It is almost impossible to extensively discuss all the studies done by the EEF. In a previous blog I summarised the reports from July 2015 and in this Google spreadsheet I have tabulated all the EEF reports. One study I thought did not get much ‘airplay’ was the “Word and World reading programme” which:
“aimed to improve the reading comprehension and wider literacy skills of children aged 7–9 from low income families. The programme focused on improving the vocabulary and background knowledge (sometimes labelled ‘core knowledge’) of pupils, through the use of specially designed ‘knowledge rich’ reading material, vocabulary word lists, a read-aloud approach, and resources such as atlases and globes. The programme is based on the rationale that children need background knowledge to be able to comprehend what they read, and that improving background knowledge is an effective way to help struggling readers.”
I was interested in this project because to be honest I had heard a lot of Hirsch’s work in books by, for example, Daisy Christodoulou but not yet read a lot about actual ‘Core Knowledge’ inspired interventions (I had read some info, I think it was the Durham university press release, that she also was involved in the delivery/training of the programme). I agree with many that sometimes knowledge has been undervalued. To become an expert, you need knowledge, one particular poignant example is in educating mathematics teachers: they really need more maths knowledge than ‘just one step ahead’ of what they are teaching (at both GCSE and A level). But it also isn’t the case that when you have knowledge everything else follows automatically. With that in mind I was curious how this intervention would fare. The programme was developed and delivered by The Curriculum Centre, a charitable organisation which is part of Future Academies.
The first thing that struck me on the report page was that the study was classified as a ‘Pilot Study’ and further that “The study did not seek to assess impact on attainment in a robust way”. For almost £150k I would expect there to be a bit more ambition? The three aims of the evaluation (pilot?) were (i) to assess the feasibility of the approach and its reception by schools. (ii) to assess the promise of the approach and provide recommendations that could be used to improve the approach in the future. (iii) to provide recommendations that could be used to design any future trial, including an assessment of the appropriate size of any future trial. Especially the third aim seems a bit premature, although granted, in the report the answer to the question “Is the approach ready for a full trial without further development?” is no. This is justified because the results will show there are some big challenges.
The report has some very interesting sections:
One of the conclusions addresses this lack of subject knowledge:
“In some lessons, teachers’ subject knowledge did not appear to be sufficient to support an in-depth discussion with pupils about some of the topics within the programme curriculum. This suggests that additional training or support materials may have been beneficial.”
I think it’s a bit unfair to say that teachers’ subject knowledge did not appear to be sufficient (apart from the fact that we are dealing with a self-selected set of teachers from one specific academy chain) as (i) the intervention was quite prescriptive, and (ii) the recommendation shows that it might be missing some features in the design of the intervention. There were more of those ‘areas of improvement’, for example in visuals and the quality of the workbooks.
Overall, I feel it can be said that the Core Knowledge intervention was not effective, although teachers felt it was and liked the intervention. There also seemed to be many things that could and should be improved in the intervention. In the meantime it can hardly be said there is evidence to suggest Core Knowledge might be more effective than ‘regular practice’ (whatever that may be). Sure, teachers in the participating schools like the intervention, but is this enough to warrant its implementation? The recent ‘evidence informed’ developments would suggest not, after all many myths are widely accepted. The suggestion that teachers lack subject knowledge, if true, might result in recommendation for teachers’ subject knowledge but I think it’s a bit ‘easy’ to suggest that this might have impeded the implementation of the intervention. Designers of an intervention need to take the teachers into account; after all they need to deliver the programme. This should be a feature of the complete intervention. So the overall judgement at the moment is that it is not effective and many aspects of the intervention should be improved. I think it would be strange if results like these would culminate in a larger effectiveness trial.
In my book ‘knowledge’ remains a very important, maybe the most important, ingredient in developing both skills and understanding. There are good reasons to assume this, as I will try to elaborate on for mathematics education in a future post about ‘memorisation and understanding’. But even the way you organise such ‘knowledge’ through interventions needs empirical evidence. Unfortunately, this EEF report on the Hirsch inspired ‘Core Knowledge’ does not provide such evidence.