Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

Beware the great wall of research. Proceed with caution. (Taken in George Town, Penang.)

Tonight’s #aussieED Twitter chat has been advertised as talking about ‘bad research’ and ‘good research’, and also asking ‘where can a good teacher turn?’ for research. The topic of research in education is a popular one. Teachers are encouraged to use evidence-based and research-informed practices. They are encouraged to know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been debunked (hello, learning styles and other neuromyths like ‘we only use 10% of our brains’ and left/right brain learning). Education researchers seek to disseminate their research to the profession. Some organisations seek to bridge the gap between education research and practice. Yet a gap remains.

What barriers are in the way of the teachers and school leaders accessing research to inform their practice?

  1. Time. Teachers and leaders in schools are busy. So busy that often their wellbeing and mental health suffers. It is extremely difficult, especially in the face of multiple accountabilities, for those working in schools to find the time to trawl through academic journal articles and lengthy books in order to decipher research and ponder its relevance to their daily work.
  2. Access and cost. Most academic journal articles are behind a paywall and many academic books have a hefty price tag often well over $100. I have written for both, and the irony is that credibility in the academy is based on publishing in these kinds of texts, yet these are the least accessible for practitioners.
  3. Misrepresentation. The media often misrepresents education research, publishing catchy or sensationalised headlines and simple messages that ignore the complexities or realities of education research. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that flipped learning was ‘a new teaching method’ that might be piloted in Australian schools, despite the fact that Australian educators have been using (or intentionally not using) flipped learning for more than ten years. Meanwhile, education terms like ‘growth mindset’ become ubiquitous and meaningless. That is, everyone uses them without ever having engaged with the original research or the responses that have come since.
  4. Simplification. There are dangers to pushing an evidence-based ‘what works’ agenda. Firstly, as Dylan Wiliam so often says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. But simple league tables of ‘what works’ in education abound. On the one hand these seem useful summaries of research for time-poor teachers, yet they are tools that can be misused and misunderstood if educators do not draw back the curtain to look behind the summaries to the research on which they are based. Meta-analysis mixes together multiple studies in a way that over-simplifies or misrepresents the research on which it is based. For a longer explication, see my extended discussion of meta-analysis in education.
  5. Commodification. There is money to be made in the big business of education. ‘Research’, ‘evidence’, and ‘data’ have become sloganised and used to promote books, professional learning opportunities and conferences. There is a fine line to walk between providing support to the teaching profession by making research accessible, and the corruption of message and purpose that happens when people seek to make money from it, focusing on sales and branding over the authenticity and credibility of what is on offer.

So, what’s the teaching profession to do? Where can we turn when much research is either inaccessible or so multitudinous that it is impossible for the average professional to wade through and find meaning? When the media and some companies or edu-experts are promoting and selling (often contradictory) silver bullets that are too good to be true?

  1. Provide teachers with the questions to ask about research. Context matters, for instance. Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? Method matters, too. How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? Via which methods were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? What can the study tell us, and what is it unable to tell us? For instance, randomised control trials (RCTs) minimise bias and are often cited as the gold standard of research, but have their own limitations and are not the most appropriate vehicle to answer every research question. A multiplicity of research approaches gives us diverse ways of understanding education, but we need to interrogate the approaches and arrive at conclusions with caution.
  2. Do post-graduate study. Of course this option is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be a necessity for teachers, but being a Masters or doctoral candidate does provide library access as well as developing an understanding of a variety of research methods.
  3. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  4. Build a professional reading repository for your school, district, or system. This might include subscriptions to practitioner or academic journals (e.g. Australian Educational Researcher, Learning & Instruction, Journal of Educational Change), as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia (MCERA), the imminent researchED Magazine, Australian Educational Leader, and the UK Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact.
  5. Engage with blogging and online publications. Part of the reason I blog is to give back and contribute to the education community. I work in a privileged school that has the resources to put me in a role where I get to read, write, research, design professional learning opportunities, work with teachers, and help others to do the same. My blog, along with others such as that of the excellent and always-sense-making Gary Jones, seeks to illuminate and summarise research for a practitioner audience. Blogging also engages an audience of international colleagues whose feedback and challenges help to shape my thinking. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blogThe Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners.
  6. Engage with academics and universities, via professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.

