Teacher research

Set up for today’s presentation via Zoom

Today I had the pleasure of being the opening speaker, via Zoom from Perth, at the King’s Institute Research Symposium at The King’s School in Parramatta. In this blog I outline some of the thoughts I shared.

The pracademic

Those working in schools doing post-graduate study or action research, might be considered a pracademics. The word ‘pracademic’ is used to describe those in their field who simultaneously straddle the dual worlds of practice and scholarship, industry work and research. In education, these are the boundary-spanners who operate as the bridge between the worlds of education research and that of classroom and school. We bring a research lens to our work in schools, and we bring lived experience to our writing and research.

Pracademics have a crucial role to play in connecting the dots between scholarly and practical domains in ways that empower those working in schools to meaningfully engage with research and to contribute outwards to narratives about education. This is about speaking out as well as bringing in.

As I reflect on my own pracademia, I realise that since completing my PhD in 2016, while continuing to work full time in a school, I have produced:

  • 8 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals;
  • 6 academic book chapters;
  • 1 co-edited book – Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education;
  • 1 monograph – Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools; and
  • blog posts and opinion pieces.

I have spoken regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas, on podcasts and in radio interviews. I also peer review papers for academic journals and write academic book reviews.

As someone who is employed in a school, this is a kind of moonlighting that occurs in volunteered time. These certainly aren’t things I would encourage all teachers to do, but engaging in or with research does meaningfully inform my practice in my school. My overlapping double roles inform one another. The hybridity of the pracademic provides credibility within the school environment, a  perspective that understands the realities of schools. Those of us engaging in research in our schools bring important contextual, relational and practical knowledge to research.

Teacher research is important

We are operating in an education world in which evidence-based practice is promoted and sometimes expected, and in which the field of medicine is seen as a benchmark against which education should measure itself. Schools, school leaders, and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by research and evidence in our decisions and practices.

We are often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’. ‘Evidence-informed’, ‘research-based’ and ‘data driven’ are buzzwords. They appear in education reports, blogs, media, academic papers, speeches by consultants, books, in school staff rooms and in discussions on social media.

Teacher research and involvement with research is important, especially because so often education research knowledge remains separated from teaching practitioner knowledge. Much education scholarship is written in the structure and language of the academe. Often it resides behind a paywall (at USD$40 per article) or an expensive price tag (at upwards of $200 per book), making it inaccessible for many who work in schools.  Meanwhile, consultants and corporations promote often oversimplified, diluted or misleading solutions to education problems, while claiming that their solutions are based in research. However, as those of use working in schools know, context matters a lot. And the answer to ‘what works?’ is often ‘it depends’.

Teacher research helps us to:

  • make better decisions for our own contexts;
  • include student voice in school change;
  • listen to the voice and experiences of teachers;
  • engage teacher autonomy and agency; and
  • measure the impact of any changes we are making, setting our own success criteria, rather than relying on external metrics.

Teacher research seeks to understand and improve. It does not aim to provide prescriptions, mechanistic approaches, recipes, checklists or league tables. It is about engaging thoughtfully, critically and systematically with evidence, research, our own contexts and our own professional judgement.

Teachers engaging in research and research methodologies means we are applying these to our own contexts, and are also better placed to assess the relevance of other research and evidence we come across. We can make more meaningful sense of the research upon which advice and claims are based. It helps us to be careful of accepting simplified answers at face value. It gives us confidence in our own professional judgement and strengthens our willingness to interrogate claims of ‘the research says’.

Teacher research leads to better outcomes for students

Research cannot and should not tell teachers what to do, but research and other evidence has value in schools and can point us in directions worth pursuing. We improve our schools and our teaching when we integrate professional expertise with evidence and research. It is through practitioner research that we can marry the complex, human work of teaching with a critical, scientific mindset.

Teacher research can help those of us working in schools to make the best decisions for those in our classrooms and communities. It can help teachers and schools decide what is likely to be the best way to invest time and resources.

Practitioner research is an iterative, active, ongoing process that can hone our professional judgments and help to put us in a better position to bring about improved student learning and achievement, as well as other positive school-based results. It requires an ongoing, collaborative commitment to learning, understanding, critically examining what we think we know about what might work in schools to bring about the best outcomes for our students. That is ultimately what we are all here for.

Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

My book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools has a cover design!

For me, the image on the cover speaks to transformation, collaboration, the interaction between the individual and the organisation, the fluidity of identities, the complexity of learning, the non-linearity of growth, and the humanity of education.

