I was wary of coming to ResearchEd. I worried that there would be a single agenda and an overriding ideology underpinning the event; that it would be hailed as an official launch of the pursuit of certainty. But I was very pleasantly surprised.
I arrived with my friend, Emma Chicken (was there ever a better name for a primary school teacher?) who has just started her PGCE at the Institute of Education after 20 years of working in the film industry. ‘Why haven’t they got an outsourced tech team?’ she asked as Ben Goldacre’s technology failed to appear. Welcome to education Em
Ben Goldacre did not have an outsourced tech team to help him when his slides would not appear and ended up resorting to holding up his lap top. He won the audience over quickly with smiles, jokes and expansive hand gestures, but I wished there had been more substance in what he had to say. The presentation was entertaining but unfocused. There were, however a couple of important points. He argued that education needed an ‘information architecture’ in order for researchers and educators to work more closely together and he recommended the setting up of journal clubs, as is common in the medical profession – a coming together to critically engage in a piece of research and to explore its potential impact on practice in the classroom. This seemed like a good idea, and I am fully in support of the idea of teachers engaging with research in this way. I was less keen on Ben’s fondness for RCTs and in particular, his assertion that all those who might question the extent to which RCTs are useful are dinosaurs. That pretty much switched me off. This kind of polarising language is in danger of ripping our profession apart and it got my goat. But then, I am a Kidd and I was sitting with a Chicken.
We farmyard animals and Miss Smith (of the hey/hay variety) then went to see Frank Furedi speak of the danger of scientism in educational research. What a refreshing presentation it was. Frank warned of the dangers of drawing parallels between medicine and education. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and of course, as a doctor, he needs to know ‘what works’. As Frank Furedi said, if I am ill, I am quite keen to know that the medicine I am given will cure me. But children are not an illness. They are not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be nurtured and embraced. He warned against using deficit language to describe the process of learning – interventions and so on. He also warned about the difficulty of attaching mathematical, statistical data to something as complex and individual as a human being. The thing that stuck in my mind most was how science itself – the science working at the edges of discovery – was a discipline rooted in the celebration and acceptance of uncertainty. The science that teachers/policy makers seem to want is not that pioneering, experimental, creative process that leads mankind on towards new understanding and invention, but rather scientism. A deadening desire for certainty, turning our backs on what might be and focusing relentlessly on what IS and what WORKS. Works for what? To what end? For what purpose?
That might all sound a little nihilistic. One of the biggest criticisms of post- structural (and post-post-structural) theory is that it can leave one feeling despondent – wondering what the point of trying to understand is. But Frank Furedi offered two very positive ideas to combat this. One was that knowledge is power and that teachers can powerfully shape children’s lives by giving them access to thoughtfully contextualised knowledge. The other is that the teacher, over years of practice and engagement with children, will build a repertoire of what works for them and the children they encounter. That this individuality should be valued and embraced and that it takes all kinds of teacher to enrich children’s lives. This is a view that is now beginning to take hold in challenging the nonsense that there is one kind of ‘outstanding’ lesson/pedagogy. I liked that. I liked it a lot.
I missed the next session because I was hungry.
Sandwich eaten, I went to see Laura McInerney. I already knew I would like Laura. She’s northern, clever and doesn’t sneer at poor people. She’s also, I discovered, one of those people who within a minute of speaking reveals themselves as a natural and gifted teacher. She just engages. Laura’s challenge to us was to ask whether or not it would be possible to find seven ‘touch paper’ questions that if answered would move education on immeasurably – like the millennium questions. I started to wish I hadn’t drunk wine the night before as my mind struggled to think of how to frame a question. But then, thankfully, she explained that these questions should take a long time to formulate. They have to be important. Her view is that if we frame key questions or problems within the realm of social/cognitive development then we might genuinely be able to move education forward. One of the questions Laura asked was ‘what would be the most effective way to teach a dyslexic child to memorise the spellings of 1000 words?’ Immediately my mind kicked into unhelpful critical mode. ‘What if’, I thought, ‘the answer involved electric shock therapy’? ‘What if it involved removing the child for a period of ‘intervention’ away from peers or other subjects he/she loved’? ‘What if they felt forced and labelled’? ‘What if we simplified our spelling system instead’? ‘What if we just accepted that dyslexic people are dyslexic and bring other great benefits to our society in addition to their poor spelling?’. What if…
You see, I’m a bit annoying to talk to. And by the time I’d what iffed all that, everyone had gone and the room was dark….
