This is part 2 of a post about my experience at researchED Sydney. Have you read researchED Sydney 2015: A commentary, part 1?

Session 4: Why the 21st Century teacher should be research engaged

This session, presented by Tom Bennett, was essentially an argument for teachers to be research literate and engaged. To me, he was arguing for research scepticism, but without using that word…

My summary of his story is this: Tom went to university to become a teacher. At university, Tom learned to use particular strategies and techniques that he was told were research-based, including Brain Gym and learning styles.

Once out and teaching, he found for himself that these strategies were a waste of his and his students’ time, and he became angry at this “research” and at his teacher preparation program. He felt he had been lied to. Familiar story? Tom sounds like many of us… So Tom began exploring the research himself, wrote some books and articles, and started researchED.

The goal of researchED is to bring academics, researchers, teachers (Tom calls teachers ‘practitioners’), and policy-makers together for a discussion about what works and how we know. From my own experience, I know this isn’t always easily achieved. I’d like to write another post about the intersection between teaching and research, and importantly, the ways in which we can work together to ensure that teachers are choosing best practices and researchers are sharing their work with teachers, either through collaborating with them in the research itself, or simply communicating findings following investigations. Teachers already do great work, and have fantastic networks that they are setting up from the ground up: teacher associations, PLNs, teachmeets, and podcasts like TERPodcast, just to name a few. Many researchers aren’t even aware of these networks, or of events like researchED, but we need to be, or we risk irrelevance.

One thing that annoyed me initially was that Tom referred to programs such as Brain Gym and learning styles, as if there actually is robust, valid, reliable, peer-reviewed research into them, when there isn’t. The “research” that supports these programs is none of these things. Not all research is created equal, and a sceptical consumer will recognise this and qualify their statements about such research appropriately. It sounds like his teacher preparation program let him down quite seriously (and thereby his students too). To represent the “research” into these programs as equal to the research into, say, argumentation in science, misconceptions in science, or even mindsets (a theory that is growing from and contributing to a large body of evidence, as good science does), is somewhat disingenuous.

Sweeping statements that educational research is like using leeches to cure medical ills in the fourteenth century are also unhelpful. Thankfully, Tom clarified:

And in this, Tom is absolutely correct. It’s a major part of being sceptical: asking for research or evidence when someone makes a claim. As teachers, we need to be doing this often, and not just in the cases where we disagree with the claim, but in all cases. Then we need the time, skills and knowledge to evaluate that evidence for ourselves. Many teachers do not have the time, the skills or the knowledge to do this. I think that researchED can be a part of the solution to this problem, and I would like to help if I can.

One roadblock is easily identified:

There are of course, many classroom situations that can’t be easily informed by educational research (but perhaps some psychological theory can help): what do you do when a student swears at you? What if he did this in part because his grandad died yesterday? and he didn’t have any breakfast this morning? and he has to work three shifts this week on top of his homework and looking after his little brother?

Tom briefly discussed the roles that teachers can play in research, including carrying out research for themselves. Events like researchED can showcase and spread such research. Twitter helps too!

He had some excellent arguments for becoming research literate:

Then Cameron Paterson had an interesting question:

And others on Twitter had some responses.

Tom had some great ideas for bringing research culture into schools. Some are expensive:

And if anyone wants to hire me for this position, please get in touch! Or maybe, if you don’t have the money:

And there are others who can help:

Or even this twist on the idea:

But perhaps teachers could start with a journal club, where teachers read and discuss a relevant article each fortnight/month, either in school cohort or on Twitter (much like @sciteachjc, although that has fallen over a little due to a lack of time on the part of the organisers).

Or schools could carry out their own research, just as Corinne described in Session 3:

Tom’s seminar was delivered with passion and enthusiasm, presenting some good arguments for teachers to increase their research literacy, and prompting productive discussion about when, why and how schools and teachers could engage with research and researchers.

Session 7: Reggio-Inspired: Exploring Group Learning and Documentation

I missed Sessions 5 and 6 due to a commitment to another task that I shall write about another time. The last session I attended was presented by Cameron Paterson.

