Recently, Twitter debate has raged about the values of researchED, and what it has to offer teachers. I have been critical of researchED since I attended the first event here in Australia, and have had a number of concerns and questions, which I will detail in this post. I have concerns regarding:
- The diversity of the speakers, both in terms of the representativeness of speakers on the programs with the general population, and in terms of the fields of research;
- The sources of funding used to keep costs so low, and how this funding affects decisions made about the conference;
- The denigration of education research and initial teacher education by the conference and conference advertising;
- The promotion of deficit discourses of education and teaching, including initial teacher education;
- The use of tactics of division – “us” and “them” – to include or exclude groups of people;
- An ill-defined ‘what works’ agenda; and
- Implicit conceptualisations of evidence that are narrow and positivistic.
Over the weekend, researchED director Tom Bennett has responded to some of these concerns. In his response, he suggested that the diversity of the UK speaker line-ups is now quite close to representative of the general population. But after a question regarding how these figures were calculated, Tom revealed some highly questionable methods of data collection.
Tom also outlined the financial setup of researchED, pointing out that while they have sponsors, sponsors are not involved in speaker selection, and researchED does not collect any profit.
“researchED is driven by moral concerns, not financial ones.”
So, researchED has moral motivations. Like absolutely every other product or process involving humans, researchED is premised on values and ethics. But these are not transparent, and these hidden premises may not be agreeable to everyone. The moral concerns need to be queried when deciding whether or not to attend any conference, including researchED.
What am I expecting from sharing this post, in which I ask questions and share my concerns about researchED? Well, Tom suggested in his post that I’m someone he’s listened to in the past, and I’m hoping he’ll listen to me again. The intentions of researchED are admirable, but I do not feel they are being achieved to the extent that they could be. I feel that researchED is narrow in its view to looking merely at ‘what works,’ and could engage more critically with diverse ideas about what education is and ought to be. I feel that more clarity is needed around the moral concerns of researchED.
Firstly, I remain very concerned by the denigration of education research by Tom Bennett himself, who in his 2015 presentation, lumped education research in with the research conducted by commercial companies financially invested in Brain Gym, and the thin sliver of education research that promotes pseudoneuroscientific concepts such as learning styles (VAK). There is a difference between being critical of education research, and using the poorest of examples to dismiss the entire field of work.
Furthermore, I am concerned about the deficit narratives used as justification for the conference: that teachers are lied to in their ITE, and that education generally is failing. The promotion of deficit discourses about the work of teachers, and the role of initial teacher education, ultimately undermines and deprofessionalises education, schools, and teachers. Can alternative narratives be developed to frame the conference? These narratives do not hold much truth, at least in Australia. Are these narratives needed to justify researchED in Australia? Perhaps the local context needs to be better considered when framing the conference in each country. Local narratives here in Australia could include the tyranny of distance and extreme literacy gaps between communities.
In his blog post, Tom states that:
“our mission is to break things… [education] labours under so many false dogma and uninformed suppositions that in many ways it resembles medicine in the 18th century, when the doctor’s authority was privileged, and his hunch was the final word. Just as medicine finally succumbed to empirical science, so too should education… Bogus fads like Learning Styles and Brain Gym are the least of it; wild, unchecked pseudoscience abounds, untested, unrestrained.”
The claims in this quote are that education is broken: educational activity lacks empirical premises and as a result education itself is stuck in the past. This claim is incorrect. A great deal of education research gathers empirical data, which may be quantitative or qualitative, and this may be purposefully interpreted to describe, or evaluate hypotheses about, education, teaching, and learning. This research is useful for informing teachers’ decisions and vital to grounding teachers in the necessary theory to make robust professional judgements. However, education is not a science. It is social science. It is far too messy, complex, nuanced, and multifactorial to be researched in the same ways as the physical and natural sciences, where in many cases variables can be isolated. The conclusions drawn from education research cannot be expected to apply in general cases to the same degree they are in the physical and natural sciences. It would be better to specifically target the fads which are peddled in schools, rather that sweeping education research aside altogether.
“It is still possible for a teacher to be told that group work is the best way for children to learn, without any consideration of when, and where and how it might be applicable. Teacher talk is reviled, despite the enormous amount of research that suggests that careful, dialogic teacher talk is one of the most effective ways to convey information that is then retained.”
In this quote, it is not explicit who is doing this “telling,” but it is implied that whoever is telling does not appreciate or respect the complexity and nuance of education contexts and relationships between teachers and students. It is also implied that the decision-making capacity of teachers to know when, where, and how to use pedagogical strategies, such as dialogic talk or collaborative or cooperative group work, is denied by these tellers.
This juxtaposition establishes a dichotomous framing of “us” and “them,” where researchED and its attendees are the told – oppressed, but critical thinkers and consumers of research. On the other hand, those who tell are positions as lacking such criticality, nuance, or understanding, while holding all the power. This misrepresents education research that is developed through robust discussions between a multiplicity of education’s stakeholders. For example, in Australia the Australian Research Council has a competitive grant that is only awarded to those researchers who develop links with industry (in the case of education research, that includes those on the chalkface). As such, Australian education researchers are motivated to work very hard to forge links with the wider education community. Maybe researchED could work to ensure the resources developed through this valuable education research reaches more classrooms than just those visited by research teams.
The gap created by dismissing education research appears to be filled by speakers brought from out of field, e.g. cognitive psychology, who use methods that are more positivistic, drawing on interpretations of quantitative data to support claims. These fields have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of how students learn, for example, but cannot be used to replace the more significant body of work that also looks at how teachers teach, how schools and school systems operate, and especially what education is, and what it ought to be.
According to its main website:
“the goal of researchED is to bridge the gap between research and practice in education. Researchers, teachers, and policy makers come together for a day of information-sharing and myth-busting.”
To achieve this goal of improved research literacy for all, researchED must become a place where teachers, teacher educators, and researchers are all welcome, but unfortunately, statements like those in his response serve to promote the “told” while dismissing the “tellers.”
Beyond ‘what works,’ the agenda is not explicit, and this is also problematic. ‘What works…’ for what? A single answer to this question narrows the scope of research that is valued at the conference as only that which measures specific outcomes of education. The answer to this question also premises the selection and prioritisation of speakers, themes, and topics. Interrogation of these beliefs, and the values underpinning them, are hence necessary. The questions of what education is and what it ought to be, and what it ought to achieve, are much larger, messier, and more difficult to answer, but essential to responding to questions of ‘what works.’ I hope that one day the conference will invite discussion to understand education, rather than focus solely on how specific aspects of it function.
Further, what is the definition of evidence that is used to describe ‘what works?’ A very narrow conceptualisation of ‘evidence’ can exclude many education researchers and their research. This is not a good thing; different forms of research and types of evidence are needed to address different questions, especially questions about quality and character.
It would be wonderful to see researchED and its subculture evolve further into a truly inclusive, grassroots conference and community. The low fees for access, and capacity to attract big names and thoughtful speakers, are there. However, the definition of evidence needs to move beyond positivistic conceptualisations, and new themes opened up to understand education, rather than measure it. Finally, more critical questions need to be engaged with, both at the level of the conference itself, and about education.