This post was originally published 19 June 2017 on the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

There is nothing more disappointing than spending precious time, and worse, forking out hard earned money, on a dud conference. And I really dislike being sold a conference as one thing, only to find out (sometimes much later) the agenda was something else completely and I have been duped. So, as we are now in the thick of conference season I thought I’d put together a list of questions that might help you choose your conferences wisely (or at least think critically about while attending). If you are about to attend a conference you might like to take this list with you.

1. Whose voices are privileged?  (Whose voices are missing?)

Many conferences have a few favourite speakers on high rotation. You would hope the world had moved on, but there are still the same group of white men, holding traditional views of education, who pop up every year. Sometimes, their views are not based on consilient research, rather they plod out ‘cherry picked’ interpretations of other research, often not in the field of education, to suit their narrative or ideology. Do your homework on keynote speakers.

There may be speakers from out-of-field such as psychologists, speech pathologists, and other experts, but not educational researchers or teachers. They might even hold the centre spotlight.

Conferences also have speakers from organisations and consultancies, rather than research organisations or schools. Some speakers are from “think-tanks,” that may have opaque political alignments and agendas, such as the Centre for Independent Studies, the Grattan Institute, the Institute of Public Affairs, the Mitchell Institute, the Whitlam Institute and Learning First.

So? Why does this matter?

There is nothing wrong with being white, male, holding traditional or conservative views of education, and representing the views of a ‘think tank’. However there is something wrong with having a line-up that is heavy with such views and trying to sell it as a wide-ranging education conference (especially when most teachers and educational researchers are female, come from diverse backgrounds, and probably would not classify themselves as “traditional” or “conservative.”)

Further, there is something wrong with having an education research conference line-up that includes few educational researchers or teachers. Out-of-field speakers can be useful in providing perspectives, but be wary of those given centre stage and guru status. They often are not aware of the competing demands that educators reconcile daily.

Finally, there’s obviously something wrong if speakers with political agendas dominate a conference line-up. Whose agenda is it? Some of these political perspectives may be alien to educators.

If you’re attending a conference, pay attention to the speaker line-up. Whose voices are privileged? Whose voices are missing? Be mindful that education is political.

2. What is being sold as ‘what works’? (Who does it ‘work’ for? Who is selling it?)

Discussing what works in education is currently fashionable, and many conferences are themed around this motif. There is a general hidden assumption that only achievement matters, and only achievement that can be measured quantitatively, at that. This kind of outlook is known as a positivist outlook. Such conferences tend to be narrow, focused on selling you one main idea or solution, and provide little to no discussion about what outcomes we might want from our educational systems, or why.

So? Why does this matter?

Education is not only concerned with qualifications and achievement. Ensuring that students feel comfortable in their school and community environments is also a concern in education, as is a student’s ability to express themselves and develop their own life project. These matters can often become complex when there are issues at home and as students grow into adolescence. A positivist approach to education has the effect of narrowing the discussion around educational practice, and ignoring the value of social and personal factors and outcomes of education.

Conference organisers may claim that the workshops will help teachers become research informed. Presenting research can be useful, but most conferences are in effect performing a kind of ‘cherry picking’. So be aware of who is ‘cherry picking’. Often, participants become informed only from a certain perspective. Bigger debates in education that revolve around the multitude of available perspectives and sources of evidence are ignored. When ignoring the various perspectives that different research approaches bring to education, the forms of research that are presented can often be simplistic.

Research evidence is collected based on a particular model of education and its purpose(s), so often empirical research is collected as evidence oriented towards reinforcing those models. For example, the internationals tests of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA all look very different. This is because each educational assessment program has a different framework, or a different model, of what education looks like. Further, they are all based on what can be measured quantitatively and promote narrow views of what counts as research and as evidence, in the debate of what works and what doesn’t. These measures often neglect, for example, the notion of care when discussing educational achievement. More substantive research, which can tell us more about how and why particular educational activities affect children, might be ignored or dismissed.

There are also debates around research methodologies. While quantitative and qualitative approaches are often contrasted, each of these approaches provide useful insights into different aspects of education. Even within quantitative methods there are ethical issues and debates around approaches such as randomised controlled trials, correlation versus causation, effects sizes and so forth. Measurement instruments may also be poorly designed, simplistic, or insufficient to support the assertions made from the data.

If you’re attending a ‘what works’ conference this year, be aware that there is a lot of research that is not discussed, and be mindful that achievement is not the only purpose or outcome of education. (If you’re interested in reading some peer-reviewed literature on this issue, you might enjoy this paper: Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: Evidence‐based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational theory, 57(1), 1-22.)

3. What narratives are being used to promote the conference or its other messages?

Deficit narratives can be used to sell education conferences. These narratives can lure attendees by dividing those who attend as ‘in the know’ and those who don’t as ‘out there’. Many conferences perpetuate inaccurate and unhelpful narratives of education as failing. These narratives denigrate those working in the field, are often not based on evidence, and are cast from afar. It is really just a selling point to get you in.