It is available for pre-order from the hyperlink above (due for release on 20 September), where you can also read the table of contents and the book’s first reviews.

It is also available for pre-order–in paperback, hard back and eBook versions–from other online booksellers like bookdepository and Amazon.

My editor and I have worked with the publisher to reduce the price of the book from AUD$60 to the more teacher friendly AUD$39.99 (already reduced further by some sites), although some sellers don’t yet have the updated price.

Sharing research in schools through a Research Report

‘The research says’ is often an empty statement used as a basis for an argument for a particular education reform, approach or product. I encourage teachers to ask: What research? Whose interests are served by this claim? Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? How relevant is this to our context?

Dylan Wiliam has recently noted in a TES article that:

“classrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do. Teachers need to know about research, to be sure, so that they can make smarter decisions about where to invest their time, but teachers, and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research – using research evidence where it is available and relevant, but also recognising that there are many things teachers need to make decisions about where there is no research evidence, and also realising that sometimes the research that is available may not be applicable in a particular context…. Evidence is important, of course, but what is more important is that we need to build teacher expertise and professionalism so that teachers can make better judgments about when, and how, to use research.”

I agree that teachers and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research. A number of us additionally participate in research degrees. While research can inform our decision making in classrooms and schools, the teaching profession is a profession of experts, who should be trusted to serve their students and respected for their expertise. Teachers can and should engage with research.

There are a number of ways via which schools can engage in research. I have written on this blog and in my upcoming book about what I call the ‘Research Report’ at my school. I introduced this Report in 2017 as one approach to developing a research culture in a school. It is a document that I regularly publish to the whole staff. This involves everyone—including administration and operations—in our core purpose of education. It illuminates current debates, incites corridor discussion about teaching, and provides bite-size, user-friendly resources for busy teachers and school leaders. I love getting bailed up by a member of the administration team, finance department, executive or teaching staff for a discussion about one of the references from the Report.

The Report is not a place for only long reads or complex academic papers, although these are included when relevant. Often, the research I share is easily accessible via links, and sometimes via podcasts and videos. The report is not a panacea or an echo chamber; I include controversial and sometimes conflicting resources to spark thinking and encourage dialogue.

My Research Report is one small attempt–among a suite of protocols, practices and collaborative structures–to engage staff with research findings, and with systematic and scientific ways of thinking. It is a cogitation and conversation starter, intended to develop a rich and robust professional culture.

While I began in 2017 with two reports per term, I found that this was too much for staff, so now each term I populate one Report that includes three Report sections with around three resources each. Foci are based around strategic priorities and/or current issues. For instance, to align with NAIDOC week, this term’s report included a section on intercultural understanding. I use PowerPoint to collate these together and publish ‘teaser’ quotes for each resource.

I have had some people ask me what these Research Reports look like, so below I have included an example slide deck with snippets of previous Reports. Let me know if it’s of use, or if your school does something similar.

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What do activism and power look like?

Title slide for our AARE 2018 symposium

I have been thinking about a question from the audience during the AARE symposium I chaired and presented in yesterday. The symposium abstract (below) outlined the notion of flipping the education system as a thread connecting the five papers presented.

The education system, in Australia and around the world, has governments and policymakers at its apex, making decisions disconnected from those at the nadir: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. The individuals and groups that wield influence on education policy and practice operate bureaucratically are physically removed from schools. They construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact on teacher agency. This education policy environment was evident in the recent Gonski 2.0 report with its focus on PISA, NAPLAN, and rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ failing generations of Australians. A focus on numbers and rankings contribute to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and a culture of performativity.

This symposium shares perspectives around the notion of ‘flipping’ the education system in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling at the margins, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often side-lined in education discourse and education policy. This collection of diverse papers together makes a compelling case for change in education policy and practice by tackling: elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders; teachers’ perceptions of commercialisation in Australian schools; discourses that silence Indigenous voices in education; authentic engagement between teachers and Indigenous families and communities; and empowering educators to reclaim narratives of schooling.

During the symposium’s question time, an audience member suggested that if we were going to really ‘flip the system’ in education that there would need to be some sort of (Foucauldian) rupture, a traumatic breaking apart of the system in order to rebuild it. He told us that as presenters we were (too) measured and polite in our arguments, something he didn’t see as necessarily able to flip a system. Where was the rupturing, the eruption, the kapow of revolution?

