Learning is about making mistakes: this axiom unites educators and scientists. We learn because we are curious. We try things out, experimenting in order to improve. As part of the deal, we sign up for failure. Trial and error are both required.
Intellectually, I knew all this when I began working at the Education Endowment Foundation. Our mission was to generate evidence to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged children in England. But I am not sure I really got it until I met Bob Slavin.
In 2015, I was responsible for managing the production of the EEF’s evaluation reports. Every project the EEF funds involves two external teams, a programme developer and an independent evaluator. At the end of the project, the evaluator produces a report summarising the project’s impact, which is circulated to the developer for comments before final review and publication on the EEF’s website.
As I prepared to share our Summer ‘15 batch of reports with the developers, I remember having a distinct worry. Two of the projects were led by Bob Slavin – a giant of educational research, who quite literally wrote the book on evidence in education – and neither evaluation had shown a robust positive effect on attainment.
Bob’s reply will stay with me. It was simple, collegial and gracious. He praised the evaluation team, pointed out a way one report could be made more useful to teachers (by reporting costs more clearly) and reflected on how to strengthen similar trials in the future (by piloting first and avoiding an overreliance on computerised assessments). Bob was an educator and a scientist. He wanted us to learn from what had happened, and his humility was the greatest lesson of all.
Since then, I have been lucky enough to work with Bob again several times. Most recently – via email and video calls – we discussed the promise and challenge of tutoring. Over several decades, supported by colleagues at Johns Hopkins, Bob had done more than any other researcher to document the potential for high-quality tutoring to improve academic outcomes.
When the pandemic struck, Bob began working tirelessly to ensure that this evidence was understood and could be mobilised as part of Joe Biden’s $122 billion education relief plan. Bob’s dual focus – on evidence and impact – was inspiring on both sides of the Atlantic, and informed not just the US recovery effort, but the National Tutoring Programme in England.
Thank you, Bob.