Charles Davies, Teacher of RS, Head of Year 12 and Leader of Learning, The Judd School, UK

What stops teachers from engaging in educational research? Blake Harvard (2017), in his ‘Effortful Educator’ blog, identifies three main explanations: lack of time, lack of access to useful materials and difficulty interpreting the muddy waters that characterise the field. Can other professionals ignore key developments in the thinking that underlies their endeavours? There is an important vehicle for driving creative change in educational settings, namely, CPD (continuing professional development), an acronym that often elicits a groan from even the most motivated practitioner. However, as a newly appointed Leader of Learning, it would have to be my most valuable instrument for pedagogical improvement.  

Physics and religious studies teachers rarely meet with each other to discuss teaching. However, united by a joint passion for rugby, Chris Daniels and I embarked on a project devised by our senior leadership team (SLT) to scrutinise diagnostically the impact that teaching and learning was having on students at The Judd School (a state grammar), before turning to cognitive science to think of ways in which to improve an already impressive curriculum. We landed on the theme of ‘uncomfortable teaching’: Dawn Cox (2017) said that ‘we teach in a way that we know, even if it isn’t hugely successful, we are reluctant to change’. Teachers demand of their students courageousness – a willingness to experiment and fail in the cause of learning – but sometimes forget to direct that lens on themselves. 

Challenge is vital in lessons but is often reduced to a spare ingredient to stimulate the most able. Daniel Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School?, wrote that ‘children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn’ (2009, p. 147). Without Bjork and Bjork’s ‘desirable difficulties’ (2011), learning becomes a fruitless memory game or, worse, a disengaged activity. It is uncomfortable but necessary to plan lessons that create a fertile ground for errorful learning. Teachers may want correct answers and safely completed activities as evidence of success, but this is arguably an exercise in self-satisfaction, bringing little of long-term value to the learning environment.

Intentionally or unintentionally, CPD in education threatens cultural change in the teaching community. Perhaps Machiavelli looms large here: ‘There is nothing more hazardous to undertake, nor more uncertain of success, than to be involved in the bringing about of a new order of things, for the reformer will have as enemies all those who have done well under the old order and only lukewarm defenders and supporters in those who would profit by the new.’ (Wooton, 1995, p. 19) It should be the reverse – CPD should be a positive opportunity for staff development. So we changed CPD to DPC (unperturbed by the realisation that it stands for damp-proof construction). 

DPC (Developing Professional Creativity) is an idea borne out of the assumption that teachers feel that professional development is something done to them rather than to benefit them. We have all sat in CPD sessions where we have been invited to write musings in colourful pens on A3 paper, most of which end up in the bin. We were acutely aware that presenting teachers with ready-to-go toolkits and educational fads would not empower or incentivise teachers to contextualise the ideas into their own practice. Dylan Wiliam (2019) recognises that each classroom setting is so unique that teachers cannot pluck strategies off a shelf but must integrate them carefully into their reflective development as practitioners. Ultimately, we aimed to make DPC the teachers’ ‘FRIEND’: fun, resourceful, inspiring, evidenced, novel and discursive.

We called the DPC sessions ‘forums’ as, in an attempt to avoid passivity, they always had discussion breakouts in mixed groups. The ‘uncomfortable teaching’ theme drew us to educational research that focuses on lesser used, harder to implement and (at first glance) slightly counterintuitive pedagogical ideas. We realised that in order to produce desirable difficulty for students, teachers need to employ strategies that may not deliver instant progress but instead engender a genuinely challenging learning environment. 

One of our key areas for research to drive pedagogical improvement is memory. In this field, Dunlosky’s (2013) research on effective learning techniques introduced us to interleaving and elaborative interrogation, while Janet Metcalfe’s (2017) ‘Learning from errors’ article, alongside James Lang’s (2016) writing in Small Teaching, gave us insight into the benefits of predicting and guessing in the classroom. For example, one of the ideas that we conveyed was the ‘hypercorrection effect’ – the idea that high-confidence errors build strong memory schemas (Metcalfe, 2017, p. 472). I myself experienced this during a lockdown Zoom quiz. When asked to name Pakistan’s national sport, I assuredly opted for cricket, based on a slightly obsessive interest in the history of the game. Although I was mortified to learn that the answer is hockey, because of this unexpected corrective feedback I still have that information etched in my long-term memory. In a later round, I fielded the question ‘Who won Love Island in 2019?’. I guessed Kim Kardashian, which was way off the mark, but because it was a low-confidence error, I cannot now remember the correct answer. Another area of cognitive science that we presented included self-explanation, based on the work of Micheline Chi and others (1994) that concludes that students better understand new and complex information by explaining it to themselves. 

CPD sessions often culminate in the minuting of ideas that arise from group discussion, but leaders rarely find time for direct feedback. We created an interactive DPC teaching and learning website, where we wrote up the critical perspectives that were raised in breakout sessions and pursued further research to reply directly to questions. It gave our CPD a personal feel, with the debates from the website frequently spilling into the staffroom. The website also allowed colleagues to record their experience of employing the pedagogical tools from the forums. This resulted in a collaborative resource that teachers could use to learn from colleagues, gaining a valuable insight into the teaching endeavours of others without the need for observation. The website kept the educational research live in teachers’ minds, enabling flexible and timely contributions to the teaching and learning community, ultimately serving as a celebration of staff creativity at work. 

Typically, CPD sessions can be devoid of novelty and humour. DPC required us to be adventurous in our mode of delivery. We held a ‘teaching and learning election’, adopting the format of the then topical Trump/Biden race – but without anyone losing their Twitter accounts. We divided the school into two competing parties, based on new and axed school mottos, and stepped back to watch staff (often competitive animals) show that their professional creativity was superior to other departments. Each subject competed for a school building (state) by submitting their most creative pedagogical strategies in one of four key campaign areas: peer working, use of IT, questioning and interleaving. We then became media tycoons and presented staff with politically worded headlines celebrating the ‘victories’ of different departments and their methods. The election results were published on the website, with a fairly comfortable victory for the ‘learn, grow and belong’ party. 

When evaluating the impact of DPC as a way of presenting cognitive science to teachers, the multiple opportunities for staff to engage with the material in a time-efficient way and to feel engaged through replies and features on the website proved positive and morale-boosting. We analysed each piece of research, initially from our own contrasting academic perspectives, and then drew conclusions together, often disagreeing along the way. I would strongly advocate this cross-curricular approach to educational research in the provision of effective CPD. It is otherwise rare for teachers to have the empowering opportunity to learn collaboratively from each other, particularly outside their own departments. All teachers within the school contributing to one teaching resource over time should serve as a record of communal creativity and drive teaching and learning enrichment. I look forward to growing the DPC approach in 2022 and beyond with an immediate focus on responsive teaching and its relationship with the principles of cognitive science. Producing a termly teaching and learning bulletin including bitesize research, forming a staff reading group and creating a forum to relay the positive day to day educational experiences of The Judd School’s student researchers to our teaching community are key practical ideas for developing the project.

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