of effective study strategies from 2013 which found that activities like summarization, highlighting, keyword mnemonics and rereading are ineffective use of time and that the two most effective things students can do to aid learning is practice testing and distributed practice. This study is significant as these were found to be stable across a wide range of contexts and age groups.

Can you explain why and how you have used this research?

As an English teacher, I have embraced regular quizzing and low stakes testing which has traditionally been anathema to the teaching of English literature which has largely focussed on skills.

What difference has this made?

I feel it has enriched classroom discussion which is really the main fuel of an effective English classroom. The more informed the students are about context, key vocabulary form and structure, the more insightful the discussion and subsequent writing. In addition, knowing more stuff simply makes students more confident and often that’s half the battle.

What would you say are the key ‘take-aways’ for teachers, from this piece of research?

Well one major take away from Dunlosky’s research is that most students don’t know how to study effectively. Over 80% of students surveyed by Dunlosky felt that highlighting material and re-reading it is an effective study technique which is isn’t. As Alex Quigley reminds us, highlighting is often just colouring in. Retrieval practice and regular testing scored far higher which resonates with Bjork’s important work on ‘desirable difficulties’: the notion that learning should in some sense be a struggle initially, but that initial struggle will eventually lead to greater longer term gains and more durable learning.

What advice would you give to teachers who are interested in becoming more ‘evidence informed’?

My main advice would be to be prepared to be wrong. So much of research questions our basic assumptions and biases about how students learn, retain and use knowledge and it’s vital to have a degree of humility when approaching a particular area. For example, take feedback. A famous study by Kluger and deNisi showed that not only is some feedback not effective, but that some of it can actually be counter-productive. It is extraordinary to find that in some cases, students would have been better receiving no feedback at all. The second thing is to be a sceptical and critical consumer of research. Knowing something about methodology can be useful here such as large sample sizes and research biases and indeed who is funding what research but also knowing that the tradition of for example, typology studies where students are broken down into several ‘types’ or ‘styles’ such as visual/audio/kinaesthetic learning styles is highly dubious. The last thing I would say is that there has never been a better climate for teachers to be evidence informed with many excellent books and blogs available giving an excellent overview of key areas as well as an increasing number of low cost CPD opportunities such as researchED.

Posted on 19 January 2018
Posted in: Blog

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