Academic year 2020-2021: ISL's response to COVID-19.

What constitutes excellent teaching and learning? The fierce debate on pedagogy is often remarkably binary; direct instruction vs student-led inquiry, knowledge vs skills, tradition vs technology. Like their national counterparts, international schools have a moral imperative to invest their energies where they will have the most impact on learning. Largely free from the constraints of national curricula and the oft-dreaded school inspection, teachers and leaders in international schools should know both what has the most impact on learning, and which interventions are cost-effective.

Education is notoriously faddish. Many of us find ourselves jumping on bandwagons, and investing time, effort and energy because interventions make sense to teachers and school leaders. One only has to think back to ‘learning styles’ to consider something which made sense at the time, only for it to be shown later to have no discernible impact on student outcomes. Too many schools continue to base little of their practice on the abundant evidence about what works and, more importantly, what does not. Experience and intuition continue to play a large part in building effective teaching strategies, and so they should. However, without careful attention, they may lead to poor pedagogical choices. International schools are not immune to this phenomenon. Culturally and linguistically diverse, they bring together educators trained in different national systems, each with its own beliefs about effective classroom practice. Gaining any consensus of good teaching and learning is challenging. Without the benefits of close professional learning networks prevalent in many national systems, just how should international schools ground their actions in evidence? What tools do they have at their disposal to promote research-based learning?

Weinstein et al (2019) make a compelling argument that using our intuition, when it comes to learning at least, is a risky business. Within their work, they use a Roediger and Karpicke (2006) study of an oft-repeated experiment. Two groups of students prepare for a college-level exam. One group reads and re-reads course material. The other reads small sections of content once only and spends the rest of the time with retrieval practice; they write what they can from memory. It will come as no surprise to readers of International School magazine that the retrieval group out-performs the reading group considerably. Yet the reading group reported significantly higher levels of confidence just prior to taking the examination, whilst the retrieval group reported depressed confidence levels. The outcomes almost perfectly mirror the individuals’ expected results. So why did the learners’ intuitions lead them to choose the wrong learning strategy in a high stake examination? Reading and re-reading course content makes the learner feel confident. With each run-through, the reader gains more understanding as he or she becomes more familiar with the content. On the other hand, retrieval practice feels difficult.

Feedback on what the learner may or may not know gives a needed dose of reality. The learner feels disheartened. The value of retrieval practice is strongly evidenced in cognitive psychology – when we bring memories to mind, we make the memory more durable and possibly even alter it subtly.

These two effects combined make learning durable and effective. It embeds in the learner’s long-term memory, but it feels difficult. The passage from the working memory to the long-term memory is not a smooth one.
If our intuition can be a flawed source of good learning, and abundant evidence about what works in education exists, how can international schools ensure a more rigorous approach to teaching and learning grounded heavily in evidence? Ultimately, teachers are responsible for teaching.They are hard-working, conscientious professionals, but simply have limited time to digest and synthesise copious amounts of highly context-specific research. There is not enough time in the day for this to be done effectively. Technical language in academic studies, a mistrust of ‘researchers’ in ‘ivory towers’, uncertain findings that are highly reliant on context, and a suspicion of evidence that disagrees with intuition, are all possible reasons for evidence playing an underwhelming role in driving action (Weinstein et al, 2019).

A talented Director
of Teaching and
Learning or Research,
who has the time to
do the heavy lifting
for teachers, can
be invaluable.

The solution revolves around having a mechanism for teachers to receive easily digestible studies of high-quality research, which they then translate into practice. This can be done in many ways, each with its own merits and issues. A talented Director of Teaching and Learning or Research, who has the time to do the heavy lifting for teachers, can be invaluable. However, this is a luxury beyond the means of many schools. This article will therefore end with some common-sense suggestions for how schools and the individuals within them can strive towards evidence-based teaching and learning.

• One imperfect method is to lean upon existing research and writing for international schools such as the Journal of Research in International Education. This is a relatively cost-effective option. The content is most relevant for international schools, although being an academic journal it is by nature ‘academic’ and some will find it time-consuming or rather dry (I know, as I wrote an article for it once which fits nicely into both of those categories).

• For the brave souls who have more of a tolerance for slightly higher noise-to-quality ratio, Twitter can be an excellent place for an international school teacher to base their evidence on practice. A few accounts worth following, that are committed to evidence-based practice and publish useful information in manageable chunks, are @MrsSpalding, @Tom_Needham, @teacherhead, @tombennett71, @DTWillingham, @daisychristo, @dylanwiliam, @C_Hendrick

• Use the school library. Some schools are lucky enough to have a librarian and leadership that is committed to providing reading for teachers and students. There is a significant number of excellent books which specifically address this issue. One extremely helpful title is an excellent and easy to digest book aimed at translating research to practice: ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ (Hendrick et al, 2017). This is an essential read. The authors cleverly interview a number of experts in each field about what their research means for teachers, and reproduce their answers verbatim. This allows teachers to benefit from a huge amount of high- quality research.

• Few have done more to promote research practice than Tom Bennett and researchED (including its magazine). Originating from the UK, this attempt to make teaching a research-literate profession quickly grew into an international movement, and one that international schools would do well to be part of. The grassroots teacher-led non-profit organisation is largely based around affordable (£25 or $40 a day) conference communities. These are common in the UK and are becoming increasingly global. A quote from Tom Bennett sums up the purpose of his group succinctly:

‘Teachers and researchers sharing their work with teachers is a powerful tool to move away from basing practice on gut feelings, hunches and intuition … folk teaching… at the mercy of snake oil, fad, fashions, ideology and bias’. (2018).

It is hard to argue with that.

This article was first published in IS, the international school magazine for educators.

References
Hendrick C and Macpherson R, with Caviglioli O (2017) What Does
This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and
Practice. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd
researchED (2018) https://researched.org.uk/
Roediger H L and Karpicke J D (2006) Test-enhanced learning: taking
memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17,
3, 249-55.
Weinstein Y and Sumeracki M, with Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding
How We Learn: A Visual Guide. London: Routledge.