Almost a year since the JMB Junior Cycle conference I attended another educational event last weekend: ResearchEd 2014. The conferences were slightly similar; lanyards were red and teachers and headteachers spent the day moving from one education-based presentation to another. I left Raines Foundation School in London in dramatically difference form than I'd left Croke Park. Rather than feeling confused and apprehensive about the future of teaching, I felt invigorated, inspired and even, hopeful. It was in the word of delegate Jon Brunskill "spectacular".
"Hopeful" may be too strong though as the event (organised by the TES' Tom Bennett and English teacher Helene Galdin- O'Shea) was understandably based on the UK system. There was much discussion of Ofsted and levels and "A* to C". It can seem like another language but when the talk turned to AfL, observation and edtech the implications for what's happening here became clearer.
Miserable with a cold as I was, I more self-indulgent than I had planned to be and opted in many sessions to eschew expanding my knowledge of the cutting edge of educational research in favour of seeing some of my favourite bloggers in the flesh. And as these things always are, there were sessions where I wished I could divide myself in two, and others where I scanned along the list going "Hmm, hmm, hmm, well..maybe.." In the end nothing disappointed and a few of the presentations are appearing on the event's official website www.workingoutwhatworks.com . Don't click just yet because, such is the wealth of resources and information therein, once you do you'll have no time for ages and ages to come back and finish this .
The wonder of ResearchEd is that is organised and led by teachers. Full-time teachers in actual schools (although Bennett has opted to go part-time to organise further events). The focus is on what works in schools, not what will go down well with the electorate or with parents, not on how money-saving measures can be passed off as improvements, not on ways to disguise underachievement through curricular diversity and not on achieving teacher "buy-in" to a culture of more-for-less.
Perhaps the most relevant talk to what's happening here was Dylan Wiliam's "Why teaching will never be a research-based profession, and why that's A Good Thing". You'll recognise him from this clip shown at the JC English inservice. This clip was the sum total of the evidence base provided to English teachers for the changes in the way we will be expected to teach our subject.
Ironically, Wiliam discussed this type of top-down ruling about how we should be teaching in his talk. He used a phrase of Lawrence Stenhouse (an educationalist I'd never heard of) to refer to teachers as "intellectual navvies who are told where to dig, but not why". The consequence of teachers not being given adequate rationale or understanding of why they're being told to do things, is that we then lack the capacity to make "smart adjustments" i.e. to tailor practices to our own classrooms, full as they are (very full) of human children.
The thread that runs through most Irish teachers hear is that we've been doing things all wrong and that we must do things the new way because Research Proves and research is science and science is fact. We are told this even when the new way closely resembles what many of us are doing already, except with added traffic lights and fish-bowls. Research Proves trumps any objection, or even query, although we're not told what research is being referred to, or what the results were, a failing similar to that criticised by Laura McInerney here. Citing actual studies would be a start, but it would be naïve of me to think it would make a difference. No matter what the decision, a study somewhere could be found to support it; if anything, such a move could make us more docile. I know myself if I'd been presented with some evidence I might be less sceptical. If, instead of hearing again and again "research proves", I'd been given a sweetie in the form of graphs and a final slide full of small print then I wouldn't have been asking (inside my head, of course) "What research??"
This question has been going around in my head for a year now and was largely what drove me to ResearchEd. I've been happy to learn there is research for some what we're being asked to do and equally happy to learn that there is no evidence for more of it. What was great about the conference was the balance at the conference between the shared feeling that research is exciting and cool and really, really useful, with the acceptance that it's not the be-all and end-all. In particular it shouldn't be used as a stick to beat teachers who have worked hard for years using the best knowledge available to them. Teachers who have learned through their own experience and that of their colleagues. I've been at an in-service where a teacher with thirty years experience confessed, AA style, to the room "I'm Mary and I used to...grade my students' essays". We were all supposed to feel our own shame at this but my own feeling was closer to anger. Yes, I have stopped grading most assignments, and now think much more carefully about comments, but this does not make me a more effective teacher overall than my senior colleagues to whom I still go to most days for resources and much-needed advice.
I will sign-off with a quote from Helene Galdin-O'Shea, one of the chief organisers of the event. On the website (your next click) she shares her vision for what research and being research-literate can do for teachers.
"Helene is interested...supporting teachers, who, tired of top-down and often poorly-informed initiatives in schools, have rightly decided to reclaim their professionalism and take control of their own development, and in promoting and developing ways for educational professionals to share the best evidence".
Sounds good to me.