At this time two years ago I was attending the American Educational Research Association conference in Washington DC to present on my PhD research. I have attended three Australian Association of Educational Research conferences. I am a research-immersed practitioner. Alongside my full-time school leadership role (in which I also teach English and Literature), I am a research adjunct at a university. I engage in both research and practice. This road, however, is always a winding and imperfect one. Teachers, school leaders, researchers and education commentators need to work together to understand and enact education research and its implications.

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METAMORPHOSIS and emerging from the chrysalis: #oneword2018

taxidermy butterfly left to me by my scientist grandfather

It’s that time of year when we’re recovering from the holiday season and gearing up, or regenerating, for the new year. It’s a time, often, of reflecting on the year that’s been and planning for the year ahead. For the last few years I have used a ‘oneword’ to clarify my intent for my year. While I sometimes forget the oneword intentionality I have set, especially when life is at its busiest or most pear-shaped, mostly I find that choosing a single word allows me to bring a mindfulness to my year that is based on an essential focus to which it is easy to return across a year.

In 2015 it was CONQUER, as I worked at a ruthless pace to submit my PhD in between parenting my two young children and working 0.8 at my school.

In 2016 it was MOMENTUM, as I tried to capitalise on my PhD through lots of presenting (including at AERA) and writing from my thesis, still in the spaces between life and work.

In 2017 it was NOURISH, as I worked to clarify my work and life by focusing on that which nourished me.

On 2017 …

In 2017 my oneword embodied itself in multiple aspects of my life. As my youngest child entered full-time school, I returned to full-time work that has been nourishing in its focus. That is, I’ve been grateful to spend my time in areas of passion and purpose: teacher professional learning, building a research culture, focusing on staff development, and leading the Library, as well as teaching English.

In 2017 I have said ‘yes’ to projects because they are nourishing experiences for me, or because I have been burning to say something. My formal 2017 publications, for example, have been:

I have also joined the Board at my children’s school, and become a member of Evidence for Learning’s Research Use and Evaluation Committee. These commitments are about contribution, giving back, and making a difference; through them I receive the nourishment that comes from doing something worthwhile.

In 2017 I have spent nourishing time with my family, including a couple of lovely holidays. I have been seeing a new personal trainer whose strength and conditioning sessions have meant that my regular three-day-long headaches seem to have disappeared. Working with him has meant looking after my body, paying more attention to it, and getting stronger.

To 2018 …

2018 is around the corner and I’ve been considering what might be my fundamental intention for a year that already feels like an ending before it has begun. The end of 2018 will mark 10 years since I returned to Australia from the UK. That decade is a time in which I have had my two children, from pregnancy to babies to primary school students. It’s the decade in which I completed my PhD. The end of 2018 will mark a full decade of working at my current school (well and truly my longest ever period of employment). And at the end of next year I will have a zero birthday. The years from 2009-2018 feel like a chrysalis from which I will emerge at the end of next year. (I’m no doubt influenced here by the book I’ve just finished: Stephen and Owen King’s 715-page novel Sleeping Beauties in which women around the world are falling asleep indefinitely and being cocooned in mysterious chrysalides.) This seems a perfect time for looking back and looking forward.

On Twitter it was a close race ….

For 2018 I have considered the word CREATE because I have some projects I’m keen to progress. I have considered STRENGTH because I would benefit from focusing on the strength of my body as well as the strength of my advocacy for others and perhaps for myself. But I am going to tackle a more complex and messy word this year: METAMORPHOSIS.

It’s not that I think 2018 will be filled with transformation. In fact, it’s more likely to be about consolidation and simplification (think Marie Kondo’s KonMari method applied to life, or perhaps Sarah Knight’s life-changing magic of … ahem … figuring out what not to worry about). METAMORPHOSIS isn’t just about change. It isn’t that I think I’ll grow proverbial wings in the space of a year. But it is about development and moving on to another stage. For me that stage is mid-teaching-career, post baby-having, post-PhD stage. It’s time to figure out what ‘mid’ and ‘post’ look like when they are my ‘now’.

METAMORPHOSIS is also about letting go. It is about shedding old skins, old bodies, old habits, old values, old dreams. It is about considering what I want to take into my next decade, and what I’m willing to leave behind. After a few packed but fragmented years, full of simultaneous, competing, overlapping commitments (teaching! school leadership! PhD! academic writing! presenting at conferences! pregnancies! parenting! moving house! all at the same time!), it’s about re-assessing how I am spending my time and considering where it might be that all my endeavour is leading me.

