Last reviewed 10 January 2017
John Walker emphasises the need for clear vision and thoroughness when implementing the findings of education research.
Embracing education research
Back in the early 1990s, I recall an experienced colleague muttering the words “education research” using the tone of voice normally reserved for something unpleasant found on the bottom of one’s shoe. I suspect his view was probably not informed by a rigorous survey of education research. It was not unusual to occasionally encounter prejudice that regarded educational researchers as the inhabitants of ivory towers, or worse, as failed teachers. I thought, as a science teacher himself, he might have had a more benevolent view. Perhaps, however, he was thinking of the sort of educational quackery which occasionally creeps into our profession. The Government’s latest White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, cited Brain Gym as an example of an innovation that was “in some places accepted as orthodoxy despite lacking rigorous evidence of success”.(1)
Fortunately, I think the teaching profession now has a more mature appreciation of the value of research and professional practice that is based on robust evidence. However, translating research findings into tangible improvements in educational outcomes is not easy. It requires diligent leadership, planning and implementation, as well as careful monitoring and evaluation to show whether the initiative is working or not. Reflecting on an experience from my days as Head of Science showed me how my own failure to do these things led to a wasted opportunity.
Know the research inside out
My first mistake was that I did not have a good grasp of the research in question, I’d just heard about it and it sounded interesting. The research was about the stimulating effect of certain types of music on brain activity and the potential for improving learning. A current search on the internet points to the possible source of inspiration being, the 1993 work by Areni and Kim(2)into, the effect of different types of background music on the behaviour of people buying wine. I was ignorant of the details of this at the time, but our department had a bit of spare cash (halcyon days), so after discussion with my team I decided that we should install ceiling mounted speakers on the corridors of our block which would play calming classical music and create a positive climate as children entered or moved about the building. Not an altogether bad idea; Areni and Kim suggested classical music promotes a greater sense of sophistication, compared to top 40 music, so there was some potential for influencing pupils in a positive way.
Communicate the vision well
The second error was that although I’d discussed it with my team, we did not really have what could be called a shared vision. As even I didn’t have a comprehensive understanding, they probably had no chance of having it either. At best we had some vague ideas. Without a collective vision, people are less likely to care enough about something to ensure it succeeds; they are more likely to sit back and watch it fail, satisfied that it wasn’t their idea anyway or that they never thought it was really going to work anyway.
Empower the right people
Needless to say nobody explained the musical idea to pupils, so when they came into the building and heard the soothing strains of Bach there was puzzlement and indifference. Some pupils reacted as though an underhand conspiracy to cultivate appreciation of classical music was afoot, a sure-fire recipe for creating oppositional defiance in teenagers. The sought after calmness and stimulation to learn might have occurred, but we did not have a measurable way of telling us this so frankly we just didn’t really know. Possibly the most serious error on my part however was to place the CD player for the system in the prep room, thus handing control to the child-averse technician, who at lesson changeover proceeded to crank up the volume so that it would drown out the noise made by children moving about the building. They of course simply got louder to be heard over the music.
A further shortcoming in my communication was revealed one day when I returned to school after a meeting elsewhere to hear some vaguely familiar music playing. Before I could ascertain its provenance, our resident special needs assistant hastily explained that the previous CD had finished so she’d replaced it with some of her own classical music from home: the London Philharmonic Orchestra … playing the hits of Deep Purple. I could not fault her commitment to what was ultimately my own poorly conceived vision.
Effective leadership is the key
Although nothing serious was at stake here, the messages are clear and still relevant, even if we might be more enlightened now. Whether at senior or middle level, school leaders need to ensure that educational innovations are based on a rationale that stands up to scrutiny, and that all relevant individuals — and this can mean pupils — understand the vision driving the innovation. It needs careful control, the right people implementing it and monitoring to check if it is having the desired effect. Without these checks and safeguards, we could be risking more than just the wasted opportunity described here.
(1)Department for Education (2016). Educational Excellence Everywhere. London. HMSO.
(2)Areni, C S, and Kim, D (1993). The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior: Classical Versus Top-forty Music in a Wine Store. NA-Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20.