Dylan Wiliam: A move to combat ‘folk teaching’

Featuring Dylan Wiliam, author of Creating the Schools our Children Need and best-seller Embedding Formative Assessment. This article was originally published on witf.org on Oct 30, 2018. Written by Avi Wolfman-Arent/Keystone Crossroads

A move to combat ‘folk teaching,’ conference connecting teachers with researchers comes to Pa.

On Saturday morning in North Philadelphia, a confident British man named Dylan Wiliam stood before about 100 teachers and told them that pretty much every education reform idea they’ve heard is bogus.

Firing bad teachers? Doesn’t work, he said.

And it’s never going to get any better.

What about school choice?

It’s irrelevant.

And laws that mandate lower class sizes?

A special kind of stupid.

There’s plenty of people who would disagree with each of these statements. But Wiliam, a well-known education researcher, was driving at something else — the idea that you can’t simply trust the next big education fad. You’ve got to ask if there’s evidence to back it up.

“That’s why I’m saying teachers, administrators and schools have to become critical consumers of research,” Wiliam told the educators gathered inside the auditorium at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.

Teachers, administrators and schools have to become critical consumers of research. - Dylan Wiliam Click To Tweet

This is the nutshell logic of ResearchEd, a series of conferences held around the world where education researchers share their work with teachers. Saturday’s was the first held in Pennsylvania.

Unlike an academic conference — where intellectuals talk among each other — a ResearchEd conference brings researchers face to face with principals and teachers. The organizers think there’s value in that exchange — a way for teachers to learn what the latest studies say and for researchers to see how practitioners might digest their theories.

More broadly, though, the conferences — and the online community that has sprung up around them — seek to change the relationship between teachers and education research. Rather than telling teachers to accept dicta from on high, ResearchEd wants teachers to be fluent in the language of academia and understand what studies say about the things they do in their classrooms.

“When you see a study that looks really great, we want your B.S. detector to go on,” said Eric Kalenze, a researcher who helps organize ResearchEd conferences in the U.S. “We want you to question things like, what’s the “n” size?

Founder Tom Bennett first thought of the idea that became ResearchEd five years ago when he was teaching in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods and moonlighting as a blogger. The self-described “insomniac with a guilty conscience” noticed a troubling pattern among his colleagues.

“Basically a lot of people relied on what I call ‘folk teaching,'” said Bennett. “They relied on their hunch or their instinct or their intuition.”

That reliance especially troubled Bennett because he was working in a low-income neighborhood, where he felt students needed teachers to bring the best out of them.

“These kids don’t have tutors,” said Bennett. “These kids don’t have a second chance. They don’t have friends and family that can give ’em a job after school.”



So if a district spends its precious dollars on iPads for every student, Bennett said, it better know the intervention is going to work. Too often, he worries, salesmen peddling bad science smooth-talk district leaders into buying bad products.

Kireema Sprowal, a teacher at Feltonville Intermediate School in North Philadelphia, admits it’s hard to focus on anything other than “intuition and survival” when you’re managing the many day-to-day duties of teaching.

But she does think some teachers are hungry to learn more, as long as they have somewhere to start their inquiry.

“I’m here on a rainy Saturday, not to toot my own horn,” Sprowal said with a laugh. “I see a lot of my other colleagues here, as well. It just takes a passion within yourself. It’s a choice.”

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Dylan Wiliam is one of the world’s foremost education authorities. He has helped to successfully implement classroom formative assessment in thousands of schools all over the world, including the United States, Singapore, Sweden, Australia, and the United Kingdom. A two-part BBC series, “The Classroom Experiment,” tracked Dr. Wiliam’s work at one British middle school, showing how formative assessment strategies empower students, significantly increase engagement, and shift classroom responsibility from teachers to their students so that students become agents of and collaborators in their own learning.

Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. After a first degree in mathematics and physics, he taught in urban schools for seven years, during which time he earned further degrees in mathematics and mathematics education.

Follow Dylan on Twitter: @DylanWiliam