The questions I will ask in 2018 in order to be mindful of METAMORPHOSIS in 2018 are:

  • What might flight, freedom, joy, and purpose look like and feel like for me?
  • How might I imagine the next decade and what might I need to do to get there?
  • What do I want to focus on doing and what can I stop doing, or do less of, in order to fulfil that focus?

The Australian Association of Research in Education conference: Reflections on #AARE2017

snapshots of my AARE 2017, in Canberra

AARE provides a crucible for communicating, and sometimes collaborating around or arguing about, current thinking around education and education research. For many it also provides permission to stop and be immersed in their research field in a more collective way; time and space for thinking individually and together, and opportunities for challenging conversation and building lists readings. I believe that it is an important conference to consider for those like me (school-leader-teacher-and-researchers), as I explain in my reflection on the conference last year.

This was my third AARE.

In 2015 I presented in what was then the Narrative Inquiry SIG (now the Qualitative Research Methodologies SIG). Last year, in 2016, I made a late decision to attend the conference due to my new role at my school, so was purely a passenger in terms of the content of the conference. This year I presented twice, once in the Educational Leadership SIG and once in the Teachers’ Work and Lives SIG. The titles of these presentations have been:

  • Using extended literary metaphor and characters as analytical and conceptual tools: Creating a layered storyworld while preserving participant anonymity;
  • The Cheshire Cat: Redefining the school leader through unexpected metaphor (in a symposium titled ‘Slaying the edu-hero: Metaphors for alternative ways of leading’); and
  • What shifts the identities and practices of teachers and school leaders: Expanding notions of professional learning.

These titles reveal something of the broad but interconnected nature of my scholarly interests thus far. I have, in my presentations and conference presence, been a ‘SIG swinger’, attending sessions from multiple Special Interest Groups rather than committing to one common thread throughout the conference. Sometimes it is attending a session from well outside of my own areas that sparks in me the kernel of a way to think about something differently. Those presentations within my area help me to better understand the field and consider the place of my own work in the context of others’. As someone working in a school, attending AARE helps to keep my understanding of what’s happening in Australian education research current.

The sessions I attended this year were rich. They revealed scholarship that was rigorous, but also showed researchers grappling with the complexities of their work, and with the education world in and with which we all exist.

My own presentations were opportunities to communicate and publicly explore my scholarly work, but also to be invited by others to re-see or re-think my work. Some comments and discussion during my symposium on educational leadership challenged my symposium group to think critically about the lenses we were exploring, adopting, and playing with, in order to consider whose voices or perspectives are being omitted or marginalised in the process. We were challenged to see more clearly our own embedded socio-cultural biases and assumptions, that show themselves even when we attempt to work against them. There was also some great discussion in the individual paper session I presented in, around professional learning, teacher voice, relational trust in schools, teacher time, and school resourcing.

My reflections have been that this third experience of the AARE was the best yet, for me. But since the conference ended yesterday, I have been trying to figure out why that is.

As it is my third conference, I recognise many scholars in the conference, and this spills over into conversations over breakfast, coffee, lunch, and dinner. So the conference program (as is so often the case) is only one layer of learning, thinking, and conversing; much of the discussion happens in the in-between conference spaces. It was these liminal conference spaces that were particularly rewarding for me this time around. Between my attendance at AARE and AERA over the last few years, my academic writing, my academic collaborations, and my blog, now when I connect with delegates at AARE, people are able to engage with me about my research, my thinking, and my writing. At this conference, delegates (including early career researchers school-leader-scholar-boundary-spanners like myself, and professors) engaged me, questioned me, encouraged me, and directly challenged me. This is not about fan clubs, echo chambers, or discourse communities. It is about being in a critical community, unafraid to be critical, to push back, to resist, to trouble, to reveal, to be uncomfortable with one another.

Incidental conversations and provocative paper presentations now bubble in my mind as I turn over possibilities for future work, and questions about my reading, writing, and myself as a scholar. The AARE conference can provide space for the time and permission to think and talk about scholarship and education in a community of national and international scholars from various institutions, career stages, and -ologies. It is also a site of scholarly being, knowing, and doing.

Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.

Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

Digital Pedagogy

source: pixabay.com

I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.

Education Gurus

It’s easy to make your own guru memes with Canva.

