The benefits of successful funding bids

14 December 2017

Notre Dame High School, Sheffield, have been awarded two IEE Innovation Grants over the past year. John Coats, Director of School Improvement, writes about the lessons learned so far.

If you are interested in applying for innovation bids, find out more from the IEE

One of the problems with teachers is that we care about the outcomes of the students we teach.

This means we worry about whether we are doing a good enough job. Unless we are disciplined as a profession, this essential characteristic of wanting the best for the children can unwittingly be our undoing.

I’ve often heard a colleague extoling the virtues of something they are doing in their classroom, or a new fad or gimmick they’ve picked up from somewhere. I’ve then immediately wondered why on earth I wasn’t doing the same, or felt guilty and inadequate about my own lack of innovation and teaching ability. Clearly there was a teaching revolution happening in the classroom next door that I really needed to be a part of otherwise the children in my classroom would be missing out. My own routines and systems that I’d tried, tested and refined over the years and then get thrown out of the window for a week or so as I try to copy what I imagine might be going on next door. A couple of weeks later, the next silver bullet comes along and I don’t think any more about the previous panacea.

This of course is precisely why we need evidenced based practice.

I’m not for a second suggesting we abandon innovation – we will never get better if we cease innovating – but I’m advocating slower and much more measured innovation.

We have been awarded two IEE Innovation Grants over the past year to test out innovations in the classroom. We haven’t yet got an answer to either of our questions (one relating to the effectiveness of audio feedback in comparison to written feedback, and the other relating to the use of comparative judgement software by students as opposed to teachers), but have learned an enormous amount about the level of discipline that is required in order to conduct objective, unbiased, legitimate research into the impact of a particular intervention.

At the start of the process I desperately wanted our innovations to succeed (that personal bias that is built into anything that we are personally involved with), whereas now I am genuinely most interested in finding out the extent to which they do or don’t work. If it turns out that teachers recording audio feedback files instead of giving written feedback doesn’t actually improve student outcomes, or make improvements to staff workload, then I don’t want to be peddling the opposite myth.

We’ve learned too, through challenge from the IEE (it’s their money at the end of the day), about the wide variety of considerations needed in conducting a robust trial. We can’t shy away from raw data, prior attainment and test scores if we genuinely want to find out about impact on student outcomes.

We’ve learned that we can’t pretend that our intervention will magically transform children over the space of a couple of weeks – the interventions need to be meaningfully trialled over a longer period of time. This in itself presents challenges, but slowing down the pace of innovation, testing things properly and making sure that we get a reliable answer is important before scaling up.

Our audio feedback innovation trial was originally born out of two teachers at Notre Dame independently trying it out for students in their own classes and getting very positive student voice. In the past I might have taken this student endorsement as enough to advocate other staff using this approach. After the formal planning of the research trial, I am much more cautious about the robustness of our own more anecdotal experiences in school, and am waiting for the better, more reliable outcomes that will come from our trial that is being run across seven secondary schools.

I am not for a moment pretending that there are enough IEE Innovation Grants to go round for everyone. There just isn’t the luxury of funding to support all the research that we might want to do, but funding or no funding, we can still all engage with the process of disciplined and planned enquiry.

For me this involves two things. Firstly taking the time to stop and ask the question ‘Is what is happening in the classroom next door actually any better than what is happening in my own classroom?’ Then taking the time to work out a reliable answer to this question – it is the reliability that is often suspect in current practice. Secondly let’s not get hung up on who is actually doing better, but focus instead on finding out what is working best and why, and then finding ways of sharing these answers.

Posted on 14 December 2017
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