Sydney from Taronga Zoo
Sydney from Taronga Zoo

On Saturday I joined 100 or so teachers, researchers and other education stakeholders at Shore School in Sydney for Australia’s first researchED conference. I had heard a lot about researchED before; I follow several UK teachers who have presented at or attended one of the three researchED conferences that have already been held in the UK. Many researchED Sydney participants have written positive and thoughtful reviews and reflections on the conference (listed below), and it’s wonderful to see so many people feeling inspired and motivated by the experience. I really did enjoy the day, but was left feeling that there was more enthusiasm than substance. Was there something I missed?

This post is long, so following the advice of a respected reviewer, I am splitting it into two parts.

Why researchED?

I attended researchED for several reasons:

  • I subscribe to the expressed aims and values of researchED. To me, researchED presented an opportunity for teachers and researchers to meet, discuss, and value the experiences of both teachers and educational researchers (sometimes one person is both!). As a teacher, I was often frustrated at the disconnection between research and “chalkface” teaching. As an academic (nearly?), I am keen to prevent others feeling the same way.
  • I wanted to learn about the research that teachers were carrying out in their classrooms and schools. Teachers are researchers; I expected that the conference would be full of good examples of formal, documented research that teachers are carrying out. In future, when I am qualified (with my doctorate) and in a position to do so, I would love to support and mentor teachers interested in undertaking action research, so I hoped to learn what sort of support might be most useful for me to offer.
  • I wanted to meet some interesting people I’d only ever spoken to on Twitter, including researchED organiser Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), primary educator and prolific blogger and Teachers’ Education Review podcaster Corinne Campbell (@corisel), who also has a hand in the @Edutweetoz account, and a whole host of twits including @cpaterso (Cameron Paterson) and @capitan_typo (Cameron Malcher, who with Corinne produces the TER Podcast). I was also very lucky to meet more educators, both with and without Twitter accounts, who are passionate about education and about finding best practices and using research to do so when possible.

Session 1: Welcome to Country and Opening of the Conference

The day began with a very well written welcome to country delivered beautifully and proudly by one of Shore School’s newest students, Levi Nichaloff.

Unfortunately, this was the last reference to our land’s original inhabitants I would hear all day. There are some wonderful Indigenous educators and researchers who would have been an excellent inclusion to the program. If the organisers were after a controversial figure for their panel (to replace Dr Donnelly; see my write up of the panel, below), they could invite Noel Pearson, who has been instrumental in the return to direct instruction techniques to Indigenous communities in far north Queensland (pretty much on the basis of “it worked for me back in the 60s”). Personally, I would prefer to hear from someone with actual teaching experience and work in research; Dr Chris Sarra would have filled the role admirably, and I hope is included in future events. Other Indigenous researchers and educators are around, and their voices are required in any broad discussion of education in Australia that aims to progress the practice of teaching.

We also heard briefly from Dr Tim Wright, Principal at Shore School, about the work that the school does to bring a research culture into the teaching staff. It’s lovely what lots of money can allow you to do.

Finally, Tom Bennett himself welcomed us to the conference. He offered some wonderful advice that I’ve heard before from Peter Ellerton: go and listen to people you disagree with. This wasn’t hard to achieve; the first opportunity to do this came in Session 2.

Session 2: Panel

There was one reason not to go to the conference, which was enough to deter a number of teachers and researchers I know: the inclusion of Dr Kevin Donnelly in a panel during Session 1, discussing “What is the role of educational research in policy making?”

On the surface, Donnelly’s role in the review of the Australian Curriculum certainly justifies his inclusion in the panel. However, Donnelly is a known ideologue, apparently uninterested in engaging with true research or research evidence, chasing platforms to promote his view (or at the very least, to promote controversy). I doubted his attendance would add anything to the panel, or that engagement with him would change his mind about any of his views (e.g. all children should learn Catholic values to the exclusion of other religious or non-religious beliefs and values; corporal punishment should be allowed in schools; homosexuality is a choice; multiculturalism is unnecessary as white Australian culture is superior to all others). This close-mindedness, to my understanding, is the very antithesis of the purposes of researchEd. I would have preferred the platform be given to someone interested in engaging with alternative views, whether or not I agreed with their own views.

The organisers’ arguments that the conference would present a forum to challenge his opinions are not enough. The original concern was that it was a waste of time to listen to the speaker; yet more time would be wasted arguing with someone who is unwilling or uninterested in changing his or her mind.

Donnelly did suggest a couple of things that I agreed with: that primary teachers in particular are drowning in administrative tasks, paperwork, and testing. He also said that governments were trapped in short term cycles and political aims. Hear hear!

However, two outliers do not a dataset make. Despite a posture and position on stage that screamed disinterest (seats removed from the other panelists; constantly scanning the ceiling and empty stage to his left; refusal to look at the audience), he did manage to express his belief that a conspiracy of “seven or eight” people who are totally removed from the classroom run educational policy. Donnelly did not include himself in this group; perhaps he still identifies as a teacher rather than a researcher. This would explain his disdain for educational research, which he was completely dismissive of, stating that teaching is a craft that educational research cannot help. Great start to a conference about educational research!

The second panelist was Professor Stephan Dinham, from The University of Melbourne. Dinham is actually involved in research about educational policy, and had a few helpful and relevant things to say, well-argued and with some evidence to boot. Dinham suggested that research has a big role to play in school policies, as policies at this level were most likely to make a difference for students and teachers. As such, he argued, it is imperative that teachers and school administrators become critical consumers of research (YES!). Dinham also had a few things to say about the myth of learning styles, which I definitely agreed with, but I think he was largely preaching to the converted. Professor Dinham also warned us about going down the path of school autonomy, for-profit schools, and expecting schools to enter the free market; good advice when considering the negative impacts of these policies on equity in educational systems, and the role of inequity in a large range of social and economic issues in the long-term.