Some conferences are premised on a belief that initial teacher training is failing. (These really annoy me.) Promoters complain that initial teacher education is woefully inadequate, and that content such as Brain Gym and learning styles are being taught across the board. Some conferences use these tropes to denigrate Australian initial teacher education, and education research in general.

Sometimes those perpetuating these narratives have never taught in Australian schools (or have a very narrow experience of teaching in Australia), or undertook initial teacher education outside of Australia. Take special note of conferences imported from the UK or USA.

So? Why does this matter?

Conferences that promote, support, or legitimise deficit narratives continue the erosion of public education and teacher professionalism in Australia. Deficit narratives narrow school curriculums and constrain teachers’ practice. But neither education research, nor research from other fields, should ever be used to prescribe practices to teachers. A research-informed, reflective, and reflexive cohort of teachers must be able to make their own decisions about what works in their classroom, for their students.

Australia has a very complex initial teacher education environment. In Australia, teacher accreditation is a responsibility of the state governments while higher education is a responsibility of the federal government. While these seem intractable issues from afar, Australians working within this environment are generally able to navigate around these constitutional complexities.

Initial teacher education in Australia takes (at least) 4 years. Someone who finishes their initial teacher education graduates with a Bachelor of Education (Primary), or a dual degree in Education (Secondary) and in their field of teaching (e.g. a B.Sc for a science teacher, with a substantial number of courses in their focus area, for example, chemistry). Alternatively, someone who has completed an undergraduate degree in another field can do a Masters of Teaching, a 4-semester course. Postgraduate diplomas are now being phased out across Australia. The purpose of this initial teacher education is to develop preservice teachers’ critical faculties for making professional decisions, using frameworks and theories of both teaching and learning that are derived from the work of researchers in education, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other fields. This appears to be very different from the UK model of initial teacher training, for example, where many teachers begin their careers with little, if any, formal teaching education.

Universities in Australia are accredited to develop initial teacher education graduates who are ready to make informed decisions about their teaching practice and classroom. More importantly, a teacher’s learning doesn’t stop upon graduation. Teachers continue learning, and improving, through professional development, focused reflection, mentorship, and coaching, all the years of their career.

If you’re attending any conferences where teacher education is on the agenda be mindful that there are ongoing developments in Australia around teacher education, teacher registration, and teacher standards through bodies such as AITSL, and state government statutory authorities. Listen carefully to the narratives being presented about initial teacher education, and professional development, in Australia, and be mindful that some of these narratives are coming from outsiders to the context.

4. Who’s paying, and what are they paying for?

While some conference organisations are advertised as “grassroots,” for example, many other organisations are established with particular agendas. For example, ACER was established in 1930 through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. I’ve attended conferences that are sponsored and promoted by organisations such as The Education Partners, part of the for-profit schools company GEMS Education group, which has an agenda to privatise and commercialise education. This information has not been easy to find out, and I did not cast the critical eye I could have over the event when deciding whether or not to register.

It is unclear who currently sponsors many conferences, even those that participants pay to attend. Often it is difficult to ascertain who is sponsoring which conference. Conferences are a financially lucrative sector for commercial operators. Think tanks, universities, and not-for-profit organisations are generally not politically neutral.

So? Why does this matter?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Conferences often have some sort of agenda seeking legitimation through educator attendance. There are also sponsorships of products in the form of book promotions and so forth. When conferences are organised by groups with a particular interest it can be difficult to determine if there is an agenda, and what that agenda may be. This can be particularly difficult when there are both presenters with an interest in the agenda and those without. Teachers and principals are often co-opted to provide authenticity.

A truly “grassroots” organisation or conference is one where any decisions are made democratically by a group of diverse and interested parties (more than just two or three people) and all of those people are named and recognised; where there is public invitation for speakers to apply, with transparent criteria for selection of speakers; where the complete interests or affiliations of the speakers are disclosed; and where any sponsorship is explicitly advertised. By this definition, teacher associations, run by members who elect the board, may be considered “grassroots”, while organisations run by just one or two people are not.

If you’re attending the conference this year, be mindful of any commercial agendas; apparent or hidden.

If you’re attending a conference this year…

Have fun, participate in discussions, share your ideas, and challenge (respectfully) the ideas of others. But most importantly, ask the critical questions of who is speaking (and ask about who is not), question speakers about what they’re claiming and the basis for those claims, look at how the narrative of the conference portrays and constructs education in Australia. Try to uncover who’s paying and what they’re paying for.

Ask lots of questions of speakers in workshops. If you get a chance, ask a few very direct questions of the organisers.

“It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticise, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. [S]He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; [s]he must be an intelligent medium of action.” – John Dewey, 1895

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