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?

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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.

Gonski 2.0: Promoting a deficit view of Australian teachers

eroded wall

source: pixabay @aitoff

There are things I like about the Gonski 2.0 report. I have written, for instance, about the promotion in the report of professional collaboration and learning for teachers and school leaders, and the suggestion that teachers need time to focus on teaching, and school leaders need time to focus on instructional leadership over administration. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has previously said that he hoped Gonski 2.0 would be a unifying basis for a focus on evidence-based classroom practice. There is little detail in the report around evidence-based classroom practice, although there is the recommendation for a “national evidence institute to share best-practice and evidence-based innovations faster and more widely.” I would suggest that the report is not a unifying one around which educators can rally.

What has made me uncomfortable is the deficit perspective it provides on Australian schools, teachers and leaders. For example, the statement that Australia has “an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children” seems a stretch. I know ‘industrial model’ is a favourite term from those wanting to push innovation agendas, but anyone in today’s Australian classrooms, from early learning to late high school, knows that they are hardly factories for unthinking worker bees. In fact, the criticism of Australian education as industrial 20th century factories of mass production sits in opposition to the basis of much of the report on economic imperatives and the need to prepare students for the future of work (or perhaps this is what it means to have a 21st century industrial model of education). The focus on data generation, data tracking and accountabilities, if anything, seems to promote education as more machine than human endeavour.

The report’s deficit narrative about education is based on the problem it poses: that Australian education has widespread “declining performance” and “performance slippage” as measured by PISA testing. This is the basis on which the report argues that “Australian education has failed a generation of Australian school children by not enabling them to reach their full learning potential.” Wow. As a number of scholars have argued—such as Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski in their excellent book The Global Education Race—while there are things we can learn from PISA, there is much that we cannot, and using PISA to compare education across different countries is often unhelpful and misleading. Singapore is singled out as an exemplar of PISA achievement, despite the fact that its school cultures, curriculum and education practices are at odds with the Gonski 2 report’s suggestions of learning progressions and individualisation of learning.

The report calls many schools “cruising schools” and explains that these are schools that are maintaining average achievement from year to year, but not improving. The rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ and ‘one year’s growth per year of schooling’ (also prominent in the report) has been used by Professor John Hattie for some time. Yet it constructs schools whose academic achievement remains steady but not improving as somehow coasting along (lazily or incompetently seems to be the implication) without progress, according to NAPLAN data. Apart from the fact that NAPLAN itself has been often called into question as a measure of student learning, the report surmises that “the explanation might be that Australian teachers, schools systems and schools are not equipped to identify and effectively support cruising students and schools to improve.” Here the teachers, schools and entire education system are posited as the reason for schools whose achievement appears steady but not improving, when NAPLAN data is used as the measure of achievement.

The report proposes that Australian education needs to do a number of things that I would argue most Australian educators are already doing: continuously improve our practice and service to our students; set high expectations for students, educators and schools; adjust our teaching for the needs of our students; and—my favourite—“maximise each student’s learning growth each year, rather than simply supporting each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.” That last one is one I am sure many teachers read with a double-take, because I don’t know a teacher or a school who sees their job as to ‘simply support each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.’

Teachers around the country already focus on student data, formative assessment and responding to student needs, something the report promotes as ways forward. Tailored teaching is given a fairly broad definition in the report. It “involves adapting the way the curriculum and learning activities are presented and adjusting pedagogy to the different needs of students based on evidence about the most effective interventions, gained from an understanding of individual students’ starting points and their growth in learning.” The report is hazy on the details of what ‘individualised learning’ and ‘personalised learning’ look like, how personalised it is expecting teaching and learning to be, and how this dovetails with preparing students with the knowledge, skills and understandings they need to be ethical, empowered and contributing citizens.

There are places where the report acknowledges work that has been and is being done in Australian education. It additionally provides Australian case studies of what it considers to be good practice, and direct quotes from submissions it received from various stakeholders, showing that it has listened to Australian educators. It has a whole chapter entitled ‘Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’, but seems to base this on the premise that teachers aren’t currently good enough and need to be improved. It is hard to wade through the Gonski 2 recommendations without feeling like ‘supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’ isn’t really something in which the review panel believes. On reading the Gonski 2 report, it is hard to move past the distrust of the teaching profession underlying its content and the deficit narrative to which it seems to be contributing. Australia is not Singapore, Shanghai or Canada, all education systems held up as exemplars in the report. Of course we can and should improve Australian education. Of course we should have high expectations of students and educators. Of course we should develop our knowledge of effective teaching, learning and leading. Of course we should continue to develop our engagement with research and evidence. But Australian education is not a factory model of mass education production. It is not a calamitous problem to be solved, a bunch of broken individuals to be fixed, or a commercial opportunity ready to be flooded by corporate solutions. Australian teachers, school leaders and schools deserve trust, respect, support and involvement in policymaking.

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 misused or debunked (hello, learning styles and 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.

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’.