Working Out What Works – Modulo Maths at ResearchED National Conference 2016

After an action-packed first week back at school after holidays (by the way, it turns out that I hadn’t forgotten how to teach – I will be writing another post on getting back into the saddle) teachers up and down the country were looking forward to a long lie-in on Saturday morning. Except that is, were the swathes of professionals who awoke at various hours as the weekend dawned to head towards Capital City Academy in West London to listen, enquire and discover how we as a profession can work together to ensure that we spend our time in our classrooms (and for others in other environments) focussing only on what makes a difference to the learning of our students.

Session 1: An audience with the Minister of State for School Standards – Nick Gibb MP (@NickGibbMP)

After Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), the spearhead and driver of the ResearchEd movement, had sobered all in attendance with an opening speech that described quite how many human beings across the world refuse to engage with or follow opinions that are backed by evidence (faked moon-landings, climate change denial and Hydra pulling the strings in the background of the worlds institutions have a depressingly huge believer-base!), we headed to see perhaps the most courageous speech of the day, as Minister for Schools Nick Gibb agreed to take open questions from an audience of evidence-hungry education professionals only a day after Theresa May announced the arguably ‘research-lite’ policy of a return to a Grammar School system. The audience was told that any selective policies would have to ensure that those from deprived backgrounds were represented, and whilst it was not explicitly mentioned, the way in which Gibb often turned questions from a binary ‘selective schools vs. non-selective schools’ choice towards an emphasis on schools being able to decide how they select, suggests to me that there is a potential for a widespread use of the so-called “Third-Way” of partially selective schools. However, only time will tell, and we were told that the full detail of the policy will be in our hands soon. What I didn’t have as I walked away was any real sense of why? If there is a real desire to have 90% of all student following a rigorous programme of study through the English Baccalaureate, then why not put the focus on ensuring that all state schools and academies are providing this challenging and academic curriculum, rather than it being acceptable for a second-tier of schools to not do so?

Nick Gibb MP speaks to ResearchED National Conference 2016 (Photo:
Aside from the grammar debate, which it would appear from the #rED16 hashtag was in full force throughout the day, it was wonderful to hear from someone who really is at the forefront of policy-making, discussing the importance of evidence-backed practice, and imploring us all to ensure that a the throwaway use of “well the research says…” is not allowed to flourish (even if at times it seemed that this featured when defending his Government’s new policy inititatives!).

Session 2: What’s the point of financial education? – Russell Winnard (@RussellWinnard), Kirsty Bowman-Vaughan and Ann Griffiths (Money Advice Service – @yourmoneyadvice)

We were then headed for a session on the importance of Financial Education, run by representatives of the Money Advice Service and Young Enterprise. Within a small group, we were able to discuss the challenges facing young people today as they gain financial independence, and quite how unprepared they are – which results in record numbers of young adults finding themselves in unmanageable levels of debt.

Some key statistics were presented (I believe from a large-scale survery conducted by the MAS); 1 in 6 adults in the UK are over-indebted, rising to 1 in 5 for 18-24 year olds. 4 in 10 possess less that £400 in savings for emergencies, and 75% of people regret decisions they made when they first gained financial independence. We therefore must improve the way in which we educate young people about how we deal with money, and the challenges they will face, especially when so many of them are seeing issues at home already.

The challenge comes with how we structure this education, and how we decide how to ensure that students have the knowledge, skills and attributes, that they need to not only know what sort of financial products and challenges exist, but also how they should be selecting them and critically deciding what is best for them based on their circumstances. The MAS and Young Enterprise are partnering to trial strategies within schools to provide relevant and real advice and information for students that also has the added effect of increasing attainment within areas of the Mathematics curriculum (unsurprisingly those involving financial contexts), a trial to be rolled out across 130 school in the UK in which we are considering perhaps getting involved. This is what I have found to be so fantastic about ResearchEd – too often in the past, a group would have come to the school with a “magic package” of resources that were “guaranteed to improve financial understanding in students,” and such claims would go unchallenged. We now work within a sector where we are being asked to help to ensure that there is research going into new things that we will be offered the chance to use in our classrooms, and this is a wonderful thing.

