Evidence For Learning in Australia

In the UK the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is championed by some as a tool for helping teachers, school leaders and schools to make the best decisions for their students, based on what research and evidence shows. Now in Australia, Evidence for Learning (E4L), powered by Social Ventures Australia and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, is piggybacking on the EEF’s toolkit in order to provide an Australasian equivalent. It is advised by, among others, John Hattie, and is partnering with AITSL and with State education departments to map the toolkit to State education frameworks and the AISTL Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals.

Last year I spoke with John Bush, Associate Director of the Learning Impact Fund, about the toolkit, and this week I attended a breakfast workshop run by Dr Tanya Vaughan, Associate Director for the E4L toolkit and Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) at the University of Melbourne. As the Research Lead at my Australian school, I was keen to hear more about how it was progressing and what it is offering Australian schools.

The aims of the E4L Toolkit

Tanya framed the toolkit as as an instrument for helping great practice become common practice. E4L aspires to make accessible, and develop the rigour of, evidence of what works and why in education, in order to make a difference to learners. That is, it aims to build, share and use evidence to support better decision-making in schools, to in turn lead to better outcomes for students.

The E4L toolkit is free and unrestricted in order to provide all schools with access to evidence of what works best in education, regardless of budget or postcode. This, Tanya explained, will help to address the barriers for teachers engaging with research:

  • Shortage of time;
  • Overload of information; and
  • Insufficient contextualized information for practice.

I would add that much educational research is behind a pay wall in journals inaccessible to non-researchers, or in very expensive books that aren’t affordable for many schools. Tanya was adamant that “front line professionals are the heart and soul of evidence-based education practice”, and that E4L endeavoured to improve communication between professionals and researchers, teachers and ‘the evidence’. This connection between educational research and practice is one to which I am especially committed.

What does the E4L Toolkit look like?

The E4L effect size league table’s Top 5 edu-practices

A first glance, the E4L toolkit shows a set of effect-size league tables of teaching practices, each showing – via symbols – the average cost of implementation, the ‘evidence security’ of the claim, and the average month’s worth of learning impact.

Visitors to the toolkit can drill down into the site. Clicking on a single practice such as ‘feedback’ reveals summaries addressing the following questions: What is it?; How effective is it?; How secure is the evidence?; What are the costs?; and, What should I consider? Clicking further into ‘References’ reveals the studies that sit behind this practice, with abstracts. Some practices additionally have an Australasian research summary.

Tanya was clear that the toolkit presents averages. In fact, it presents averages of averages, or more accurately meta-meta-analyses. While Tanya advocated for mixed methods – including talking to leaders, teachers and students – most of what the toolkit presents are syntheses of meta-analyses and randomised control trials (often considered the ‘gold standard’ of educational research).

The lock rating symbols, showing apparent ‘security of evidence’ are based on the number of meta-analyses beneath the meta-meta-analysis. It is the notion of evidence security and the simplification of ‘what works’ to effect size league tables that has me feeling cautious about the toolkit and its potential use. In attempting to address education practitioners’ shortage of time to engage with research and the overload of research information out there, does E4L provide an oversimplified tool likely to be accepted uncritically by busy educators working in our schools?

What is meta-analysis?

Meta-analysis is a statistical analysis using an equation: the experimental mean, minus the control group mean, divided by the population standard deviation. Simpson (2017) gives us this description of what happens:

“Individual studies report quantitative measures of the outcomes of particular interventions; meta-analysts collect studies in a given area, convert outcome measures to a common metric and combine those to report an estimate which they claim represents the impact or influence of interventions in that area. Meta-meta-analysis then takes the results of meta-analyses, collected in broader fields, and combines those estimates to provide a rank ordering of those fields which make the most difference.”

Simpson’s paper, released in January this year, challenges analogies between evidence-based practice in medicine and education. Treatments in medicine, he argues, are often standard and well-specified, with agreed outcomes which are relatively easy to measure. Education is more nuanced, complex and contextual.

Simpson invokes Eysenck’s (1984) notion of comparing apples with oranges, when he points out that meta-analyses often do not compare studies with the same comparisons, measures and ranges of participants. He contends that aggregated effect sizes are more likely to show differences in research design manipulation than in effects on learners. Bloggers such as Jon Andrews, in this post, and Gary Jones, in this one, have teased out the limitations of meta-analysis as method in educational research. Gary insists that “if teachers and school leaders wish to use effect sizes generated by research to help prioritise interventions, then it is necessary to look at the original research”, rather than relying on simplified lists. Educators need to look behind the curtain.

