#EducationFest No.3: A Research-based, Constructivist View?

This is the third in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

Rob Coe is currently occupying the position, shared perhaps only with Dylan Wiliam, of a Colossus with limbs astride the sometimes separate worlds of education research and education practice. There are other well-regarded academics that can claim the same combination of having worked in schools, and having produced high quality research directly relevant to teaching, but I’m not aware of anyone other than these two so prominently engaged in dialogue with the profession.

His contribution at ResearchEd 2013 about graded lesson observations last year turned out to be momentous in its effect and has been very widely quoted. Whilst entirely in agreement with the majority of teachers that the typical ‘three graded observations per year’ approach to performance management is crap, I do have some reservations about the way Rob used the US research papers, and the way this has been picked up and passed on as if it reflects a major study carried out in this country, using our methods of lesson observation. So with that in mind, but also a keen awareness that Rob was likely to have something interesting and important to say – his ResearchEd 2013 talk is online, and is well worth watching – I settled myself in the Old Hall and studied the oils of previous Masters of Wellington College, breathing in the oak-panelled atmosphere.

Rob started with three questions about improving teaching: “What does better look like?”, “How do we get better?” and “How will we know if we have?” I’m a big believer in the importance of asking good questions in teaching; Rob’s were humdingers.

Rob strikes me as a measured commentator and he wasn’t going to provide a definitive answer in under an hour. Instead he laid out some interesting thoughts. I’ve split these into two posts because the first thing he said has led me in a different direction to the rest.

And the first thing he did was lay into the Teachers’ Standards. Well, more ‘laid-back into’ but his wry comment, like with the reliability of lesson grades, was all that was required. In contrast he offered the Danielson Framework for Teaching as an example of how research could be used to develop something better. Having looked at that framework, it appears to have a fair bit to offer, but it does describe itself as follows:

The Framework for Teaching is a research-based set of components of instruction, aligned to the INTASC standards, and grounded in a constructivist view of learning and teaching.

That word ‘constructivist’ is interesting, especially in the same sentence as ‘research-based’. I suggest you have a look at the framework if you’re interested but I guess my take on it would be that there is a child-centred element to it that might not be to everyone’s taste. This raises some fairly fundamental questions: if the framework is based on really good research then the implication is that this child-centred element is part of the answer to Rob’s first question,”What does better look like?” If he is right, that will certainly upset some and please others. If on the other hand, the child-centred element is wrong, then either the research it’s based on is dodgy (in which case why hasn’t Rob spotted this?), or there is a deeper problem that good research is giving us more than one ‘correct’ answer about what better looks like. This is a really hefty question; at the moment there is a feeling in education that if research is carried out effectively, and teachers engage with this properly, there may not be a complete blueprint for effective teaching but it will be possible to paint a picture of it in broad brushstrokes. For the neo-traditionalists, the research on constructivist approaches is both limited and flawed, and they would argue the decent research pretty much all points their way. So where is Danielson, and by association, Rob, coming from? Is he actually Rob The Blob? If not, is it possible that there is good research in favour of both traditional and constructivist approaches?

Does anyone whose read the research leading to Danielson’s conclusions fancy commenting?

My thoughts on the rest of Rob’s talk are in #EducationFest No. 4

3 thoughts on “#EducationFest No.3: A Research-based, Constructivist View?

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