The following two statements have become something of an orthodoxy in education in recent years.
(View 1) Pupils are unique and classroom contexts are unique – this means that large-scale research projects (such as randomised controlled trials) are of limited use in education.
(View 2) Teachers require educating – preferably with university input – because there is more to teaching than just ‘craft’.
It is not at all uncommon for some people to hold both of these views. The problem with this is that, when stripped away of the fluff, these two statements are ultimately mutually contradictory.
It certainly is the case that all pupils are unique and all classroom contexts are unique. It should also be noted, however, that the very notion of teacher education is based on the idea that what is learnt in one classroom is transferable to another. The similarities that exist between children and classes are pretty self-evident to anyone who has taught for more than a couple of years. Pupils frequently come to lessons with common misconceptions (e.g. regarding negative numbers, or the association between class and wealth). Pupils frequently exhibit the same kinds of behaviour and respond to behaviour management in a similar number of ways. If I had to re-learn everything every time I changed school (or indeed every time I got a new class) then there would be absolutely no point in building up any kind of experience (through professional practice, small-scale research, or anything else for that matter) as all of this knowledge and experience would become redundant when I encountered my next bunch of unique children.
This principle underpins a number of approaches to research in education, particularly any form of research that aims to produce a generalisation as its outcome. The whole basis of research is that there is enough commonality between people in order to reach generalisations. If you think teachers have something to learn from Dweck’s research into mind-sets, then you are accepting that pupils are ultimately quite similar in how they think about things. If you think that women are often discouraged from doing physics or maths (for a range of factors) then you are again accepting that there is commonality between what women experience in different contexts.
And yet those who would be happy to argue that teachers need to spend time learning about teaching, and who would enthusiastically accept research into pupil mindsets, can at times be heard criticising research into cognitive psychology, particularly any research that involves a randomised controlled trial (RCT). Now I recognise that there is a debate to be had about whether RCTs in education can ever work well in practice, but the principle underpinning them is the same: pupils are more alike than they are different, and this means that it is useful for teachers to be taught theories (such as those from cognitive psychology) because these can be meaningfully applied in the classroom.
So here is my plea: I do not mind if you hold View 1 or View 2 above (I think that View 1 is false and View 2 is true), but to hold both is a logical contradiction. This contradiction is conveniently overlooked by those who want to reject some things (such as Willingham’s work on cognitive psychology or Lemov’s collation of effective practice) because it does not fit with their own ideological position. We need some common starting points if we are going to have meaningful discussions about education, but one of these has to be that there are considerable similarities in terms of how pupils learn and respond to their education. If this is not true, then there is no point in us having any conversation about teaching at all.