• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 13th December, 2007

Proving that it's the teachers who are readiest to learn

When people speak of resistance to evidence-based policies in general and randomized controlled trials in particular, there’s a common assumption that the die-hard opponents are the practitioners, who refuse to allow the strictures of science to enter their relationship with the unpredictable clutter of everyday life.But in his first months as director of the UK Institute for Effective Education the American research scientist Robert Slavin has begun to see it the other way round. The ones who say trials in education can’t work are less likely to be the educators, who are intrigued by what it might offer, than the academic community and senior policy makers who fear trouble.Unsure of how UK schools would respond to the call for experimental methods, Slavin has used IEE pump priming funds for a randomized control trial among a cluster of 40 schools of the impact of the co-operative learning techniques that are his specialty on the math grades of eight- and nine-year-olds. It is probably the largest and most robust estimation yet of the value of co-operative learning in UK schools. It reports in the late summer of 2008."Finding schools has not been a problem,” he says. “The head teachers have been very committed. Once it’s properly explained to them, teachers welcome both the intervention and the experimental approach. In the UK there are plenty of academics telling policy makers that good research like this can’t be done. But the schools are showing it can."Trained as a psychologist, and with a doctorate in social relations, Slavin started out as a teacher in Oregon. In the mid 1970s he moved to Maryland and to a post as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. During the three decades since, he has emerged as a leader in educational research and the successful founder of organizations with a mission to improve and implement knowledge about the education of children.The hallmarks of his work are easily recognizable in his prolific writing. He is interested in the potential of all children. He stands for high quality evaluation. His understanding of the conditions necessary for the evidence based reform of children's services is unrivaled. He sees a clear requirement for a large number of practical, replicable programs and practices capable of demonstrating compelling evidence of their effectiveness. He wants to see scientifically valid, trustworthy, and educator-friendly comparative reviews of research on practical programs categorized by subject and year level. And he knows the importance of securing government support for schools that are willing to implement proven programs.Is government support going to be forthcoming in the UK? "Maybe I’m being naive" he says, "but the early signs are promising. There’s certainly a lot I don't understand. But Estelle Morris [former UK education minister and Chair of the newly formed IEE Strategy Board] opens lots of doors; and, at very least, people are being polite."His estimation of his first months at the IEE betrays a characteristic mixture of modesty and steeliness. The resume that helped him get the job includes a long list of awards from groups as diverse as Parents magazine and the University of Liege. But when asked to name the one he is proudest of he is non-committal. "To be honest, they really don't mean a lot to me," he says.On the other hand, when it comes to stating his fundamental belief that every child can and should succeed, or decrying the systematic failure of children from disadvantaged backgrounds he is animated and determined. He combines strong commitment to rigorous science with a willingness to lobby those in power for the use of effective models and the need to evaluate the unproven.One of the reasons the University of York succeeded in beating off strong opposition to secure funding for the Institute, was its track record in applying science to policy and practice in several fields. With the migration of Slavin and his team, it is able to add education to its portfolio of evidence-based initiative and the cause has a stronger voice."I was happy with life in the US," Slavin admitted this week, “but the proposal to establish the IEE in York was precisely what I and the two colleagues who have come with me wanted to do next."He co-founded his own co-operative learning program, Success for All, with his wife Nancy Madden. She and Betty Chambers have joined him at IEE from the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.Slavin and Nancy Madden have three children: one at university, the second a personal trainer and third an electrical engineer. With all three away from home, they have the freedom to adopt a transatlantic lifestyle, simultaneously maintaining projects at Johns Hopkins and York."Living and working in two places is not easy" he said this week, "but it does create several new potentials. Of course, one can learn from working in new places. But more important is the possibility of mounting projects in the most auspicious setting. Too often I have had to wait for a change in government, policy or funding priorities. Now I have at least two shots at every piece of work I want to do."

Back to Archives