I went into the session with some assumptions, expecting to hear about the Reggio-Emilia approach (philosophy) of teaching, and the research that had come out of it. Cameron didn’t talk much about this at all, but launched straight into an engaging group activity. This meant I had to put down the phone and couldn’t tweet as much!

In groups, we were assigned the role of “documenter” or “learner”. The learners’ task was to achieve the goal of the lesson (design, test and make an airplane that can fly a set distance carrying a set weight), while the documenters were to use any means or form to record the learning activities of the learners. In our group, myself and two others became learners, while Corinne and another participant kept a written record of our language, activities, interactions and any other interesting things they observed. Cognisant of the short but necessary time limit of the activity, I got to work right away.

At the end of the activity, the documenters shared with us their observations, and the learners responded. I’d been identified as a leader (hah!) early on. The documentation process was fascinating; a good reflection and opportunity to receive feedback about the learning process. It is something I would like to do with my pre-service teachers, to make visible their various learning processes. But the next question was trickier: what had we actually learned about aerodynamics from the activity?

Well, for me… nothing. In fact, despite my science content knowledge and conceptual understandings around the ideas of flight, I’d made several errors in the airplane design, and under the time pressure, and perhaps as a result of group dynamics, we’d not had time to test our designs. There’d been no time to learn from others (like searching on the internet for design ideas, or for physical principles to consider), or discuss these things with other groups. Perhaps I’d rushed into the activity, or missed something. Other groups announced that they’d learned about thrust, or wing span; ours had no such new ideas to contribute. Perhaps I missed it when Cameron articulated the aims of the learning?

Cameron had some great suggestions for incorporating the process into the classroom, and some anecdotes about how this practice had enhanced student learning in his classroom. I look forward to trying it with my own classes, occasionally.

It's really tricky to photograph.
‘Research’ by Tom Bass, Circular Quay, Sydney

What did I miss?

As always, there were sessions I missed out on that I would have loved to attend.

Professor Stephen Dinham argued for the need for a strong evidence base for teaching, school leadership and educational change, exploring the “fads, fashions and misconceptions concerning teaching”. According to the précis, Dinham proposed to explore the evidence base for these approaches. This sounds like it would have made a great keynote; an introduction to and modeling of how to approach research for teachers unused to the practice. It sounds analogous to the approach I often use to teaching students about decision-making in science, and I’m keen to see how others do this.

Dr Kerry Hempenstall presented a session on Direct Instruction literacy programs as evidence-based practice, and while I’m not sure that DI is the answer to every problem in education (in fact, I’m almost certain it’s not an answer to most problems in education), I would like to learn more about it–maybe he could change my mind!

Professor Kevin Wheldall and Dr Robyn Wheldall presented a session on positive psychology in the classroom. Again, this is something I am still sceptical of, mostly due to not knowing too much about it (also, and mini-rant here: sometimes I’m annoyed by people reinventing the wheel and giving it a fancy name. Good behaviour management is good behaviour management, and why can’t we just call it that? It’s like the need to name every “diet” when actually, there’s such a thing as a healthy diet that just involves being balanced, paying attention to your body, and making evidence-based decisions. Why does it have to have a fancy name? If it turns out I’ve actually been using ‘Positive Teaching’ all my teaching life, does that mean I have to call it that?). [Edit 3/3/15: Kevin Wheldall has been in touch and promises a blog post about this, which I will link to here when it’s posted.]

Simon Townley, whose organisation, Gorilla Learning, run professional development workshops about educational neuroscience for schools and teachers, gave a workshop on (you guessed it) educational neuroscience. Red flags fly at me like to a bull in Madrid when I see the term “educational neuroscience”. It’s not because there’s nothing neuroscience can offer teachers – quite the opposite. It’s because neuroscience is not the magic bullet for teaching and learning, when the contexts in which teaching and learning take place are myriad and complex. It’s also because it’s the kind of term that the makers of Brain Gym and learning styles would have loved to have thought of and used in their promotional materials. So I would be interested in hearing what was discussed in this workshop.

