Education Research and ‘Negative Capability.’

In 1817 John Keats wrote a letter to his brother in which he detailed for the first time the phrase ‘Negative Capability,” which refers to the capacity to hold two seemingly opposite positions in equal measure without trying to reconcile or privilege either one:

“ once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

A challenging concept in an age which often deals in absolutes, which audits itself in terms of ‘better or worse’ and which seeks to impose an order where often there is none. Currently in education research there is the constant refrain, ‘What works?’ A better phrase for me would be “what works in your context?” By privileging one approach over another divorced from context-specific perspectives, we are in danger of creating a set of clinical taxonomies that will ultimately serve no one, and that undermine precisely that which they are attempting to serve: the empowerment of students via the classroom practitioner.

The recent collation of research into digestible meta-analyses has gone a long way to give teachers at least a clear sight of the wood from the trees. In particular the EEF toolkit is an incredibly pragmatic and useful resource but I worry that many school leaders are using it in a ‘Moneysupermarket’ kind of way, that is at best superficial and at worst, damaging. An example of this is the research on Teaching Assistants which yielded findings suggesting that their impact was “low for high cost.” Many seemed to read the headlines on this and come to the conclusion that teaching assistants ‘don’t work’, that they are not effective and costly, whereas the research actually suggests that in many cases they are not being used effectively by school leaders and that in certain contexts teaching assistants are having an huge impact on students, especially those with particular learning difficulties. Earlier this year I met with Rob Coe who was largely involved in the Toolkit’s inception and I came away from that meeting feeling hugely positive about education research, not because he was claiming to have any answers but rather the opposite: he is someone who embraces uncertainty and views it as a place of potentiality where the field can be pushed forward. If you have ever seen Rob talk you will be familiar with him use the phrase “we just don’t know” a lot. I find this refreshing to hear because it means that those at the forefront of the field are not entrenched in dogmatic partisanship and allow for the possibility of growth and new understanding.

The binary opposition is instructive here. Traditionally we can think of a linear plane where one extreme is on one end and its ‘opposite’ is on the other. We might make the seemingly reasonable claim that the opposite of love is hate for example. However, those of us who have experienced those states knows that they are in many cases, not opposite but rather different sides of the same coin, and that it would be more ‘truthful’ to suggest that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference. When we think in terms of axiomatic ‘truths’ we find that the more extreme you go, the more that plane begins to bend and fold in on itself. Extremists on ‘opposite sides’ often have more in common than those with a more moderate view.


                                      “The centre cannot hold.”

Anyone who has actually taught in a classroom knows that the inherent problem with research in that domain is the high degree of variability, the often unfathomable nature of the process and the difficulty of comparing like for like. What may work for one particular teacher with one particular set of students, may be wholly inappropriate with another teacher and another class. There is then also the problem of the “unknown knowns” or the things that we ‘don’t know that we know’ such as unconscious prejudices or biases. So when we begin to think along axiomatic lines of ‘truth,’ as Yeats reminds us; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Instead of passively accepting the ‘stone tablets’ of research we should be engaged in a constant dialogue with research, questioning it, challenging dogmatism, teasing out relevance to our own context and our own individual problems in a sort of ‘detached attachment.’ We should be constantly reviewing our own preconceptions and refining our practice through this process of oscillation and reflection. We should reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable nature of the classroom. What may work on Tuesday period 3, might be a disaster on Thursday period 2 with the same class and the same teacher for a variety of reasons, some that we may ‘know’ but many that are simply unknown.

We should acknowledge that there is an elegant intuition about teaching that resists absolutism and certitude. In the face of a tidal wave of league tables, target grades and accountability, we should always be aware that there is an ephemeral mystery about the process and that it is something worth protecting. It is utterly rooted in the context of a specific classroom at a specific time, and that far from disappearing into a rabbit-hole of relativism where ‘anything goes,’ sometimes there is certainty in uncertainty.

 Keats, John: The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277. 
Yeats, William Butler:  “The Second Coming.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams, et al. 6th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993. 1880-81.

#rED14 Lunch of Research Champions: A Tabula Rasa.

Yesterday I had the most surreal experience of my career. I found myself sitting in a circle with some of the most influential people in the field discussing the role of research lead or research “champion.” (name change needed) Among those encircled in the chapel at Raines Foundation were Dylan William, Rob Coe, Tom Sherrington, Alex Quigley, John Tomsett, Daisy Christodoulou, Oliver Quinlan, Jonathan Sharples, Keven Bartle, Helene Galding O Shea, Sam Freedman, Andy Tharby, Chris Brown and many more fascinating people who I sadly didn’t get to speak with. For me however, what made the moment so utterly surreal was having the AFL demi-god Paul Black in our presence in the ‘benevolent grandfather’ role. In my PGCE year at King’s College I saw give a lecture on assessment and have been in awe of him ever since. 