I have wondered before about activism and the forms it takes. Who can be an activist? Is it only those with secure, late-career jobs? Can the early career teacher or researcher really challenge the system in which they work when that can put them at risk of unemployment or further precarity and uncertainty? Does an activist have to look, act and speak a certain way? Can an activist use the apparatuses of power in order to undermine that power, or does she need different tools?

donning the FEAS power dressing blazer

I also wonder what power looks like. This week at the AARE conference, I took part in the Feminist Educators Against Sexism (FEAS) power dressing project, which you can read more about here. Above are two photos a colleague took of me while I was wearing the FEAS symbolic power dressing blazer. In the first, I am laughing as I prepare for the photo, and in the second I am attempting a ‘power pose’. I like the first photo better. I love the symbolism and the gallery of images of the FEAS power dressing project, which show the range of ways women can appear powerful. What I am questioning here is my own discomfort with performing power in a way that might not be authentic. I wish I had worn my favourite red lipstick and laughed at the camera (although I did manage a sardonic raised eyebrow). Power doesn’t have to be a Rosie the Riveter bicep curl or a ferocious snarl. It doesn’t have to be loud, enraged or serious. It can be quiet, comfortable or joyful. Powerful women can and do smile, and enjoy the way they dress and the way they look, as well as their contributions to work and life.

my FEAS power dressing photo (credit: Linda Knight)

In the Flip the (education) System movement—explored in a variety of ways in yesterday’s symposium and in our new book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education—we believe that teaching, leading, researching and writing are political acts. In education, we are all activists. But activism does not have to be violent or deafening. Many of the arguments in the book and in yesterday’s symposium are measured and polite, as our audience member pointed out. Our intention is that a greater range of voices be invited to and heard at the decision making tables of bureaucracy and policymaking in education. In order to be invited in, we need to engage with system level decision makers in considered and convincing ways. We can do that with words and research, not just with placards and protests.

Our book chapters provide examples of resistance that is logical and beautifully articulated. In their chapter, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that international large scale assessments like PISA should not be dismissed. They have a place in the education landscape, but that teachers can be part of engaging with them in order to inform education systems. “Who,” the authors ask, “has better vantage point from which to shape the public debate about quality education than the educators who are constantly striving to deliver it in our schools?” (p. 62).

In her chapter, Rebecca Cody invites school leaders to abandon binary thinking that leads to schools embracing either performative accountabilities, or principles of holistic education. She argues that school leaders can and should ride both these ‘wild horses’ simultaneously.

Melitta Hogarth calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “be more vocal and ‘stand on toes’”, to “unite in our concerns for our children’s futures, demanding a position at the table” (p. 113), but acknowledges the difficulties and complexities inherent in such a call.

These chapters reflect the point made by Nicole Mockler and Susan Groundwater-Smith in their new book, Questioning the language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming language, in which they suggest that it might not be fruitful to argue against concepts such as quality, standards and improvement, but that we can resist and reclaim the way these are used in education. We can focus on growth, collaboration, and professionalism, for instance, rather than using accountabilities as a stick with which to beat teachers and schools.

So, I have reflected on our audience member’s question about the need for a rupture in the system, in order to flip it, liquefy it, and democratise it. We speakers and writers are hyper aware that we are using the structures and language of the powerful in order to speak into this space. Book chapters written in fairly formal English and referencing academic texts could be seen to perpetuate the very system we are attempting to challenge. But we can work to change the system from the inside out.

Foucault, who was mentioned by our questioner, noted that there are occasional radical ruptures, but that more often there are smaller forces or moments of resistance. Those of us within the system can agitate in ways that are dramatic and fierce, but also be in ways that are eloquent and subtle. Revolution and power can come in the form of micro rebellions and the snowballing of a collective voice that is revolutionary in its strength in numbers, in its logic, and in its unwavering persistence to nudge the system towards positive change.

Writing: It’s more than words #AcWriMo2018

some of my writing spots

I’ve slowed my blog writing down this year, but I am writing. I am writing other texts. I am trying to use November—also known as Academic Writing Month or #AcWriMo—to move one writing project forwards.

During #AcWriMo writers often set word count goals, and words are—of course!—important. I have been working towards a word count and counting words in incremental amounts. I have a handwritten list and when I get to a word milestone, I put a satisfying line through it. But there is more to writing than words.

Reading

In order to write words, especially in academic writing, I read as I go. Papers, journal articles, freshly published books. This is so that I know the field within which my writing operates, and so that I can situate my work alongside other scholarship and amongst other writers. Writing-while-reading, going back and forth between the two, is slower than ‘just’ writing. Sometimes it is incredibly slow!