Snook et al. (2009) argue that when averages are sought or large numbers of disparate studies amalgamated, as in meta-analyses, the complexity of education and of classrooms can be overlooked.  They also point out that any meta-analysis that does not exclude poor or inadequate studies is misleading or potentially damaging. Terhart (2011) points out that by focusing on quantifiable measures of student performance, meta-analyses ignore the broader goals of education.

Meta-analysis is singled out by Wiliam (2016) as an unsuitable technique for identifying the relative effectiveness of different approaches to student learning. He states that:

Meta-analysis is simply incapable of yielding meaningful findings that leaders can use to direct the activities of the teachers they lead.”

Wiliam’s PowerPoint presentation from last year’s ResearchED conference in Washington—titled ‘Why teaching isn’t—and probably never will be—a research-based profession (and why that’s a good thing)’—presents the problems with meta-analyses for deciding ‘what works’ in education. In the presentation, Wiliam reminds us that everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. He encourages us instead to ask: Under what conditions does this work?

Possibilities and reservations

In her E4L Toolkit presentation this week, Tanya Vaughan advocated for trusting the profession to be thoughtful and intelligent and to engage with the research literature that sits behind the seductive league tables of the E4L toolkit. Her call for mixed methods research—for qualitative and quantitative to “play together”—resonated with me. Many methods of research have something to offer the field, and all are limited.

My hunch is that the E4L toolkit has something to offer educators in Australia (as a starting point rather than an answer sheet), and I can see the significant work that has gone into producing it, as well as the good intentions behind it. Yet I have my reservations. I worry that an uncritical acceptance of the toolkit’s content, alluring in its apparent simplicity, will result in an impoverished understanding of ‘what research says’. We are in danger of giving education research lip service, or wading in shallow pools of evidence. The use of meta-meta-analyses as the basis for the toolkit has the potential to over-synthesise limited quantitative data to the point of distorting original findings, and ignore the limitations, qualities and complexities of the synthesised studies.

Everyone from the profession to the media is likely to translate these effect-size league tables into seemingly authoritative soundbites of ‘what works’ without taking the time to consider what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions. If Australian organisations and schools are to embrace the E4L Toolkit as part of their pursuit of having a positive impact on learners and more systematic bases on which to make decisions, I hope they do so with a cautious step and a critical eye.

References

Eysenck, H. J. (1984). Meta-analysis: An abuse of research integration. The Journal of Special Education 18(1), 41–59.

Simpson, A. (2017). The misdirection of public policy: Comparing and combining standardised effect sizes. Journal of Education Policy, 1-17.

Snook, I., O’Neill, J., Clark, J., O’Neill, A. M., & Openshaw, R. (2009). Invisible learnings? A commentary on John Hattie’s book: Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 44(1), 93-106.

Terhart, E. (2011). Has John Hattie really found the holy grail of research on teaching? An extended review of Visible Learning. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43(3), 425-438.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

School leadership and resisting performativity

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. (Ball, 2003, p.216)

We live in an education world that is highly-metricised and focused on hyper-accountability. Students, teachers and school leaders exist in a world in which data and high-stakes testing rule with a policy-clad fist. Countries, schools and students are pitted against each other. The media creates polarising narratives – public vs. private schooling, parents vs. teachers, home vs. school, this country vs. Finland or China. Governments create policies like competitive performance pay for teachers and additional testing.

Sahlberg (2011) frames the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as an viral force of accountability, performativity, and commodification. Ball (2003) notes the panopticism of managing schools; all are watched and simultaneously scrambling to be visible in the ‘right’ ways. Zhao (2016) acknowledges the strong desire for measuring students, teachers, and schools, but argues for treating numbers with suspicion and expanding what is measured in education. Biesta (2015) notes that the view of education as encompassing only academic achievement in a small and selective number of domains and subject areas, is a limited one. He warns:

The problem with excellence is that it very quickly leads to a competitive mind-set, where some schools or some education systems are supposed to be more excellent than others. In my view, the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

This notion of democratisation rather than contestation or commodification is radical in our current edu-climate. Ball identifies institutional self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth as the new ethical systems of education. Heffernan (2016) points out that principals’ behaviour has changed as the focus of schools has shifted towards one led by performative numbers and specific sets of data; principals work to improve data. She cautions against “focusing on improving these specific data sets to the detriment of other, holistic, pursuits in education that are not so easily quantified and measured” (p.389). Keddie et al. (2011) express concern that the narrowing of priorities due to performative schooling cultures has pushed to the margins schools’ focus on social justice and equity. Ball suggests that ‘values schizophrenia’ is experienced by educators whereby they sacrifice their commitment, judgement and authenticity for impression and performance.

