At the heart of the British-American author Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why is the claim that the best organisations appreciate why they do something, as well as being able to articulate what they do and how they do it (Sinek, 2009). This idea became central to our methodology as a school, asking why we do anything and everything that we do to best serve our stated purpose: to equip our students to work for the positive transformation of our society.
I work in an environment where many of the ‘best bets’ now highlighted by evidence-based practice – high expectations, expert teacher subject knowledge and more – have been part of our school culture since its foundation. We are convinced that we exist to aid all of the students in our care to make the best possible progress, and to ensure that our curriculum provides them with the knowledge, skills and cultural capital needed to thrive in our society. Yet as we reflect, we are keenly aware that there are still gains to be made in all of these areas.
Why engage with evidence?
How do you start to move an established and successful school culture towards a more explicitly evidence-based approach? My experience has been that the best place to start is again with the question of why? Dr Gary Jones suggests comparing evidence-based education with evidence-based medicine (Jones, 2018a); once you imagine yourself across the desk from a doctor whose practice is not grounded in evidence, you’re a long way towards finding an answer.
There’s a challenge, though, in presenting anything that is perceived as being new. A key step that we have taken is to express that we are not saying to staff who are already working exceptionally hard that they must work even harder. Instead, we are asking, ‘Are you working in the ways that will most enhance your students’ learning?’ When we find practices that do not reap the gains that they should in student learning, we are able to say to staff, ‘Work less, work smarter!’
Evidence and our curriculum
The draft The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... framework has brought into sharper focus the issue of curriculum, both for us and for the wider profession. In Issue 4 of Impact, Christine Counsell suggests, ‘Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility.’ (Counsell, 2018, p. 6)
This poses for all of us a difficult question: to what extent have we viewed our curricula as a decision or an exercise of power? Or have we just taught what we have taught because that’s what you teach? Much of the dialogue around education in recent years has been focused on new specifications, their requirements and the need to deal with the increased emphasis on knowledge content. Is it possible that, in the midst of all this, we’ve lost sight of something more important: the moral responsibility that we have to convey knowledge to our students?
When we read Gert Biesta’s 2009 paper ‘Good education in an age of measurement’, it feels prophetic. He argues that the rise of ‘factual’ data around education has narrowed our vision, and that instead of asking fundamental questions about value and purpose in education, we are focused on effectiveness. He claims that the role of effectiveness is then overemphasised, and that we quickly value what we can measure, rather than what we should. Consider a conversation that you had with a group of students recently regarding the purpose of education. Who, in that conversation, was the first to talk about entry into a sixth form or college, or university, or employment? I know that it’s often me who takes the conversation there! Biesta challenges us to move away from that mindset and instead to refocus on questions of purpose.
So what should our purpose be? Michael Young, in a recent issue of Impact (2018) and for many years prior to it, has challenged us to consider the role of teachers as those responsible for conveying powerful knowledge to the students in our care. The distinguishing features of powerful knowledge, its specialised and distinctive nature, place a burden of responsibility on our curriculum leaders to be able to articulate not only what they teach, but also why the body of knowledge in their discipline is the best possible. Furthermore, Young helps us to recognise that despite the concerning trend to narrow the curriculum for some subgroups of students, we have a moral responsibility to convey this substantial, discipline-specific knowledge to all students: ‘Denying access to this knowledge to some pupils, because they find it difficult, is like denying the equivalent of our Hippocratic oath – to make available to them the “best knowledge” that we can.’ (Young , 2013, p. 115)
In light of this research and our own context, we have resolved to pursue a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum model, where substantive and disciplinary knowledge are the start point for all our students and where explicit instruction will help them to demonstrate this knowledge expertly. We’ve also committed to an increasingly intentional approach to how students learn in our curriculum development.
Picking our best bets
I would suggest that pursuing an evidence-based pedagogical approach is an ethical, rational and practical necessity (Jones, 2018b). It is an ethical choice in that it recognises our responsibilities to the young people in our care, a rational choice in that it makes sense to pursue the most effective means of achieving our aim of aiding students to make outstanding progress, and it is a practical choice in that it will help hardworking staff to work smarter. In order to do this, we must strive to build meaningful professional relationships with a wide range of partners, including within higher education and across our own sector.
And as we have started to build these relationships with organisations to help us refine and improve our practice, the draft Ofsted framework has led us to ask questions not just about what we teach or how we teach it, but why we teach it at all. These two elements – engagement with evidence and refining our curriculum – have become symbiotic in an exciting and daunting way.
Biesta G (2009) Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability 21(1): 33–46.
Counsell C (2018) Taking curriculum seriously. Impact 4: 6–9.
Jones G (2018a) Evidence based practice: What it is and what it isn’t. In: CEMblog. Available at: http://www.cem.org/blog/evidence-based-practice-what-it-is-and-what-it-isnt/ (accessed 5 April 2019).
Jones G (2018b) Evidence Based School Leadership and Management: A Practical Guide. London: Sage.
Sinek S (2009) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. London: Penguin Books.
Young M (2013) Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: A knowledge-based approach. Journal of Curriculum Studies 45(2): 101–118.
Young M (2018) A knowledge-led curriculum: Pitfalls and possibilities. Impact 4: 1–4.