There was some pre-reading sent around in the form of an article from Dylan Wiliam; ‘What Should Education Research Do, and How Should It Do It?’ which offered an excellent ‘state of the union address’ on the condition of education research. Essentially the article claims that the three intellectual virtues identified by Aristotle—episteme, techne, and phronesis—are related to the requirements of the “pure” education researcher, the skilled practitioner, and the clinical researcher, respectively, and also promotes the validity of “tacit’ teacher knowledge. This seemed to be a running theme at the conference; the notion that we must not lose sight of innate teacher “wisdom” in the face of the oncoming avalanche of evidence based practice. 

Before we started, several pizzas were delivered by Caledonian Pizza boy Tom Bennett along with some crates of orange juice cartons, which we all descended upon before sitting down. Having Rob Coe next to me slurping the dregs of his orange juice, and trying (unsuccessfully) to be quiet was one of the funnier/surreal moments.

There was very much a tabula rasa feeling to the meeting with four broad questions to explore chaired by the fantastic Jude Enright:

1. What are the benchmarks for quality educational research?

2. How should schools be using research ?

3. What is the “Research Champion’s  role?

4. How can a national ResearchED network help Research Champions in their roles?


We didn’t discuss the pre-reading (so much for checking the learning from the previous lesson) and went straight into an example of how research can be harnessed in schools by a really interesting few minutes from Caroline Creaby and her excellent work with , notably the Sandringham learning journal. 

We then dived into a fairly loose exchange around the issues of using research in schools with Jude asking myself and Alex Quigley to outline our roles and how we envision them. I spoke about how I felt an integral part of the role should be to help schools own their own question and not have research imposed upon then. Research in the university is a central part of the mission of that institution, and that is not the case in schools and until there is a change then research/evidence based practice will always be an afterthought, or simply “just another thing we have to do.”

Dylan Wiliam felt that teachers just need to dynamically “do it” and make research happen in schools regardless of the leadership culture, and that it only takes one or two to do so, which I think might be slightly idealistic considering the current capacity of most teachers. Other contributions made the point that research should be linked to CPD and school improvement plans with excellent points made by Kevan Bartle on Teaching Schools and Daisy Christodoulou on how research is being deployed within the ARK academy chain. I am interested to read the minutes and hear from others there what was said/agreed. 

All too soon we were told to “do one,” as there were 60 people outside waiting to see Andrew Old, who I only just realised had been creeping around the room during the meeting trying to set up his powerpoint presentation for his talk, arranging tables in groups, and laying out lollipop sticks, sugar paper and post-it notes for his “lesson.”

It was a fascinating assembly of voices that could have yielded so much more given time. I am going to be working with Tom to have a #rED “Research Leads” (Shall we change that name now?? ©Alex Quigley) strand to meet this December in London. I think it will be very important to keep this conversation going, and to share strengths and failings as this is a role that is very much a trip into the unknown, as is the whole enterprise of embedding evidence based practice in schools, and central to its success will be collaborating and supporting each other in this way. 





ResearchED article: Why every school needs a research champion.

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Why every school needs a research champion.

By Carl Hendrick, Head of Learning and Research, Wellington College


For too long the classroom practitioner has been the researched as opposed to the researcher. Teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, provided with solutions to problems that never existed, and assailed by counterintuitive theory when practical advice was more appropriate. Where there has been good research, it is often sidelined by short-termism, a near fetish for data or the Sword of Damocles of a looming inspection.

By the same token, school staff rooms are often dominated by teachers whose only serious reflection on their practice comes from their own limited experience and confirmed biases, and whose only measures of success are exam results and league tables. This attitude is often typified by a deep and open antipathy to anything too reflective labelled ‘evidence based’ or ‘research.’ This is a professional practice that amounts to what Professor John West-Burnham terms ‘long-term self indulgence.’

Clearly, the division between education academia situated almost exclusively at the University and the classroom practitioner hacking away ‘at the coalface’ has not worked as well as it might have. Teachers are typically given a whistlestop tour of education research during their PGCE year and then are furnished with very poor support ‘within house’ in terms of evidence based training and approaches to teaching. All of us have sat through turgid CPD sessions where we have been given impressionistic, superficial droplets of education theory from an ocean of research that is often neither relevant nor resonant with our own practice.

Some teachers do go on to do research in the form of an MA or PhD (usually the ones with the vacant stare and severe caffeine addiction) but how often is this funded and embedded into their schools? How often do schools harness this expertise into their school improvement plans and CPD? Again, the issue is this disjunction between research and practice which has traditionally marginalised the difficult path of evidence-based approaches to school improvement and privileged the easier route of fads and quick fixes.