Leading in schools is complex at the best and easiest of times. Plenty of scholars have identified the qualities of effective school leaders. One example is Gurr and Day (2014), who in their reflections on 15 stories of successful school principals across 13 countries, identify successful principals as: having high expectations; being both heroic and empowering in their leadership; developing collective, shared vision; taking on the symbolic role of storyteller and sense-maker; embodying integrity, trust, and transparency; being people centred; and balancing instructional and transformational leadership. Navigating these multiple and complex roles is challenging even when everything is going well and there is plenty to celebrate. When things get tough and demanding, leaders are really tested.

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult but unpopular decisions for the greater good of the organisation, for the many, or for the principles of education. Leaders’ decisions can be objected to by those without the big picture context or an understanding of a situation’s complexities. Leaders can listen to others’ feedback and take it on board in decision-making, and they can be as transparent as possible in their communication. (Academic writing, especially the blind peer review process, has helped to shape my acceptance of and willingness to learn from dissenting voices, brutal criticism and those who disagree with me. I’ve applied this in my school context by finding ways to ask for honest, sometimes anonymous, feedback from others in order to inform my practice and the education reform initiatives in which I have been involved.)

Can we adopt Biesta’s call to pursue ‘good education for everyone everywhere’ while also pursuing excellence? Can leaders of schools help to create counter- or simultaneous narratives to those of high-stakes accountability around narrow foci?  I think leaders can buck against the push for compliance, performance and the enterprise mindset. We can choose resistance to performative pressures, although not without a price.

*           *           *

Post-script: Interested in democratising education? This Re-Imagining Education for Democracy Summit, in Queensland in November, could be a great place for presentation and discussion of ideas. It’s being spearheaded by Stewart Riddle, who wrote this 2014 Conversation piece Education is a public good, not a private commodity.

References

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. Eurpoean Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.

Gurr, D., & Day, C. (2014). Thinking about leading schools. In C. Day & D.Gurr (Eds.), Leading schools successfully: Stories from the field (pp. 194-208). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Heffernan, A. (2016). The emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo-liberal times: Performaing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education 37(1), pp. 75-92.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY. Teachers College.

Zhao, Y.  (2016). Numbers can lie: The meaning and limitations of test scores. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 13-29). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

The Research Lead Down Under

candle at the Emu Plains Market

candle at the Emu Plains Market

Schools, school leaders and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by evidence in their decisions and practices, and to be assessed against a range of high-stakes measures. In this kind of education world, schools need to be able to make sense of the measures against which they are being assessed, and have the capacity to generate counter-narratives or alternative data to measure those things that are important for them.

As I’ve alluded to, I have this year begun a new role at my school, which encompasses overseeing professional learning, staff development, innovation and pedagogy. But it also encompasses the kinds of work associated with what UK schools call a ‘Research Lead’: developing the research base and systematic methodologies of the organisation; data generation and analytics; executing evidence-based strategic initiatives; overseeing and developing research and innovation frameworks.

As Hargreaves and Fullan (in Professional Capital, 2012) point out, leading evidence-based school practices and change is a complex process. Having a person dedicated to the curation, generation and communication of research supports everyone from the classroom to the boardroom in making better decisions. A role dedicated to raising the profile and practice of research helps a school to remain agile in response to current educational research; evidence-informed and systematic in its methods; proactive in its processes and communications; and keenly focused on its strategic impacts within the wider context of the global education world.

The Research Lead role has been around in UK schools for a few years, and now there are Research Schools. See, for instance, the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and the Huntington Research School.

As the UK’s College of Teaching noted yesterday, teachers need access to evidence, strategies for understanding it, and opportunities to conduct their own research, not to mention the desire to engage with research in the first place. Access is a real issue, and while there are open access journals, the occasional free paper, and popular dissemination sites like The Conversation and the AARE blog, many teachers do not have the library privileges, money or time to access pay walled journals and expensive books. The Research Lead can be a conduit between research and staff at the school.

The role of Research Lead is explained in this Education Development Trust report, by Tom Bennett. The report positions the Research Lead as gatekeeper, consigliere, devil’s advocate, auditor and project manager. Interestingly, the report notes that schools where Research Leads had made the biggest impact were frequently schools where the role was part of the brief of a senior member of the leadership team. It lists authentic buy-in from senior leadership and a ‘place at the table’ of school life as necessary conditions of the role; the Executive needs to support the role and give it authority, autonomy, time (for the Lead to manage projects and for staff to engage with research) and commitment. The autonomy is partly important for projects and getting work done, but also because the Research Lead might have to sometimes take an unpopular position, or suggest a pause during a time of rapid change; they need to be free to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, the American School of Bombay has a Research and Development Centre. In Australia, examples such as the St Stephens Institute in Perth, the Barker Institute in Sydney, the Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne, the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation at Geelong College, and the Centre for Research, Innovation and Future Development at St Paul’s in Brisbane, show how Australian schools are focusing on centralising and developing research. Just last year, my own role and others local to me were created, incorporating ‘research’ in the title. Some of these roles incorporate learning technologies. Others incorporate student academic achievement and staff learning and development. The research focus is based around the strategic vision and learning principles of each school. In Australia, there is often a focus on generation and innovation (finding out what might work in what context) rather than on prescribing ‘what works’. Teachers are seen by many schools as potential researchers.

