Evidence-Based Learning at School

Supported Experiments

According to John Hattie (2009), teaching quality has by far the most effect on student performance. If teachers are to improve their practice they need to spend some extra time to try out new approaches. The term ‘supported experiment’ was introduced by Geoff Petty (2006) and is described as an opportunity for teachers to experiment with the support of peer teachers. They share and reflect on their experiences and provide feedback to each other.

Teachers must experiment to improve

Anders Ericsson (1993) found that reaching an expert level in any profession is  dependent on the total time spent on ‘deliberate practice’ to improve the skill. Incredibly, talent or IQ has hardly any measurable effect. John Hattie (2003) has studied expert teachers and figured out what distinguished them from experienced teachers but less effective ones. Expert teachers were ‘adaptive experts’ while experienced teachers were ‘routine experts’. Adaptive experts continually sought to improve whereas the routine experts settled into comfortable behaviours once a certain level of competence was reached, and as a consequence their skills are stuck on a plateau. Expertise is born of deliberate practice. It means getting out of your comfort zone to do things differently, and better, as Geoff Petty puts it. During ‘deliberate practice’ skill levels drop for a short time as that skill is learned, but rise thereafter because of the benefit of the new skill.

Teachers need support while they are experimenting

Geoff Petty summed up some of the findings of a research review on ‘in service’ staff training (Joyce & Showers 2002):

  • Training often does not change teaching.
  • Some teachers do not try a new approach, even if they found the training event inspiring.
  • Teachers who are willing to experiment, often get dispirited if it doesn’t work well the first time.
  • Teachers see the disadvantages of a new approach much more clearly than those of their usual practice, and so they very likely fall back into their comfort zone.

But Petty also pointed out that teachers can change their practice.  The same research review shows that teachers will change how they teach if they experiment, and get feedback and coaching on this experiment.  That is, feedback on whether they are making good use of the new or improved teaching strategy, and coaching on how to improve their use of it, including any help they might need to overcome the inevitable difficulties.

When students are learning they require practice, feedback, and help.
Teachers are just the same when learning to improve their teaching.
(Geoff Petty)

Our take on Supported Experiments at Staatliche Realschule Geisenfeld

First, each of our team needed to identify where to make a useful change in our teaching. In group discussions we found that there were some needs that everybody shared (improve student motivation, feedback and deeper thinking) and some problems that were specific (behavior of a certain class).

Since we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel we looked for teaching strategies that research has shown to be promising. As experienced teachers we knew that answers to the question ‘what works?’ are inadequate as research has shown that most approaches to teaching work to some extent. What we needed was easy and convenient access to a source of evidence-based practical knowledge that provides answers to the question  ‘what works best?’. After reading  ‘Evidence-Based Teaching’ (Petty 2009) I contacted Geoff Petty and he recommended teachinghow2s.com, an online service that provides visual guides to teaching methods based on the research of the leading experts in this field (Hattie, Marzano, Timperley, Clark, …). This subscription-based service comes with a suite of tools to accelerate and share professsional learning within your school.

Our team agreed on the following steps:

  • pick a teaching method or strategy from teachinghow2s.com
  • communicate the lesson plan with the group (method, date, time, class) via a shared Google Spreadsheet
  • invite colleagues to observe your lesson
  • have them read about the method you plan to experiment with
  • each observer asks headmaster to organise substitute teacher for their own lesson
  • get peer feedback on the use of chosen method and coaching from colleague
  • get student feedback (i. e. via socrative)
  • evaluate and make changes where necessary

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. Routledge
Petty, G.,  (2006) Evidence-Based Teaching. Nelson-Thornes
Ericsson K. A. (1993) The role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.  Psychological Review Vol 100 No 3 pp363 – 406.
Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers Make a Difference, Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference
Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002) Student achievement through professional development. In B. Joyce & B. Showers (Eds.), Designing training and peer coaching: Our need for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum.
Marzano, R.J. et al (2001)  Classroom Instruction that Works. ASCD, USA