So how do we emerge from this primordial soup? The role of head of research or research champion in schools should ultimately be about mobilising the wider evidence base and making it easy for classroom teachers to be more informed about what they do. I would like to see the following developments in the way schools engage with research:

1. A researcher in residence located in schools.

At Wellington College, we will be working closely with various HEIs including Harvard faculty of education on a number of projects but I hope to appoint a full time researcher in residence who will be located in our school on a regular basis. The researcher in residence should be both a recognised academic and someone who has published research in the field and can help ensure interventions are carried out properly. They should work ‘cheek to jowl’ with teachers to improve their practice by helping with robust design methodology, literature review and evaluation. This ‘in-house’ approach to research is widely used to great effect in other fields and could potentially transform teacher practice, leadership and whole school policy.

2. Schools need to ‘own’ their research questions

Schools need to identify what it is they want to know, how they are going to ‘know’ it and what they are going to do to measure the impact and applicability of this new knowledge. At all of these stages the researcher in residence is key. Schools need to be asking their own questions about improvement based on specific CPD and school improvement plans. What may be appropriate for one school may not be appropriate for another and we should have the flexibility to frame our own point of enquiry and direct resources accordingly.

3. Capacity: Research should be embedded in the life of the school

This is a central problem. Most schools simply don’t have the time or capacity to resource something that is as yet unproven. Typically research in schools is an ‘add-on’, it is not central to the day to day business of school practice and this needs to change. For CPD and professional review there should be an area for research and time allocated accordingly to staff to engage in it and further their knowledge.

4. Better measures of success and impact

Education research is often about trying to measure the immeasurable. Hattie’s now seminal work is titled ‘visible’ learning for good reason: often quality learning is invisible to us and resists classification and categorisation. There is also the problem of what we are using to measure success. There is a lot of use of the phrase ‘what works’ at the moment, well if ‘what works’ is simply a proxy for ‘what creates good exam passers’ then we have a very jaundiced and impoverished barometer of what success actually is. More complex and elegant ways of evaluating the impact of interventions are needed.

5. ‘Reflective’ practice not ‘best’ practice.

We need to get rid of the phrase ‘best practice’ and replace it with ‘reflective’ or ‘informed’ practice. There should be no single, ‘best’ way of teaching but rather a deeply reflective approach informed by high-quality evidence and appropriate for the specific context in which it is applied. An evidence-based approach to education does not mean a uniform ‘one size fits all’, axiomatic approach to what good teaching should look like. Whenever I have seen excellent teaching, it is almost totally unique and characterised by something idiosyncratic and deeply personal to that teacher. We need to resist the homogenising forces of the past that insist for example that too much teacher talk is bad, or that kids only learn best in groups or that learning how to ‘play the exam game’ is an acceptable outcome to the process of learning.

6. ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants.’

The first port of call for any school should be to look at the wider evidence base, specifically robust, methodologically sound and peer reviewed research and begin their inquiry from there. The work of the EEF and Rob Coe in the production of their Toolkit is one of the most significant developments in education and should be the point of departure for any school’s development plan.

7. Schools producing their own publications.

Dissemination of findings has to be a central part of the process. We plan to publish a learning and research journal here at Wellington next year which will showcase the work we have been doing engaging with research and evidence based practice. This will encompass individual teacher enquiry in the form of MA/PhD work to whole school research such as our two year partnership with Harvard faculty. This publication will not be an academic peer-reviewed article (although I want academics to contribute) but rather a readable, accessible journal that can be easily digested by staff, parents and hopefully students.

The professionalisation of teaching

Education research has provided teachers with enlightening and elegant ways of approaching their practice. There is an ever-growing and robust evidence base in a wide range of areas that have improved standards and enfranchised both teacher practice and student achievement. However there has also been a history of ideologically driven, methodologically unsound and politically entrenched dogma in the name of education research that has compromised the very teachers and students it was intended to empower.

The role of research champion is only strengthened by the emergence of researchED which represents a hugely significant step forward in the professionalisation of teaching. It is a movement that has brought together some of the greatest thinkers in education and provided a vibrant and exciting platform for debate. This rich seam should be mined by every school in the country and utilised a point of departure for all areas of school improvement. 

Can teachers really engage with research?

A piece I wrote for AQA reposted here.


13 August 2014

If research is ever going to have an impact in the classroom, teacher CPD needs a dramatic overhaul, says Carl Hendrick.


The recent embrace of evidence-based practice in schools promises much – but how many of us are really able to tap into the rich seam of research findings and create genuine change in our classrooms?

