How ‘Journal Clubs’ Can Help Teachers to Evaluate Pedagogical Research

By Gibbons, David | Times Educational Supplement, September 6, 2019 | Go to article overview

How ‘Journal Clubs’ Can Help Teachers to Evaluate Pedagogical Research


Gibbons, David, Times Educational Supplement


Taking inspiration from the ‘journal clubs’ that meet in hospitals to evaluate the latest medical studies, David Gibbons and his colleagues set up a school-based discussion group with the aim of getting down to the nitty-gritty of pedagogical research

I’m in hospital. Around me are 10 doctors. I’m picking up the gist of their conversation but following precise details is difficult. They’re talking about the advantages of giving blood products to trauma patients while being transferred, rather than the current system of waiting for the patient to reach hospital. The discussion seems to be in favour of transit transfusion.

But there’s a catch. The doctor leading has asked all the others to turn to the back of a clutch of sheets they are each holding and study a particular footnote.

The doctor is saying, “This should have been declared.”

At this point, I should confess I am not in imminent danger and don’t need a transfusion. But I am in hospital with a problem I think these doctors – and the medical profession, generally – can fix. My problem is with a particular phrase. I’ve heard it time and again from many, inside and outside teaching: “Research shows …”

It’s a simple phrase wheeled out by research advocates who sometimes don’t have the faintest idea how research shows anything. The phrase has its permutations; you may be just as likely to encounter “the literature suggests”, “studies indicate” or “there is a growing body of evidence pointing to …”.

Implicit in these phrases is a powerful sense that research is like the red pill from The Matrix: in some way, it will be revelatory. And it certainly can be (as research shows).

Generating resistance

But simply evoking, even referencing, research without a proper explanation of how it comes to its conclusions is a sure way to generate resistance among the keen-witted.

This is why I’m in a hospital: I believe we can learn something from pedagogical practices in medicine. Medicine underwent its rise from craft to profession not just because it grounded practice in research but because doctors are trained in how to critically appraise research methodologies.

One of the main vehicles for training doctors in the skill of critical appraisal is the “journal club”. I’ve wormed my way into a renowned journal club at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north-west London, in order to understand how such a group works.

Journal clubs take a piece of research, evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and then, if it is found valuable, explore how the research may be applied in practice.

Despite Dylan Wiliam’s recent argument in Tes (bit.ly/WiliamResearch) that classrooms are just too complicated for research, if evidence can’t be used to argue a pedagogical point,what are we left with? Wiliam’s opinions?

Teachers would be more easily won over and supportive if they were trained, like doctors, in the “how” and not just the “what” of educational research. Discussing and unpicking the research that shapes what is thought of as good practice can be of enormous benefit. Knowing how educational studies are designed ought to be central to all teachers’ professional development.

So that is what we did at our school: we set up a journal club based on my experience at the Royal Free.

Each sitting is led by a different teacher, who selects a piece of educational research to explore. So far, we have looked at research into the benefits of recorded audio feedback over written feedback; coaching; and improvements in outcomes when depriving students of their grades.

After reading the research, we meet. The teacher leading the session gives a brief explanation of why the piece was selected, a short overview of its findings, then an evaluation of the methodology. …

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