I was honoured to be invited to the launch, earlier this evening of Evidence for Learning, a new education initiative by Social Ventures Australia that is seeking to bring the UK Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) model of large randomised controlled trials to Australia. I like John Bush, the guy who runs the program. I had a chat with him at researchED Melbourne about evidence in education and the merits of different kids of trials. Evidence for Learning certainly has the potential to add something useful.
Unfortunately, by the time I took my seat at the Commonwealth Bank on Collins Street, Melbourne, I was in a filthy mood. I had pre-booked a car parking space in the secure-a-spot car park at 700 Collins Street. When I arrived at the car park and typed in the PIN I was informed that it was invalid. A quick look at the information board and I realised that I was at the secure-a-spot car park at 699 Collins Street. It seems that access to the car park at 700 Collins Street is from a different street that is not actually accessible from Collins Street. So there was that.
I arrived at the reception and, although I was on the list, they couldn’t find a badge for me. I was then confronted with the backs of lots of people, my ice-breaking abilities somewhat hobbled by my lack of a badge. My mind wandered for a minute to contemplate what it would have said on my badge if I had one: my school? that I’m a blogger? So I fiddled with my phone and waited for the speeches to start.
After Michael Bedwell of the bank and Rob Koczkar of Social Ventures Australia gave a little context, John Hattie stood up to say a few words. As you might expect, he mentioned his big idea that, in education, ‘everything works’.
Hattie made the observation that “We have more educators with solutions than we have problems.” This raised a laugh and is hard to disagree with but it did give the sense that educators are a silly bunch, which perhaps we are. Hattie suggested that we ban the phrase, “What works,” and replace it with, “What works best”. He claimed that the EEF has ‘broken through’ although I’m not so sure that it has. I reckon that there are plenty of teachers and school leaders in the UK who have never heard of it.
In Hattie’s view, most evaluations of educational interventions don’t get past asking whether the teachers were happy or the students ‘engaged’. He made the crucial point that many things that we want students to learn are not initially engaging.
For Hattie, the value of the EEF is that it investigates scaled-up trials and scaling-up has been neglected in education. Hattie mentioned the new TV show that he’s involved with and how the things that most influence educational outcomes are often the opposite of what parents expect.
Matt Deeble, the director of Evidence for Learning, then stood up and introduced the program. He discussed the meaning of the logo (!) and the history of the toolkit; it was originally brought to Australia as a collaboration between the EEF and the Victorian department of education. I felt like I had an insight into the world of corporate philanthropy here because we were asked to applaud each of the various partners in turn.
The Evidence for Learning project will initially run large-scale trials of two maths programs: Quicksmart and Thinking Maths. I’m not going to research these in any great detail tonight but they do seem to represent two different approaches. Quicksmart is a tutoring intervention focusing on fluency and automaticity whereas Thinking Maths aims to ‘stimulate deeper and more engaging instruction’ and sounds like it might be related to the Cognitive Acceleration program of the same name. As with all such big trials, the main shortcoming is that programs are tested against nothing at all, meaning that it’s hard to pin down any key principles or what aspect of the program is responsible for any effect.
Finally, John Bush took the floor and ran a panel discussion with some of the collaborators. There was Tony Harrison of the South Australia education department, Kathryn Moyle of the Australian Council for Education Research, John Pegg of Quicksmart, Sue Buckley of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and Stacey Quince, a school principal.
Education bureaucracy seemed to be out in force but, given the lack of teacher involvement, I wondered about the capacity of this initiative to affect real classrooms. Buckley referred to the success of an AITSL email campaign that 14,000 teacher signed-up to. However, she then mentioned the AITSL illustrations of practice. I have covered these on this blog and noted how they conflict with evidence based practice and even the statements of John Hattie, the chair of AITSL, so this seemed like an odd point to make in the context of launching such an initiative.
When the discussion was over, I rushed away in order to minimise the amount that I’d be taxed for parking in the wrong car park, so I didn’t get the chance to talk to any of the main players. As with all such events, there were plenty of platitudinous non-statements – “We want every child to grow across every school” – but it was clear that people’s hearts are in the right place and that they really want to construct something that will have a genuine, positive impact. Let’s hope it can. I will be following developments with interest.