Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Robert Coe’s foreword for #PsychBook

Right. It’s done. What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology is off to the printers tomorrow and should be available in the next few weeks.

It’s always a tense time when what you’ve written is exposed to the full glare of real readers. You never really know what the reaction will be like, but it’s been very encouraging to have secured Professor Rob Coe’s services to write a brief foreword.

If for some reason you’re not aware of who Rob is or why he matters, not only is he the director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), he has worked closely with the EEF on their Toolkit and authored several highly influential papers such as Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience and the Sutton Trusts’ What Makes Great Teaching? Perhaps most importantly – for me at least – he led the charge against lesson grading when, in his 2013 researchED speech he suggested that maybe lesson grading was the new Brain Gym.If you search Rob’s name on this blog there are over 20 posts in which he’s mentioned. The fact that someone of Rob’s stature and influence has felt able to endorse our book has meant a tremendous amount to both Nick and I.

Here, without further ado, is his foreword:

When I was teaching in schools, some twenty years ago, my sense was that you would be hard pushed to find advocates for a list of ‘what every teacher needs to know about psychology’ that went beyond a few snippets of Piaget and Vygotsky. Many teachers would recall dry ‘theory’ sessions on Piagetian Stages or the Zone of Proximal Development in their pre-service training that were widely seen as irrelevant once they actually got into schools. As a trainee teacher, I recall a group of real teachers, hardened by time at the chalk-face and made cynical by repeated experience of having to dodge barmy initiatives promoted by experts and bosses, giving the following advice:

“Lecturers in the university have to justify their existence with all that pointless theory – they’d be worried Education is not a proper subject without it. And they need something to cover for the fact that they couldn’t hack it in the classroom. But once you start working in a school you’ll soon forget all that stuff, and you’ll never miss it.”

Perhaps things have moved on, but writing a substantial book full of psychological theory for teachers does not seem like an obvious proposition for a best-seller. Do all teachers really need to know this?

Actually, I think they do. All too often, attempts to promote educational evidence, research and theory have seemed unconvincing to teachers, but this book does three things really well. First, it is appropriately selective in the evidence it presents: to meet the standard for ‘what every teacher needs to know’ the psychological research must be both rigorous and relevant. Second, it challenges a lot of traditional practice and ideas about teaching. The case for a scientific approach is at the heart of the thinking behind the book. Intuition, common practice and folk-wisdom can all be wrong, and often are, so we need something more trustworthy. Of course, this kind of challenge may not be welcome to every teacher, but Didau and Rose take no prisoners here. Third, and crucially, it connects the research to its implications for practice in classrooms. Every chapter contains a list of direct implications of the evidence discussed for teaching.

Interestingly, Piaget does get most of a chapter devoted to his work, though you have to wait until Chapter 21, and the discussion is mostly quite critical. Vygotsky gets a couple of passing mentions. The work of plenty of other psychologists gets a good airing on a very wide range of topics and it will be a rare teacher who can claim they knew all this already. Indeed, the scale and range of content covered is enormous and is likely to overwhelm anyone who tries to read it start to finish. To engage with the ideas deeply and avoid overloading working memory – about which plenty more follows – most people should probably take it in small doses.

In the last few years there seems to have been a significant growth of interest from teachers and policy makers in research evidence and a scientific approach to understanding and improving education. In the space of a decade in England, randomised controlled trials in education have gone from being almost unheard of to being commonplace. A number of robust and accessible summaries of relevant research have become widely known by teachers. Social media, led by teacher bloggers and tweeters, have helped create communities of teachers who want to engage with research and discuss the ideas and their implications. There is an appetite for research evidence and an increasingly critical and sophisticated research stance. In that context it would be nice to think that maybe a book like this could be a best seller.

What we still lack is the translation of all this theory into scalable models for practice. Even if teachers know about, for example, Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’, they still have to work quite hard to plan their own teaching to incorporate spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice into the learner’s experience. They must work from first principles, building the tools they need to use. The landscape is still one where a few pioneers forge a route through a challenging environment, working hard to gain every step of the journey. We don’t yet have the infrastructure of roads, railways and settlements that would allow mass travel, but slowly and inevitably it will come. This book helps to bring that closer.

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