In order to make truly informed decisions, school leaders need to engage with the wider evidence base and empower their staff to do the same. This will mean putting an end to expensive, ineffective professional development activities, forging strong ties with research-led organisations, and focusing on actions that will actually make a difference.

Development with a difference

Schools often spend an inordinate amount on external CPD provision that is imposed upon staff in a top-down ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, school leaders need to create time and space for staff to engage with research, apply it to their own contexts, test specific interventions and then refine and improve their practice. An alternative to often ineffective CPD would be teachers framing their own enquiry in a systematic, informed way, and working with higher education institutions and bodies such as the National Teacher Enquiry Network on effective CPD such as lesson study.

Strengthening links with universities, and appointing subject-specific ‘researchers in residence’ to inform and advise on the wider evidence base would address perceived barriers between academic discourse and everyday classroom practice, and allow teachers to get to grips with research ‘on the job’. Collating and applying the big data of meta-analyses is a hugely complex undertaking requiring real expertise and experience, and presently there is a real danger of this kind of research being used in a superficial and ineffective way.

Collaborations between schools can also widen the reach of effective evidence-based initiatives. The success of the London Challenge project, through which schools at both primary and secondary level have improved at a faster rate than nationally, has shown that schools working closely together, identifying need and collaborating on addressing those needs outlines a strong blueprint for school improvement. Too much quality research and good practice which could potentially improve similar contexts is simply unavailable to those who could benefit most from it.


Despite the proliferation of high quality research evidence – such as the excellent Toolkit from the Education Endowment Foundation – there is a clear need for effective brokerage and application of this new knowledge if the current enthusiasm for evidence-based practice is to have any real impact.

At present, large sums of money are routinely ploughed into initiatives to improve pupils’ educational attainment, but without solid evidence that these interventions will work and lacking appropriate accountability.

There are clearly issues around how large-scale research findings apply in specific contexts, but surely interventions with at least some evidential basis represent a better starting point for improvement than the often ad-hoc approach that has characterised much school reform thus far.

In order for research to be properly embedded in schools, it has to be at the point of use – in the classroom. Teachers, therefore, need targeted and appropriate training to help translate promising research findings into effective classroom practice to really make a difference to the lives of the pupils they teach.

Carl Hendrick is Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College

Metacognition and Academic Growth

Originally posted on Psych(ed):

What do we mean by ‘meta-cognition’?

Meta-cognition relates to the process of actively thinking about our own learning. It’s often referred to as ‘learning skills’ or ‘learning to learning’ and is centered on one’s ability to evaluate and monitor one’s own learning and to readjust as necessary through continual self-monitoring. It also includes the ability to self-regulate one’s own learning in terms of managing motivation.

Meta-cognitive Regulation

This refers to the adjustments people make in order to help them control their own learning and includes:

  • Planning
  • Information Management Strategies
  • Comprehension Monitoring
  • ‘de-bugging’ strategies
  • Evaluative and Progress Goals
  • Knowing when and where to use particular strategies for learning and problem solving
  • How and why to use such strategies
  • The use of prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task
  • Taking the necessary steps to:
    • Problem Solve
    • Reflect on and/or evaluate the results
    • Modify the approach as needed


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Can teachers stop believing in nonsense?

Originally posted on Evidence into practice:

I’ve written before regarding the prevalence of pseudoscientific ideas within education. Whenever I start to become a little optimistic that our profession can move out of the dark ages, something pops up to prove my hopes are premature. Just such a case emerged this week when I happened upon a report of a motion at the ATL conference back in April.

The ATL should be cautious in using neuroscience in teaching and education

Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology, described a motion encouraging the implementation of applications of neuroscience into the classroom. He highlighted a quote from the teacher proposing the motion which concerned him:

According to the person who proposed the motion, Julia Neal, “neuroscience could also help teachers tailor their lessons for creative “right brain thinkers”, who tend to struggle with conventional lessons but often have more advanced entrepreneurial skills”.

It seems that this claim comes from a document…

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Book Chapter: Dialogism and Technology.

I have written a chapter for a new book coming out this winter on Dialogic teaching and technology.


The concomitant shift in terms of the traditional teacher within the new technological age then is one of ‘arbiter of knowledge’ to ‘facilitator of learning.’ This seismic shift in pedagogical dynamic has not divided teachers along the lines of age, but rather along the lines of technical proficiency and ambition with many older teachers showing the kind of patience and ambition required to master new technological literacies. The current trend is certainly one which ‘valorizes the virtual‘  but this has often has the effect of polarizing discourse on technology and creating a reductive ‘either/or’ mindset among many English teachers.