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A review of ResearchEd 2013

by Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research, and Jane Birbeck, Head of Marketing and Communications

We have been reflecting on what was a truly fascinating and inspiring day at ResearchEd 2013 yesterday.

We apologise for not being able to relay live action reports on the day, as we had intended, but Dulwich is a known black spot of internet connectivity (ironic for a conference borne out of social networking). Once the phone batteries gave up (too early), we were a bit stuck, so instead we’ve written this overview blog.

The aim of ResearchEd 2013 (the first of what we hope will be many such events) was to debate how researchers and educators can work more closely to improve student outcomes. Many of you will already be aware that the conference was pulled together in only six months on a shoe-string budget, relying on goodwill and passion, following an enlightened twitter conversation that inspired Tom Bennett, the organiser, to take action. A truly grassroots movement – SSAT congratulates all involved.

Somewhere in the region of 300 individuals – practitioners, academics, researchers, politicians and support providers – gave up their Saturday to be at Dulwich College yesterday. The group assembled were, as the keynote speaker Ben Goldacre put it, the ‘swots of the swots’ – the vanguard of committed professionals leading the movement to push forward an agenda that many of us instinctively feel to be right. Namely, working out what works.

As it turns out, working out what works is harder than it might seem – not that this comes as a surprise. A recurring theme of the day was the absolute necessity of teachers engaging with and understanding not just research findings, but the processes and methodologies through which they have been arrived at.

So how can teachers become expert enough in research to analyse and validate what it appears to tell them? And be expert enough to decide whether their own interventions are effective? John Tomsett and Alex Quigley, from Huntington School (Alex is also a member of SSAT’s Vision 2040 action research group), demonstrated a micro match trial of two English classes undertaken within the last six months. Their trial aimed to ascertain whether oral feedback had an effect on year 9 writing progress. It did – but a further interesting outcome was also the validation of educational instinct. What Chris Husbands, Director of IOE, referred to as ‘making the implicit, explicit’.

Given the complexities of undertaking and using research, another question raised was whether overcoming the challenges is worth the effort. Does it actually yield results? Is this yet another ‘trend’ that we flock to, without fully assessing why? Before we jump on the bandwagon, we need to be clear – like teaching, research is an intensely complex, high-level activity. How can, in reality, teachers be researchers (if indeed that is what we want) – and likewise, researchers understand teachers’ perspectives – in order to develop what needs to be a collaborative movement?

Chris Husbands stated that he is sceptical of school-based action research as a means for finding new knowledge, whereas he is optimistic of it as a model of CPD that could change teachers’ practice and pedagogy.

On a similar theme, Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL viewed the undertaking by future school leaders of a master’s in education as invaluable. Can school leaders hope to have anywhere near the same level of understanding of research methodologies from NPQH?

David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust posed the question: could teachers engaging with research without understanding the underlying assumptions on which the findings are based actually lead to more confusion and opportunities to make the wrong decisions?

So what are we to make of all this? It was reiterated time and again that we need better information architecture, better knowledge transfer and better collaboration. Should we be campaigning for government to support this by removing the obstacles that stand in the way? In one session, Debra Kidd commented that she had recently returned to teaching, having worked in research, out of sheer frustration that the funding system demanded researchers to write in such a way as to be incomprehensible to non-academics. Their chance of having their work published at the highest level relies on it. From the schools’ perspective, how can they easily access research when it resides in exclusive e-journals? The current system prevents real collaboration and access, and teachers and researchers ‘speak in different languages’.

In the current climate, it is vital that we find way to overcome these challenges, and – as David Weston highlighted – take a step back, to define exactly what we’re trying to achieve. Many universities are disbanding their PGCE courses. Issues of access set aside, the valuable work of HEIs needs to be protected and developed in order that it can better support, and be embedded in, teachers’ practice. If we don’t act do this now, we risk losing the academic rigour that teacher CPD requires.

In his inspiring introduction to the day, Ben Goldacre stated that he hoped today would be the first of many such events to define what ‘working out what works’ means in practice.

In this spirit, we would like to invite everyone who attended today to join us at the second such event – SSAT’s National Conference 2013, where we aim to answer the call to clarify exactly why teachers should engage in research – and start to work out how.

Doing so is part of what we call ‘the new professionalism’.

Tom and Jane attended sessions by:

  • Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science
  • John Tomsett and Alex Quigley, Huntington School
  • Brian Lightman, ASCL
  • Chris Husbands, IOE
  • Jonathan Sharples, IEE
  • David Weston, Teacher Development Trust

Tom Sherrington, Chair of Vision 2040, and Tom Middlehurst presented SSAT’s session on how the Vision 2040 action research group are underpinning the ambitions of the Redesigning Schooling campaign with teacher-led research. Thank you to everyone who came – we felt very honoured that, with so many other choices on offer, you chose to listen to us. Download SSAT’s ResearchEd 2013 presentation.

Do academies really increase the divisions between the rich and the poor?

4 September 2013

Sue Williamson on Redesigning Schooling

13 September 2013

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