Knowledge and advice for schools and about education often seem to exist in a world of commodification and memeification. There is plenty of disagreement and debate in education, and plenty of competition on bookshelves and in conference programs. Educators and academics position themselves as brands via bios, photographs, and certification badges. As an educator and a researcher I have those whose work I follow closely; academics, for instance, whose presence affects me when I meet them because their reputation and body of work precede them.

In education, we have perceived gurus. These are people who have become ubiquitous in education circles, at education conferences, and in education literature. Teachers and school leaders scramble to get tickets to their sessions and to get photographic evidence of having met them. Their words are tweeted out in soundbites ad infinitum (or is that ad nauseum?), and made into internet memes. Sometimes these individuals partner with publishers or education corporates, and so the visibility and reach of their work grows. They become the scholars or experts most cited in staff rooms, at professional learning water coolers, and in job interviews when asked how research informs practice. 

Sometimes, these gurus are teachers or principals who have gained a large following on social media and subsequently a monolithic profile. Often, they are academics who have built up bodies of work over many years, becoming more and more well-known along the way, and eventually being perceived as celebrities or gurus. Yesterday I had the pleasure of learning from Dylan Wiliam, firstly at a day long seminar, and then at my school. At one point the seminar organisers apologised for running out of Wiliam’s books, acknowledging the desire of delegates to have the book signed.
Marten Koomen has traced networks of influencers in Australian education organisations. In his new paper ‘School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie’, Scott Eacott challenges the rise of the edu guru, those academics whose work is ubiquitous and influential to the point of being uncritically accepted and canonised. Eacott pushes back against the ‘what works’ mentality in education, in which educators are sold ‘what works’ and encouraged to slavishly apply it to their own contexts. Jon Andrews, too, questions the unquestioning way in which the loudest and most prominent voices become the accepted voices. Meta-analysis and meta-meta-analysis, often translated into league tables of ‘what works’ in education, have been the subject of criticism. George Lilley and Gary Jones have both questioned meta-analysis on their blogs. I’ve written about cautions surrounding the use of meta-analysis in education, especially when it drives clickbait headlines and a silver-bullet mentality of having the answers without having to ask any questions. Yesterday Wiliam made his oft-repeated points: that everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere, and context matters. A guru cannot provide easy answers in education, as education is too complex and contextual for that.

taken at AERA last year

Much of this conversation around the rise of the edu guru has surrounded John Hattie, although he is by no means the only globally renowned education expert likely to make conference delegates weak at the knees. I was personally uncomfortable when he was beamed in via video link to last year’s ACEL conference and began to give an ‘I have a dream’ speech about education. As an English and Literature teacher I understand the power of rhetoric and analogy to persuade and inspire, but appropriating the legacy and words of Dr Martin Luther King Junior seemed a way to gospelise a personal brand of education reform.

I don’t think that education experts, no matter how influential they become, should encourage the uncritical acceptance of their ideas as dogma, or present themselves as the bringers of the One True Thing To Rule All Things of and for education. As Dylan Wiliam, channelling Ben Goldacre, repeatedly said yesterday, “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.”

I wonder how perceived gurus feel about being guru-ised by the education masses. In part the famous and the infamous in education are so because of their actions: accepting more and more speaking gigs, performing the game of publishing and promoting their work. Most, I would guess, do this for the same reason someone like me speaks and publishes. To contribute to education narratives and change those narratives, hopefully for the better. To be of service to the profession and the field. To explore and wrestle with ideas, trying to find ways to make sense of the complexity of education in order to improve the learning of students and the lives of teachers and school leaders.

I wondered about the rise to gurudom and the moral obligation of the academic celebrity figure last year when at AERA I saw a panel in which four educational heavy hitters—Andy Hargreaves, Michael Fullan, Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch—all advocating for the moral imperative of educational research and practice. They spoke of lifetime journeys of work intended to make the world a better and more just place. I wondered at the time about how much an early career academic can be brave and resistant in their work, as they try to build a career via the performative pressures of the academe. Can only the guru, free from institutional performativities and the financial pressures often associated with early career academia, say what they really want to say and do the work and writing they really want to do?

I don’t think experts in education are dangerous. We need expertise and people willing to commit their lives and work to making sense of and making better the world of education and learning. But in a world where teachers and school leaders are busy racing on the mouse wheels of their own performative pressures, we need to figure out ways to support and facilitate sceptical and critical engagement with research. Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically. The danger comes when experts become so guru-fied that the words they use become part of an unthinking professional vernacular, used by educators who haven’t looked behind the curtain or beneath the book cover.