I drifted a little and popped into a session being run by Jonathan Sharples from York and caught the end of Sam Freedman talking about the power of teacher blogging and tweeting as a political force. This belief is evident in the number of his Teach First mentees who are now a loud force on twitter and I think it is important for many more teachers, from all backgrounds and schools of thought to join in with the social media revolution. This was a position that Sam argued well and his reassurance that politicians from all parties are keen to engage was one I think that we all should consider in using social media in positive and pro-active ways.
I really wanted to see Tom Sherrington AND Christopher Waugh next and almost did, but I decided I should try to take on a range of views so I went to see Daisy Christodoulou instead. I sat with Miss Smith and Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy) whose book, Trivium, I have now finished and can whole heartedly recommend. I thought I might disagree with Daisy on pretty much everything. And then I found that I couldn’t. She made some really good points. She pointed out that her teacher training on Teach First had not in any way prepared her properly for the job of teaching; that she had not been directed to some of the research that might have helped her to be a more effective teacher. She charted the realisation, as an English teacher, that without vocabulary and knowledge, children struggled to access exam papers which tested reading comprehension. She gave an example of a Year 11 class who had been unable to complete a GCSE paper because they did not know what the word glacier meant. They tried to guess the meaning from the context, but guessed that a glacier was a tribe of primitive people from the north, or a pack of wild animals. She also recounted how, in attempting to teach the apostrophe through an elaborate dramatic context, she had realised that the children had only remembered the drama and not the function of the apostrophe. Now…I agree that children need to develop vocabulary and knowledge. I’ve written about both many times, and Daisy made this point very persuasively. But here’s where I depart a little. Daisy said that when armed with the knowledge from cognitive science that vocabulary and knowledge domains were crucial to child memory development, she became a better teacher. And this is probably true. But I argue that we have to be very careful then in leaping to conclusions of ‘so’…and ‘therefore’…. Some advocates of the Willingham/Hirsch position have then suggested that children should be given a very prescriptive set of knowledge taught through Direct Instruction. This is a huge leap to make. The fact is that all of those children will have been taught glaciers in KS3 Geography. The problem is not that they are not taught it, but that they don’t remember it. The question for us as teachers, I would argue, is how do we make learning so meaningful that it is memorable? That’s my touch paper question. See Miss McInerney – you sowed a seed!
The final session I went to see was David Weston’s. That man should have had a bigger audience because what he said was of crucial importance. He’s another very natural and gifted teacher – what a loss he and Laura are to the classroom. David also raised the difficulty of attempting to apply medical research processes to education and he very helpfully explained, as a mathematician, why we need to be very wary of applying Hattie’s findings too blindly to our practice. There are too many variables to be able to say with certainty that what he says is less effective would not be effective in your particular school, with your particular circumstances. There are flaws of interpretation, and as with all research, context is essential. So while meta-analyses and RCTs might open up useful lines of enquiry, on their own, they are not enough, and sometimes, damaging when picked up as self evident truths by policy makers.
David made the points that to really engage with research, teachers needed to become engaged with the research community and vice versa; that educational research needed to be accessible (both intellectually and practically) to teachers. He pointed to ideas surrounding lesson study and collaborative action research groups as a way forward. He advocated the idea that CPD should be rooted in inquiry and investigation, reflection and analysis. It was a presentation that really resonated with me as one who has moved between HE and school and who found the pressure to write obscurely for academic journals, regardless of relevance to teachers, pervasive. I do believe that the best teacher training would take place in universities. I think that having time to think with an academic, to reflect and the regular access to an academic library is essential in building and supporting teacher professionalism. But I also recognise that SOME (certainly not all or most) ITT tutors seem out of touch. How much better would the system be if all ITT tutors were required to work in a school, either modelling teaching, or researching with teachers, once a week? Simples. And while we’re at it, open up Athens journal access to schools.
After a brief summing up, we retired to the pub and at the kind invitation of the lovely Loic from LKMCo, joined him, Laura McInerney, Sam Freedman, Katie Ashford, Kris Boulton, Joe Kirby, some other lovely teachers and….Andrew Not-so-Old for a drink. We had a lovely evening, but Andrew, I do wish you had stayed long enough for me to say hello properly. I hope we didn’t frighten you away. I was happy to meet Alex Weatherall and Bio Joe too – Alex is a bit of a hero of mine! As the evening waned and the cheeks reddened, we all had many a good and stimulating conversation about education. We didn’t all agree on everything, but there was common ground. We care about children. We want to do our best. We need to pull together. And ResearchEd allowed that to happen. We need more events like these. So thank you Tom and Helene for making it happen.