Session 3: A vision for maths education for 2020 and beyond – Charlie Stripp (@CharlieStripp)

We decided that we wanted to be exposed to more discussions about the teaching of Mathematics, and wandered into a session being run by Charlie Stripp, the Director of the NCETM, and Chief Executive of The MEI.

Charlie Stripp
Charlie gave us a detailed breakdown of where the MEI and NCETM see the current state of Mathematics Education in the UK, and the steps they are taking in order to combat some of the issues they perceive within. A major focus for the NCETM seems to revolve around post-16 Maths; indeed it is an express aim for all students to study some form of Maths until the age of 18, especially as ACME research has found that 300,000 students are required to study Maths to a higher level in order to meet the demands of the economy.

It was also interesting to hear more information regarding GCSE Resit students, those who did not achieve a grade C, as I feel this can be neglected as it does not make a difference to headline figures and thus leagues tables. The amount of students who resit and do not improve on their grade is shocking and is hopefully something which the NCETM are looking to address. I myself will be attending the GCSE Resit Conference on the 8th October, to try and further my understanding and practice, as I do want my students to achieve, especially when it can make such a difference to their future.

Currently only around 80-90,000 of those who have achieved a high-grade GCSE pass go on to study at a higher level, a much lower proportion than other countries. It is hoped that numbers can be boosted by the new Core Maths qualification which, whilst not as involved as A-Level Mathematics, teaches a critical application on Mathematics, and represents a potential for 250,000 students to be studying beyond GCSE. However, one bright light is the growth in numbers studing A-Level Maths, increasing year-on-year, only dropping slightly last year as A-Level applications overall; as Charlie said, this demonstrates that there is a good appetite for the study of Maths. One real area of concern is that of GCSE resit; whilst the number of students entered increased from 131,000 to 174,000 in 2016, the number achieving a C or above fell from 35.8% to 29.5% (compared to a national figure of 70.5% for all GCSE Maths entries).

The organisation wants students to value and enjoy Maths, not fear it, as it is crucial for them to be confident with the subject in order for them to be effective citizens. It was suggested that the new GCSE represents an improvement, and does not need further overhaul, but perhaps the way we teach it does; “it is far easier to be a trainer than an educator,” and there needs to be an understanding that exam success should be a side-effect of a good education, not the express aim. We need to teach smarter, and use the technology available to us (particularly with embedding the link between algebra and graph work!), whilst ensuring that we teach topics as interconnected, and an real depth. Indeed, according to DWA Young, “ten pages of Maths understood is better than a hundred pages memorised and not understood” – teaching students to master our subject is crucial, and will hopefully lead to real enjoyment of Mathematics.

Whilst the general information was nothing massively new to us, it was beneficial to hear what organisations such as the NCETM and MEI are investigating, researching and looking to improve, and how they aim to tackle the challenges they find.

Session 4:  Institute of Ideas Debate: Evidence: is ‘what works?’ the right question for education? – Natalie Perera (@natalieperara1), Martin Robinson (@trivium21c), Stuart Kime (@stuartkime), Frank Furedi (@Furedibyte). Chair: Kevin Rooney

From left: Martin Robinson, Natalie Perera, Kevin Rooney, Frank Furedi, Stuart Kime (Thanks to @DrGaryJones for the photo)
After lunch, we were shepherded into a debate being held by the Insitute of Ideas around the question “Is ‘what works?’ the right question for education?” It was interesting that the IoI had been invited to particpate at ResearchEd, given the skepticism with which it became apparent that they hold the movement of research-based practice in education. However, as we listened to the speakers present their arguments, it became clear how important it is to not discuss our ideas within an ‘Echo Chamber,’ and that we are exposed to new ways of thinking and considering. Martin Robinson certainly swayed certain aspects of my thinking, particularly asking the question as to whether the question that we should be asking with our research should rather be “What doesn’t work?”I would suggest that the aims of discovering what does/doesn’t work are certainly not incompatible, and are concerned with the same outcome. He did seem to suggest however that we have over-complicated our practice – education has done pretty well since Plato chatted with Aristotle, and we have managed to pass information on from one generation to the next for the past several thousand years without having to pick apart what we’re doing. However, as Natalie Perera asserted, the drive for evidence often comes from the questions around value for money in state-funded education, and also teachers feel a certain power from being able to say that what they are doing, if challenged, is backed by research.

