Research School Network: Transformers Undisguised The EEF’s newly updated Implementation guidance report reminds us that active ingredients really matter


Transformers Undisguised

The EEF’s newly updated Implementation guidance report reminds us that active ingredients really matter

by Kingsbridge Research School
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Let’s get philosophical: when does a Transformer stop being a Transformer?

How about this: if a Transformer currently looks like a yellow car and we respray it blue, is it still a Transformer? Yes, you’re thinking – it’s now a blue Transformer, but still fundamentally a Transformer. Another thought experiment then: suppose we take a non-sentient car that can somehow transform into a non-sentient hairdryer. Would that be a Transformer? Clearly not, you say. At no point is it a robot. Furthermore, a Transformer is an intelligent, self-governing being, whereas a hairdryer is not.

We might agree that a Transformer:

  • must be sentient
  • must be a robot in its natural’ state and something else when disguised
  • must be able to transform
  • must be from Cybertron

(I’m not sure about that last one. Possibly Transformers might be able to reproduce elsewhere, but I’m not prepared to fact-check that.)

When you remove the non-defining characteristics (the colour of the transformed car, the size of its wheels), you’re left with the active ingredients. These are the elements that define the essence of a thing.

In the context of school implementation (a far more sensible context), the EEF’s newly updated Implementation guidance report stresses the importance of identifying the active ingredients of a strategy. Why is this so important?

Firstly, because it’s not enough just to look at what works’; we also need to be clear about how it works. As the report says, look carefully at how the approach is implemented and aim to replicate those conditions in your context. One way to achieve this is by identifying the active ingredients for a particular approach.’

Let’s imagine that we want to do something about our school report card. Currently it is a behaviour report. It has targets on the front and teachers comment on those targets. All well and good. We do notice however that it forces every conversation to be about behaviour and, in that respect, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument – sometimes we’d rather be talking about their learning. In the meantime, we read that metacognition can improve students’ understanding and progress. Can we make some alterations to the report card so that we encourage students to reflect on their metacognitive knowledge? We hope that by doing so, we might help transform learning (let’s call it a lower-case transformer). So, to boost students’ metacognitive thinking, we add a box to the report card labelled metacognition’ so that teachers can add a suitable comment.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy makes no discernible difference at all. Why? Because we haven’t identified the active ingredients of our strategy. The EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report lists seven recommendations. If we look at those more closely, we might decide on a clearer set of active ingredients:

  1. Promote metacognitive talk in the classroom by explicitly listing possible strategies
  2. Have students reflect on their understanding, effort and perception of difficulty on a simple scale
  3. Have students record the learning objective to encourage awareness of the overall goal
  4. Create a pre- and post-report questionnaire so that we have some measure of their metacognitive awareness

We put something like this together:

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(To be clear, this is an example of what we might do, not a definitive list. It would though allow us to talk about the relative efficacy of highlighting versus self-testing, why the student rated their understanding high or low, and how we might go about planning.)

Saying to promote metacognition, do the four things on the list’ is much better than promote metacognition’. With the latter instruction, we are disguising the active ingredients and will probably end up with a variety of approaches of differing quality – after all, if we can’t articulate the active ingredients, how can we hope to achieve consistency? Good implementation means taking the time to ensure everyone is on the same page before launching an intervention.

The updated report talks about the pre-mortem, a thought experiment in which we imagine the strategy has failed and try to work out exactly what went wrong. We might ask When does the strategy stop being the strategy?’ Very often, the answer will be When element X is missing.’ Probing further, we ask why it was missing. Because we didn’t define it or didn’t communicate its importance. We disguised our transformer.

Do you want to give your strategy the best chance of success?

Step 1: Download the EEF’s updated Implementation Guidance Report for FREE

Step 2: Sign up to our free 16th January twilight session to explore the updated report. This will run from 16:3018:00. Sign up here.

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