Contribution

I need to be careful that I don’t spend too much time reading and summarising the work of others. After all, my text is my contribution to the field. I need to make sure there’s enough me in my writing. What am I contributing? What do I have to say? What are the takeaways for my reader? I need to remember to put this up front. In one of Tara Brabazon’s recent vlogs, she said ‘don’t bury the lead’. My argument and unique contribution need to be front and centre, not buried in the middle or tacked onto the end. This is a challenge for an early career scholar who sometimes clings to the authoritative voices of others rather than foregrounding her own. As my supervisors said to me late in my PhD candidature: more me, less others!

Structure

I will also need to examine the structure of my writing. Does the text hold together effectively? Do the headings and sub-headings reflect the logical arc of my argument, and the journey through which I am taking the reader? Are all the bits relevant, and does each section of text have a clear purpose? I have been revising structure as I have gone along, but need to continue to be mindful of it. This means zooming out to a bird’s eye or balcony view from time to time.

Editing

Writing is more than churning out words. I can write a lot of words in a short time, but that doesn’t mean they will be good words. They might be edited out later on, or polished to an unrecognisable version of what they were when they flew from the keyboard. I will need to focus on editing, including printing the document and editing with a pen.

It is during the editing process that I am often taken back to a blog post by Pat Thomson, in which she writes …

It’s 7. 30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake.

I don’t want to be the writer sending Pat (or my imagined reader) to sleep. In her hypothetical example, Pat is reading a thesis for examination, but my reader will be reading out of choice, not obligation. How do I help them want to read on through my writing? I need for my writing to be enjoyable, accessible, and with effective personal voice. I need to signpost what I am doing and where the text is going, but not in a way that is laboured and mind-numbing. I need to iron out the clunky and clumsy bits. I need to work on flow and flair.

Onwards

So, I am writing this Academic Writing Month. But it’s not as simple as counting words and hitting quantitative targets. I will approach my writing from different angles and for different purposes. I will remain mindful of my end point and protect regular time to visit my manuscript and pay intentional attention to it.

Happy writing!

Reference lists as sites of diversity? Citations matter.

Last year at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference, I had a coffee urn conversation that has stuck with me. Professor Pat Thomson challenged me on my citation practices, specifically who I cite in my writing around education. I have thought about this brief interaction a lot since then, and it has influenced my academic writing.

I have found myself asking: Who am I citing? And why?

I realised that my academic reading is influenced by my pracademic life, in which I work full time in a school and hold a research adjunct position in a university. I am not situated in a university department, and often come across particular authors and publications because I am exposed to them as an education practitioner working in a school, who engages in professional learning marketed to educators. These kinds of publications are quite different from critical education scholarship that questions normalised knowledge theories and critiques entrenched social structures.

Who we cite positions our work in a field. It aligns us with particular epistemologies and ontologies; ways of knowing and of ways of being. It can polarise us from others. In this blog post, Pat Thomson puts it this way:

Who cites who is not a neutral game.

Since my conversation with Pat, I have been much more aware of my own lack of neutrality, of the ways in which my own citation practices amplify some voices and ignore others. I have been more aware of my potential responsibility as an author to be mindful of not only with whom I situate myself, but whose work I might be ignoring in the process.

This week is NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in Australia, a week in which Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme—Because of Her, We Can!—invites Australians to honour the often unacknowledged stories of Indigenous women. Three Indigenous education scholars whose work I follow are Professor and Ngugi/Wakka Wakka woman Tracey Bunda, Kamilaroi woman Dr Melitta Hogarth, and Wagiman woman Dr Marnee Shay. I wonder how non-Indigenous scholars can cite the work of Indigenous academics. UK independent researcher Dr Helen Kara reflects on her work with Indigenous literatures in this blog post, noting the long history of Indigenous scholarship and the ethical and relational dimensions of engaging with it as a Euro-Western researcher.

Previously I considered things like how recent my references were, or what kinds of texts they covered. I now ask some different questions of my reference list:

  • How does this list situate my work in the field? With what kind of scholarship am I aligning my work?
  • From what nations, cultures and classes do my references come? To what extent do they represent Euro- or Anglo- centric ways of knowing and being?
  • What is the gender mix of my reference list?
  • Whose voices are silent? Whose scholarship have I ignored or excluded?

