Tom Bennett and the researchED revolution

An interview with Tom Bennett

Tom Bennett was a second-career teacher in London, UK for almost three years before he began to smell a rat. He had been recruited into a fast-track program meant to quickly churn out teachers destined for middle management.

“I got some extra bursary for that…and I was given lots of extra training in things like BrainGym, neuro-linguistic programming and learning styles—you know, just clap trap and snake oil. We were given computers, we were given cameras to record our experiences…it was the most enormous waste of money ever. And after about three years of teaching, I smelled a rat. I realized, hang on, you know, this isn’t right.”

As a philosophy major and former Soho nightclub manager, Bennett felt that he had both an academic and a pragmatic sense of how people worked and why they behaved as they did. But nothing had prepared him for the behaviour challenges he encountered in the classroom.

“My very first teaching experience was in a really challenging school. I was gobsmacked. I was utterly amazed at how different it was to my own experiences as a student. I’d been out of education by this point for about 10 years since university, 15 years since high school, and I kind of assumed that by this point we would know what we were doing. I assumed that we would have all the big problems licked and we would have a pretty solid curriculum. That we would know how to run a classroom and we’d be trained in this.”

Bennett responded to the chaos he found in the classroom by reflecting back on his teacher training, and that is when he came to a realization: “You know, you’d be given the basics of arithmetic and algebra and calculus and trigonometry and geometry and so on, things that have been kind of eternal, immovable truths for centuries. If you met somebody with a PhD in mathematics and you asked them a math question, you could pretty much guarantee that they would be able to tell you the answer. I know that the social sciences, including education, aren’t quite like that, but I realized that when you went into teacher training you might be taught completely different things depending on who was training you. Different things about how you should deal with children, how you should teach, and what you should teach and in what order. And how children retain information and what you should do if there was trouble in the classroom, and so on. And I remember thinking, this just isn’t enough. We are being thrown in the deep end here.”

This epiphany, the realization that ideas in education were not being held up to scientific scrutiny as they were in other disciplines, was transformative for Bennett. He began taking courses and reading research articles on education to try to discover what empirical evidence was out there, and how it could be successfully applied to the classroom. Once he began finding what he believed to be solid, evidence-based studies relevant to education, Bennett followed his next instinct: to share this with other teachers.

Bennett was hired by the Times Educational Supplement to write an advice column on classroom management. He also wrote a few books on his teaching experiences. At the same time, blogging became popular and he began publishing at behaviourguru.blogspot.com, a blog that he still maintains. He also became active on Twitter where even more people began to reach out to him about education. All this media exposure cast Bennett as an education expert, and he felt even more compelled to ensure that what he was writing about was actually rooted in good science.

“The thing that really started to catch my eye was how much behaviour management training was totally unevidenced. It was just, ‘here’s what I think.’ So I started to look at the data and became interested in research in general, in evidence in general. I started to write blogs when I read questionable news reports, like somebody claiming that introducing tablets into the classroom improves literacy by 50 per cent in six months. So I would investigate the article and find the research behind it was sponsored by the tech company supplying the tablets. Or you might find the sample size was ridiculously small. That’s not quite what I call robust science.”

Bennett continued to teach as he scrutinized education research and published his opinions.

“And I always made sure I was never critical about my school, in fact I never mentioned my school. I would say: well here’s an interesting claim that group work is the best way to learn, and here’s what I found out about it in terms of research. Even as I gained a certain level of notoriety in my writing, it was never mentioned where I taught. I think that we have a duty as educators to maintain a certain level of professional decorum, but there is nothing wrong with saying, hey, this is my professional opinion about an educational initiative.”

Despite Bennett’s commitment to professionalism, his anger at the proliferation of untested fads in education intensified. This frustration culminated in the publication of his book Teacher Proof: Why Educational Research doesn’t always mean what it claims and what you can do.

“It was a quite angry book,” Bennett admits, “I would probably write a more considerate piece now, but I was piqued with it at the time.” Published in 2013, the book did more than just debunk a series of fads in education; it taught teachers how to spot spurious claims and to demand evidence-based studies for any new initiatives.

“Rather than just collate old blog entries, I decided to approach Teacher Proof by trying to convince somebody who’s just a teacher like me—someone who is not a specialist, not a scientist, not a researcher—that all is not well in the state of Denmark. That we are often told things which are just substantially or significantly not true, and that we as teachers need to become more mobilized about it. And already I was starting to think about this idea that teachers needed to become more informed not only individually, but also collectively.”

This belief, that teachers needed to collectively voice their skepticism and demand evidence to back up the directives they are given, is what spurred Bennett to enter the next phase of his transformation. As his blog, his column, his Twitter feed and now his new book elevated his profile among teachers and academics alike, he proposed to bring the two together.

“I launched researchED because I wanted to create a safe space where people could come together. Where academics and researchers and teachers and principals, school leaders and policy makers and budget holders and think tanks, and all these people in the UK school system, could come together and have this conversation. And I found that that in itself was quite radical. But remember it was Orwell, I believe, who said, ‘in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’!”

After discussing the possibility with Sam Freedman (former advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, and later Director of Research and Impact at Teach First) and Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma and a columnist for The Guardian), Bennett floated the idea of holding a conference on educational research to his Twitter followers. Four hours later he had 200 offers of help. On his website Bennett says, “I didn’t build researchED, it wanted to be built. It built itself. I just ran with it.”

The first researchED conference was held at Dulwich College, on the first Saturday after the beginning of the new school year, in September 2013. Over 500 participants (including teachers, school administrators and academics) came to talk, listen and learn. Although that first conference was meant to be a one-time event, researchED has since become Tom Bennett’s fulltime concern. He has coordinated conferences all across the UK and Europe, and more recently in North America.

“Before researchED, we had conferences for academics and conferences for teachers, but never the twain should meet. And the idea that you could get someone like Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia or Paul Kirshner from Amsterdam, and they could speak and talk about their latest research – and then teachers could sit in the audience and say, ‘well what about…?’ or ‘why doesn’t this work in my classroom, what am I doing wrong?’ – and have that kind of professional-level conversation, that was incredibly powerful and it was really inspiring to witness.”

When asked what he would suggest to teachers who are beginning to become similarly skeptical about some of the initiatives being foisted upon them, Bennett has a simple message: “Get online…because you will expose yourself to the international ocean of ideas which exists out there. There is debate and dispute out there, and what you’re taught in your training can be challenged. It took me years to realize this. Also, online you can reach out to, and learn from, other teachers and academics. Somebody in Australia might have an idea that you might think is going to work in your classroom. What’s the evidence base? Well I’ll tell you what it is.”

“Once you’ve realized that there are some things which work better in some circumstances, or are more probable to work with certain pupils, your teaching is revolutionized because of it. And the children I’m talking about in particular are the ones that need it the most, children from underprivileged backgrounds and from marginalized backgrounds. These are the kids that are screaming out for solid educational practice, and every time you use an unevidenced technique or methodology or pedagogy on a child who doesn’t get a second chance, whose parents don’t have lots of social or cultural capital and can’t give them a job if they flunk out, every time you do that you are robbing children of their most basic birthright, which is an education. And I think that’s something we all need to get passionate about.”

NOTE: To learn more about researchED, go to their website www.researched.org.uk. There you will find upcoming conferences. OSSTF/FEESO will be co-ordinating a researchED conference in Toronto on April 14, 2018. For more information about this specific conference email randy.banderob@osstf.ca.

About Randy Banderob
Randy Banderob is an Executive Assistant working in the Educational Services Department at Provincial Office.

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