The final panelist was Emeritus Professor Kevin Wheldall, from Macquarie University; instrumental in the Macquarie MUSEC and the MULTILIT programs. I’ve found the MUSEC briefings to be very useful in the past, but I know very little about MULTILIT. At one stage, Wheldall suggested that quantitative research was useful but that qualitative research had no value; because findings are so contextualised, they cannot be generalised to the broader population of students. While I might concede that some qualitative research methods are perhaps less robust than other methods of research, I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say it’s useless! I would also argue that limiting researchers to only examine constructs that can be measured quantitatively is unhelpful; not all outcomes of education are quantifiable. I think this is a false dichotomy; a bad argument. Essentially, this argument endorses a test culture in which only that which can be measured is worth teaching. This encourages the sorts of practices around NAPLAN that have decimated time spent on other valuable activities in schools, particularly in primary classrooms.

Audience questions were thoughtful and probing, and elicited brief discussions on Twitter about the role of context in Pedagogical Content Knowledge (note to self: I must write a post on this).

From the audience, a participant asked about the multiple unfortunate references to learning styles made in the AITSL Professional Standards. Professor Dinham suggested that this is one situation in which evidence has not informed policy extensively, and that it’s a slow work removing these references from the Standards as much as it is from teaching culture. In response to a question about whether learning should be teacher-focused or student-centred, he argued that good teaching is both, and they are not dichotomous.

Another participant asked Dr Donnelly what he thought we should rely on if not educational research. Donnelly backtracked and suggested that educational research could be useful, but that researchers need to engage more with teachers, and perhaps support teachers to carry out their own research. Wait, wasn’t that a major aim of the conference? Also, and I can’t remember who suggested this, I’m sorry, but it was argued that teachers needed to be trained in how to read and interpret research critically. I think this is something we do to an extent with our pre-service teachers. However, if the recently released review of teacher education programs is accurate, there are some universities out there that are not doing this. I’m also not sure of anything that’s out there for in-service teachers (MOOC-time? I’m up for it!). It is a skill that is developed with practice and lost when not practiced, so establishing a research culture in education is important. Anyway, with more questions but no time remaining, we were hurried out the door and into the next session.

Was the question “What is the role of educational research in policy making?” resolved? Not really, but I’m not sure what can be resolved in 45 minutes. There were some interesting statements about the various levels at which policy sits and where teachers and researchers can contribute to policy. The discussion was valuable in that people’s beliefs were heard, and to an extent, evaluated, but the discussion was not particularly deep. There were few ideas for moving forward or progressing the agenda of including teachers or researchers in policy-making.

What do you notice about the panelists? As I would have asked my fifth graders: whose voices are we listening to? Whose voices are we missing? When women vastly outnumber men in both the teaching and researching worlds, surely there are some women of calibre/merit/whatever-neoliberal-speak-is-currently-used amongst us who could be invited to speak. Also, more Indigenous people, and practising teachers engaged with research, please, researchED organisers. With a question like “What is the role of educational research in policy making?” there is plenty of scope to open up the panel to more variety.

Session 3: Rethinking Primary School Homework

Session 2 was everything I had hoped for from researchED. Corinne Campbell, primary teacher and Assistant Principal at a state school in Sydney, thoughtfully described a research project her school had undertaken over the past few years.

Corinne had read a number of headlines about the “uselessness” of homework, and not wanting to further waste the time of her students, their parents, or teachers who set and mark the homework, she undertook some research. She found a lot of research that demonstrated that homework during the primary years had little to no impact on student achievement.

There were some serious concerns about homework tasks and outcomes. When children became confused about how to carry out a task, inexpert guidance could make the issue worse rather than better. Further, mistakes made at the beginning of the week – for example, in spelling routines (say it with me everyone: look, say, cover, write, check, groan) – would be practised throughout the week and learned as correct.

Another finding, unsurprising to me as a primary school teacher, is that reading logs were often faked! Parents, worried about the school’s judgment of their child’s reading habits, or simply trying to make quota, would flesh out the logs with extra books. Conversely, many parents/children simply forgot to fill them in, but were reading quite extensively. Ultimately though, teachers were worried that without including the log in the homework, there would be no record at all of what or how much children were reading, so the school decided to keep it.

But while there is no evidence that homework increases school performance, it can be enriching in other ways, and following stakeholder interviews, Corinne and her team determined that banning it was not the answer after all. In just a week, 190 of Corinne’s 300 school parents responded to a homework survey…

Some parents didn’t want their children to do homework at all. “Just let my children play!” argued some, while other parents complained that after music lessons, swimming club, and dinner, homework just kept their children up too late.

Corinne’s team also identified some benefits to homework.

They recognised that all children need to know their times tables, for example, so these were kept as a part of the homework.

Even so, changes to other aspects of the homework caused parents some consternation!

And differentiation was still required, along with appropriate scaffolding, to meet the needs for all learners.

Corinne asked “how do we accommodate expectations and requirements of all stakeholders in homework policy, while still considering evidence?” This question is relevant to all schools, even though the answer might differ between them. The outcomes of this project work for Corinne’s school community, but context is everything, and other schools might need to make different decisions. And the homework policy can continue to evolve in response to feedback.

Corinne found that the outcomes of the research were more than just improved outcomes of homework.

Well done Corinne – that was brilliant. This session included everything I was expecting from researchED.


Part 2 of the commentary can be found here.