While during my PhD I tried to read everything I could get my hands on, and find a place for it in my literature review (Look, Examiner! I have read all these things!), writing for journals has helped me to be more judicious in selecting literature as part of an argument and part of a greater research conversation about education. Conferences now avoid all-male panels or all-white keynotes. Can we also approach our reference lists as sites of diversity and inclusivity?

The ‘Flip the System Australia’ book is in production

Flip the System

This week the book manuscript for Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, has moved from the editorial team to the production team at Routledge. It is ‘in press’, which means that the full manuscript will be copy-edited, typeset and a cover designed. You can check out the contents and pre-order it here.

The book is edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I. It includes a collection of 27 chapters by a range of educators, mostly from Australia but also perspectives from around the world. The contributing teachers, school leaders, educators and scholars are: Jon Andrews, Gert Biesta, Susan Bradbeer, Paul Browning, Carol Campbell, Keren Caple, Kelly Cheung, Flossie S. G. Chua, Rebecca Cody, Benjamin Doxtdator, Scott Eacott, Melissa Fotea, Carla Gagliano, Ryan Gill, Dan Haesler, Gavin Hays, Andy Hargreaves, Adam Hendry, Anna Hogan, Melitta Hogarth, Tomaz Lasic, Ben Lewis, Bob Lingard, Rachel Lofthouse, Kevin Lowe, Cameron Malcher, Chris Munro, Deborah Netolicky (me!), Michael T. O’Connor, Cameron Paterson, David Perkins, David Rutkowski, Pasi Sahlberg, Sam Sellar, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Greg Thompson, Ray Trotter, Shaneé Washington, and Daniel Wilson.

What draws the book’s contributions together is their ‘flip the education system’ theme. The Flip the System movement is not our own. The first book in the series (preceded itself by other publications, which we explain in the book) was Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2016). The Swedish version, Flip the system: Förändra skolan från grunden, was edited by Per Kornhall, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2017). The UK version, Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto, was edited by teachers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut (2018). Flip the System is a loose kind of series in which the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ evolves as diverse international voices explore what this might look like.

In previous Flip the System books, the editors and authors have called for a reprofessionalising of the teaching profession; an education system in which teachers are empowered to influence the education system, rather than being dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. When I explained this theme to a colleague recently, their response was laughing out loud. Is the idea, of teachers being empowered to shape the education landscape, laughable?

Certainly it is easy to feel disempowered as a teacher in an education system obsessed with measurement and competition. Education appears to be a political football constantly booted around for votes. It is also an increasingly corporatised arena in which companies peddle solutions and generate relentless data.

Can those in schools—teachers and school leaders, and even students—be empowered agents in the system, rather than fodder for the education machine? We think so.

To give an idea of the kinds of material covered by the book, sub-themes of the chapters in Flip the System Australia include:

  • Democratising education and addressing inequity.
  • Resistance to mechanisms or systems driven by performance, dehumanised measurement, increased competition, and constant edu-surveillance.
  • Replacing top-down accountability with support for teachers and teacher-led, inside-out reform.
  • Teacher leadership, autonomy, empowerment, and professionalism.
  • Elevating the voices of those working in schools.
  • Learning and leading for a system that honours those who spend each day in our schools, including teachers, school leaders, students and families.

As Jon, Cam and I have edited this book, we have realised why teacher voices are often absent from education debates. It isn’t just that teachers are not usually invited to decision making tables, or that they are often placed at the bottom of education power structures. There are ethical dimensions to our work which mean that we cannot always share our stories or give the media newsworthy soundbites. Our stories are also those of our students and our communities, and we are responsible for protecting them. Also, teaching is complex and demanding work, and teachers and school leaders are in the service of their students. Where is the time for contributing to the system when we are busily working inside the system?

We three editors each work full time in our schools. We have written our chapters and edited this book in our ‘leisure time’ (note the ironic inverted commas). I was surprised to realise that while we have each met each other (I have met Jon; I have met Cam; they have met one another), at no point have the three of us been in the same physical room together. The magic of Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Twitter, and Dropbox have meant that we could collaborate from afar, in our own timezones and our own time.

We have done this work, as Flip the System editors and authors have done before us, because we think that this book and these authors have something important to contribute to the conversation on education. We are thrilled to be able to give a platform to teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We are grateful for the generosity of the contributing authors. We know there are voices missing from this book, but we hope the book can be part of a move to diversify the voices to whom others listen around education.

Flip the System Australia is coming. And we can’t wait to hold a print copy in our hands.

You can follow the progress of the book on Twitter via @flipthesystemoz and #FliptheSystemOz.