One of the best things about the ResearchED conference at Dulwich College was that it happened. It embodied the concept of a practitioner-led system perfectly. This is what ‘bottom-up’ looks like. It was a great thrill to participate in an event that brought so many education professionals together in the spirit of ‘by the people for the people’, tackling the issues we face in education on our own terms; a gathering of classroom and research practitioners meeting to exchange perspectives on the important work we all do.It was magnificent. It felt like the start of something. I hope that’s true.
Arriving at the event was like ‘Ultimate TeachMeet’ in terms of putting faces to names from the twitter world. That’s part of this phenomenon. Social media plays a part in allowing practitioners to communicate free from the institutional hierarchies and structures that have kept us all segregated for too long. It’s obviously more difficult if people use avatars that don’t belong to their face or have absurd ‘handles’ like mine…but meeting face to face is essential if we’re going to have intelligent debate and it was great to make various connections.
On a personal level it was wonderful to share the experience with my KEGS colleague Tim Worrall (@musotim) and I am very pleased to have now met all the people who write the blogs that influence my thinking the most. (See my Blogroll) Tim and I are going to start up a Research Book Club back at school…lunchtime gatherings to engage in debate; food provided.
My day included contributing to two sessions:
The first was a double act with SSAT’s Tom Middlehurst where we gave an outline of the Redesigning Schooling campaign run by SSAT and the role our action group Vision 2040 is playing in that. The slides are here: ResearchEd Presentation.
The second was an outline of the work we do at KEGS where we try to live up to our tag line: ‘a research-engaged learning community’. Every member of staff is engaged in a project of some kind and many also work within the CamSTAR framework which adds more rigour in terms of methodology and reporting. The slides are here: Action Research and CamSTAR
And here is the actual thing, courtesy of the ResearchEd site:
It was great to have a good audience for both sessions.. and a real joy to talk to people afterwards. Working lunch was a great idea even though my teacher-twitch was kicking off with the crisp packet and sandwich wrapper rustling under my nose. Hopefully that didn’t show.
The best bits for me were the four sessions I attended.
1. John Tomsett and Alex Quigley:
Their account of a project at Huntington highlighted the challenge of undertaking control-trial research in a school context. The issues of measurement, controlling variables and evaluating the significance of the outcomes were all explored. One-to-one feedback in English was an initiative they believed in based on their professional judgement, but the research was done to provide evidence to justify further development. It was a bottom-up process, supported by academic research with a good deal of rigour.
Some thoughts: do we trust evidence of our own trials because we generate it? If another school has done the trial and found it hadn’t yielded a significant effect, how would we respond? Would we believe it, or go to some lengths to challenge trials of this kind if they are at odds with our professional insight? What size trial on a specific piece of pedagogy would be required to show that ‘it works’ in a general sense, such that practitioners would be motivated to explore the pedagogy for themselves?
2. Laura McInerney
Laura’s session challenged the idea that we should be rushing off to engage in research as a profession before we’ve had a much more detailed debate about what we need to know. Her idea of establishing seven ‘touchpaper problems’ that we then seek to solve over the coming years was extremely thought-provoking. If we’re going to spend a lot of time and money on research, we should be focusing on the things that really matter. Defining these problems is a challenge,not least because they need to have unambiguous solutions. I’ve been trying to think of a good problem ever since.. it will plague me until I see what emerges as Laura gathers ideas together and shares them.
My best offer is: What strategies are needed to ensure every 12 year old reaches their chronological reading age? Imagine if we knew the answer to that? If we can’t identity these problems, it might mean that we’re destined to misfire.
Even if we don’t all buy into Laura’s structure for these problems, she has raised the question: what do we really need to find out? At a school level, this might be a good discussion before we spend time just doing ‘stuff’ because we fancy it.
Here is Laura’s presentation in full. Well worth watching.
3. Dr Jonathan Sharples
Jonathan gave an excellent outline of the work educational researchers at the Education Endowment Foundation and others have done and continue to do. There is clearly a lot of work going on out there. However, he identified a key difficulty in the process which is that the evidence from research does not flow back into schools to inform practice and practice doesn’t inform research nearly well enough. There are lots of websites, toolkits, universities working with schools and so on… but that doesn’t amount to a coherent structure in which all teachers readily and routinely engage with research in their field. He suggested that more teacher-led research, supported by professional researchers, needed to be encouraged.
Thoughts: It struck me that Jonathan was naming several sources of research that I had never heard of. The communication channels need to be wider. What would this look like in practice? If researchers were all working on the problems we as a profession had shaped, wouldn’t we all engage in the outcomes?
Another thought: Is there a paradox at work here: broad research that looks to address system-wide issues (such as white FSM boys’ achievement) could easily be regarded as not being relevant in numerous specific school or classroom contexts; research that is found to be significant regarding achievement in a specific school or classroom context, is unlikely to be accepted as true at a system level. How do we construct a research culture that strikes a balance?
4. David Weston
For me, David’s presentation completely summed up the whole issue of research in education: the flaws in effect-size approaches; the tendency to lose detail on why different things work and don’t work; the barriers in schools to accepting research…brilliant stuff. If I was in charge, I’d put David in charge.
David’s work at the Teacher Development Trust and in setting up the new National Teacher Enquiry Network has been astonishing. No policy-maker has had the sense to get these things up and running but he now needs maximum support. Promoting teacher-led enquiry; a research-driven approach to CPD in all schools.. is THE way to go as far as I can see.
David’s presentation suggested to me that pragmatism is vital in looking ahead.
Teachers have lots of really good reasons not to engage with research that is presented to them, made available ‘out there’ somewhere or imposed on them as a policy directive – either from DFE or their own SLT. Currently, it is like darts of research are being thrown at a rhino… but they ain’t getting through.
Teachers are much much more likely to engage in research based on trials they have conducted themselves. The system needs to direct energy and resources towards making that part of a teacher’s experience; universities, research bodies, DFE, NSCL, every CPD provider…give all you’ve got to make teaching a research-based profession where the knowledge is grown from within..
Achieving the state where all teachers have an embedded research/enquiry based professionalism, will take a long time. In the meantime, we can do a lot better using our research-savviness to put up massive defenses to anyone promoting panaceas. The cry of ‘show me the evidence’ should ring out from every school and classroom before we just suck it up and bend with the whims of any passing Secretary of State or a Headteacher ‘doing it for OfSTED’ without knowing why.
If there is no clear evidence that something works in a range of contexts, then the best thing is to work out what works in yours. It seems to me that doing almost anything you believe in with commitment but with a questioning spirit, is more likely to yield positive outcomes than trying to implement ideas from someone else with sceptical reluctance. At the same time, we should all try to keep up with ideas being generated from all around us.
An interesting question that David’s talk raised is this: Is there actually any evidence that engaging with evidence makes any difference? It’s a big one— but, really, that’s got to be true hasn’t it? Let’s see.
Thanks again to Tom Bennett and Helene Galdinoshea for making the event happen. Already looking forward to next time.
The archive of video for the conference is on this site: ResearchEd Videos