Sports Cars and Black Box Thinking
This week marks the anniversary of a significant milestone in my life - the day I realised my two-seater sports car was no longer an appropriate means of transport. A very sad day as I’m sure you can imagine, but the evidence was clear: I have two teenage children, my annual mileage has significantly increased and, if I’m honest, the spectacle of me climbing in and out of the car was becoming increasingly hilarious for everyone to see.
So, I have begun to look at options for a new car. It would be beguilingly simple to follow the lead of a certain motoring journalist and just look for the “prettiest” car that makes the most “exciting” noise. But, how many of us can actually afford to do that?
Let’s be honest, if we are buying a car we will spend a considerable amount of time poring over reviews, comparing fuel consumption, practicality, servicing costs, tax and insurance, performance, handling and everything else. We’ll make sure we at least test drive the car and see how it performs before we sign on the dotted line. In short, we’ll look at all of the evidence, run a trial and then make an informed decision as to which is the best option for us.
In other words, evidence-based decision making, which we all do before making a significant purchase - which could be anything from comparing an Xbox or Playstation, through to buying a house. But, compare this with educational strategy, where we’re talking about billions of pounds - the UK Education budget was £84 billion pounds in 2016. Across the board, how much evidence is used in the decision making process here?
Strategy in education can often be driven by dogma and politics, just look at how it’s become such a political football over the last 30 years. The theories surrounding teaching and learning grow like mushrooms as educational leaders search for that universal panacea that will help all of their students arrive at the best possible outcome.
This is a noble aim, but if we are serious about achieving it then we need to approach it in a far more disciplined and organised manner - this is where evidence-based decision making comes in. If we are able to measure the impact of a strategy and then compare it with other strategies in similar schools, then we should be able to come to an informed decision as to which is the most effective.
The good news is that there is a growing awareness of the importance of such an approach amongst school leaders, as shown by the Firefly and YouGov’s survey. We know what data we need to inform evidence-based teaching, the trick now is to find ways of gathering that information with the minimum of fuss, for the maximum effect.
Technology is riding to the rescue (in a sensible, properly investigated car of course) but until we are ready to change the basis on which educational strategy is formulated we will still find ourselves falling for the prettiest argument that makes the most noise.
It turns out by the way, that a Ferrari or an Aston Martin (other makes are available) were not the correct option for my family, in spite of all of my heartfelt pleas, tears, tantrums and attempts at bribery. But, I can take solace in the fact that all of my painstaking research did result in us buying a car that does indeed fulfil all of our requirements and (whisper it quietly) I am actually very happy driving.
In this new report, former deputy head, Rob Eastment, looks at how we can better collect useful data in order to guide impactful, evidence-based decisions, both in the classroom and school-wide. Plus, how teachers and school-leaders can use this insight to gain real value from failure.
Written by Rob Eastment, former Deputy Head and current Firefly Client Exp. Manager