By Brad Clark
Two weeks is not a long time – especially not when it comes to understanding a large, multifaceted endeavour like the Best Practice in Grouping Students project. Having just finished my first year of Teach First, finally able to exhale for the first time since the previous September, I found myself faced with a number of obligations intruding on my summer ‘holiday’: wrapping up PGCE requirements, going to a wedding in America, planning for the autumn term, and finding time to recharge after a long and trying year. Luckily, I managed to fit my Summer Project at King’s College London into those two weeks – and for me, it has already made a huge difference.
I was fortunate in that Professor Becky Francis, Dr David Pepper, Dr Antonina Tereshchenko, and Dr Becky Taylor all took the time to both make me feel welcome and to explain key aspects of their project. As one can imagine, a multi-year research trial taking place across over a hundred schools could easily be an unwieldly thing; in speaking with the team, however, I got a very strong sense of how the project was positioned in order to greater inform our understanding of best practices in schools. Much of the published literature already attests to the neutral, if not negative, effects that setting and streaming can have. The goals of this trial – seeking to discover why attainment grouping tends to have these effects; attempting to mitigate unfair treatment across different sets; aiding teachers who may find the transition to mixed attainment classrooms daunting – clearly show a desire to push for greater understanding of the issues involved. And not a greater understanding of esoteric topics, but real findings with the potential to positively impact the lives of countless children.
For my part, I learned a tremendous amount. In working with the team, I’ve been forced to consider how I might better use evidence from academic research in my own classroom. It led me to challenge any and all of my preconceived notions regarding education. Many of the ‘sacred cows’ of education came in for greater scrutiny, such as assessment for learning, differentiation and growth mindset. Some passed through, relatively unscathed. Far more have taken new shape, as I looked deeper into the data and findings that support some of the biggest ‘buzzwords’ in our field. I also enjoyed seeing the workings of such a large academic project from the inside. I gained a greater knowledge of both the quantitative and qualitative tools in a researcher’s arsenal and, perhaps more excitingly, saw how they could be married to create a comprehensive view: the power of numbers to identify and analyse phenomena occurring in schools throughout the country; the qualitative side to better explain the human element – how students and teachers understand themselves as they go through this process of secondary education.
Two weeks represents both the blink of an eye and – in representing one-third of my six week summer holiday – a sizable chunk of time. I feel lucky in that, while it may feel like it was over in hardly a second, the experiences I’ve taken from it will have a grip on me for some time to come. I have no doubt: both my practice as a teacher, and my understanding as a student of education, have benefited from these past two weeks at King’s.