Session 5:  Director of Ofsted Sean Harford interviewed by Andrew Old (@oldandrewuk, @HarfordSean)

Andrew Old (left) and Sean Harford (credit to @Gwenelope for the photo)
It was at this point that we left the debate to head across the corridor to see Andrew Old #askSean, an interview with Sean Harford, the Director of OFSTED. This was a chance for audience members to put their questions to Sean with regards to how OFSTED are inspecting our schools, and to gain clarification on any aspects of inspection that are still shrouded in uncertainty, despite OFSTED’s attempts to debunk many myths and explain what they do and don’t want to see.

It was very interesting to hear the source of the coloured-pen book marking “policy” – simply a shared practice from a school that received positive feedback, which then went viral. Sean seemed to really want to get across that there is nothing fixed that OFSTED are looking for, only that what is being done has a positive impact on students’ progress. Whilst he acknowledged that sometimes inspectors get it wrong, he assured us that he is “quite confident” that all inspectors have the ability to correctly interpret data in informing judgements, and the complaints procedure is rigorous enough to deal with issues around reports and inspectors who are still insisting on particular aspects of Teaching and Learning etc.

Questions were asked about the detail required on seating plans (none), issues around Conflict of Interest, and whether the looming spectre of OFSTED was good for us – could we have a system of accountability built on trust? Sean was passionate in asserting that the UK education system has seen huge improvements in recent times, and whilst he would not claim that OFSTED has been solely responsible for these improvements in standards, it has certainly played a role.

It was certainly good to hear from the horse’s mouth that it is possible to have a feedback policy that requires no marking at all, and that all OFSTED really care about is that leaders know their school, and that teachers know their students, and together this is leading to learning and progress.

Session 6: Formative assessment: adapting classroom practices – Sergey Visser

A much-needed coffee break was followed by a Formative Assessment session by a group of English teachers from the Netherlands, who had attempted to overcome a decline in student motivation by designing a project-based system of study that combines instruction with student responsibility for their own learning and application of instructed knowledge. Teachers use their time in the classroom to constantly feedback and elicit the questions, answers and understanding that the students need to ask and grasp in order to make progress. Whilst not directly transferable necessarily to the Mathematics classroom in that the poetry examples we looked at were more open to student interpretation and discussion than the content in the Mathematics curriculum, we certainly identified commonalities in the importance of questioning in our own classrooms, and it led to some reflection on the way that we are able to elicit thinking and underdtanding through the questions we ask.

Session 7: When the statistics don’t mean what you think they mean – Andrew Old (@oldandrewuk)

The final session of the day was a return to Andrew Old, and a relaxed but informative session on the importance of understanding the pitfalls we can face when interpreting statistics. Andrew took us through a number of things to remember when we are faced with claims in the media, and even in our own research; the fact that correlation does not equal causation, and often a third variable can explain a positive correlation (illustrated humourously with examples of XKCD comic strips and Spurious Correlations,”); how causation is negatively attributed (“the school who used fewer punishments saw better behaviour – obviously less punishments result in better behaviour!”); that it is very easy to adjust what our data shows us by removing certain pieces of data, and that some investigations by their very nature exclude huge groups that would affect what our findings display, and the conclusions we reach.

As a Mathematics teacher, it gave me both some ideas for explaining the importance of analysing how data has been collected, as well as giving me my own points to consider when reading research and perhaps jumping to incorrect conclusions.

In the end…

We left the school on Saturday afternoon with an awful lot of new information and things to consider and think about, having been part of debates around the way we educate. Whilst ResearchEd was never designed to be the sort of day that you leave with a pile of ideas for things to try in your classroom, we left with a real sense of excitement that we are part of a community that really wants to get it right – not just to make our own lives easier, but to ensure that those that we teach are really getting the best that our system has to offer.

It is a movement that encourages us to ask “is this the best we can do?” to treat magic solutions with suspicion, and equip us with the means to evaluate anything that sounds too good to be true. Whilst Year 11 this week aren’t going to see the immediate imapct of our trip to London, we have spent a day engaging with what makes our profession better, and in the long run, these ideas will prove invaluable.



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