Other thoughts and questions

Teachers are researchers. Every day a teacher enters his or her classroom with a new lesson to try, a new strategy to test, a new thought about how to manage young Harry’s distractibility or Neville’s anxieties or help Ginny understand a difficult Herbology concept or develop Hermione’s broomstick flying skills. Teachers with better research skills, who are critically reflexive, and who look outside their own experience too, find and evaluate possible solutions to teaching and classroom issues more quickly and efficiently, and thus are more effective. Looking outside to what others have done is a central part of this. The constant trial and error that teachers undertake to improve their classroom teaching is barely spoken about or shared. Usually, it’s undertaken independently, and the results a quiet accomplishment. Sometimes, it’s done collaboratively, and the results are shared with the community of students, or of families. Occasionally, research is undertaken more formally, purposefully, with a broad goal of improving school wide policies or processes.

I’d expected the conference would be full of best examples of this.Where was the actual evidence? Scepticism? Research process? Questioning of assumptions? Other than Corinne’s presentation, I didn’t see too much of this in application. I’d hoped for workshops for how to find research, how to read and review research, how to engage in research and develop research projects in schools. Perhaps it’s the workshops I chose?

Some questions… [Edit 3/3/15: Tom Bennett has helpfully answered these questions in the comments below.]

Why were there so few people at the conference?

  • Were people really that turned off by Kevin Donnelly?
  • Was the promotion on Twitter alone? That severely limits the potential audience, if so.

Why was the conference so cheap? Where did funding come from, to fly Tom to Australia, fly speakers to Sydney, etc? It was only about $40 to attend… and why did I pay in pounds??

  • The conference appears to have been sponsored by the Shore School, TES, The Education Partners, and CfBT Education Trust, according to the program.
    Shore School… well it’s lovely to have lots of money. They have beautiful facilities, and it’s great that they were able to offer them for the conference. Apparently they also undertook some of the printing etc. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of benefit in the promotion of the school, but more importantly, in the opportunities some of the Shore staff would have had for professional development.
    TES are British and Tom Bennett blogs for them. They do have an Australian site, but this wasn’t mentioned in the material. TES provides/sells resources, advertises teaching jobs, etc.
    The Education Partners are difficult to find out much about. Their website is undergoing rebuilding. Without knowing who they are – and such a vague name means I cannot find anything else about them online – it’s hard to know what they gain from involvement in the event.
    CfBT are a “non-profit provider of educational services” with a website that looks amazingly similar to researchED. Apparently they are a “world authority on school inspections”…
  • I think I paid in pounds because the event was ticketed through Eventbrite UK?

Ultimately, the conference was thought-provoking, in a different way to the CONASTAs or STAQ conferences I’d attended (and occasionally organised or presented at), even though these are also events at which both academics and teachers volunteer their time and present their work. There was more of an emphasis on research rather than lesson ideas or content knowledge, which tends to be the focus of primary teaching conferences. The opportunity to meet passionate educators and researchers was excellent. What’s more, it caused me to reflect on the myriad and complex reasons why I loved teaching, but then moved into research; further, I considered the multiple roles that I can hold and the ways that I can help when this Damned PhD(TM) is finally finished. I wish I’d been able to stay to the end. Thanks Tom, Shore School staff including Dr Tim Wright and Cameron Paterson, and all those involved in bringing the conference to Australia. I look forward to the next one! Brisbane, you say…?

Many thanks to Angelique Howell and Alom Shaha for sharing their thoughts and feedback on this and the previous post before publication.

researchED news, reviews and reflections by others

Tom Bennett – Letter from Australia, part 2: researchED Sydney and beyond

Pamela Snow – researchED Sydney – Some puzzling thoughts

Chris Munro – A story of practice, theory & sense-making: researchEd Sydney 2015

Greg Ashman – Being part of it: researchED Sydney

Dr Gary Jones – researchED Sydney – Some initial reflections

John Kennedy – researchED – Researchers meet teachers

Stephen Exley – ‘Seductive’ teaching trends damage pupils, warns leading academic

Debs (@debsnet) – Research and education: A match made in the conference room? #rEDSyd

Jonathan Pugh – researchED Sydney 2015: A day of reflecting on research in rducation