So the Research Lead, or equivalent, is advisor, instigator, filter, conduit, provocateur, disseminator, critical questioner, sceptic, creator of partnerships, and builder of a professional culture in which rigorously considering evidence, research literature, and how to measure impacts are an accepted part of the way things are done. The Lead is across and through the organisation, an influence and an advocate for systematic thinking through. As Gary Jones’ blog often explores, evidence-based practice is nuanced and rife with challenges. The Research Lead needs to move beyond lip-service to research and hat-tips to evidence-based practice. They need to be aware of their own preferences, biases, blind spots and deficiencies, as well as the research-and-evidence temperature of the organisation, and how to evaluate and generate evidence and research.

I’m looking forward to shaping the Research Lead part of my own role. As a boundary-spanning PhD-universityadjunct-schoolleader-teacher it is something to which I am deeply committed and about which endlessly fascinated. My nerdery will be put to good use!

The power of clear messaging

Cervantes sign

Cervantes sign

While professional learning is the internal process of knowing, learning and becoming, professional development tends to refer to activities, courses, sessions, talks or conferences that teachers attend, voluntarily or otherwise. While it’s more trendy now to say ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) than ‘PD’, one-off rather than sustained learning continues to pepper the lives of teachers as they and their schools attempt to improve themselves, keep up to date with the profession and meet legal and professional requirements.

The Australian school year has begun, which means that teachers have been given the opportunity to enjoy or endure staff days. Staff days prior to the commencement of the academic year tend to include time for planning, collaboration and setting up classrooms, as well as guest speakers, seminars or the kind of scattergun PD that hopes to land somewhere in the audience and maybe make a difference.

How do schools make decisions as to what kinds of development, collaboration and individual growth they facilitate for their staff? Especially in light of provocative reports like that from the TNTP (2015), The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development, which suggested that we do not yet know what helps teachers to improve the quality of their instruction? The TNTP report (of a two year study into teacher professional learning of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three USA public school districts) found that, despite schools and systems investing time and money into professional learning of teachers, no clear patterns emerged to suggest which deliberate efforts improved teacher performance, as measured by teacher evaluation scores (using the education district’s final evaluation score, calculated using the district’s official methodology).

The TNTP report did note one school system whose teachers and students consistently performed better and improved more than the three public school districts. The report states that this better-performing, teacher-developing system had a more disciplined and coherent system for teacher development, a clear vision of success, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth. Coherent system. Clear vision. Cohesive culture.

This year, my school decided not to invite a dizzyingly inspirational guest speaker or enlist the services of an external expert to run PD with our staff on those days. Instead our focus was on honouring, respecting and utilising internal expertise, and on communicating clear messaging around the school’s strategic priorities for the year. Valuing tacit knowledge and lived professional experience was important, as the strategic priorities were not new, either for the school or in education. The message, from the school executive and senior leadership team, to teachers, psychologists, education assistants and non-teaching staff, was that there are three key priorities for the year, summarised as three simple words. And that none of these was new, but rather things that teachers and non-teachers engage in every day, in and out of their classrooms.

What we aimed to do on our staff days was what Hargreaves and Shirley describe in their book The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change as “explore the nitty gritty challenges of their practice through thoughtful exchanges with colleagues and in relation to relevant research” (2009, p. 93). We provided presentations from internal experts and leaders, including a panel of community members, as well as accessible readings and time for colleagues to collaborate with one another, both in their teams and with others from across the school.

The sense I got from our staff days was that staff were:

  • Relieved at the lack of new initiatives and the deliberate slowness in rolling out current projects; we continue to move forward, but in a measured way.
  • Comfortable with the clarity, simplicity and consistency of the messaging.
  • Grateful to be informed of and included in the strategic direction of the school.
  • Energised by the opportunity to work in a structured way with colleagues, around how the school’s strategic priorities would come alive in their own contexts.

I am often inspired by Ellie Drago-Severson’s work on adult learning, and the notion of the ‘holding environment’ as one of high support and high challenge, where people feel both ‘held’ and encouraged to be their best. Additionally, plenty of literature around school change talks about the need for shared vision, as does the 2016 ACER Professional Learning Community Framework for Australian schools. It is worth considering at length how to share school vision with the community so that it is lived, breathed, understood and propelled by those across the organisation. Everyone from the principal to parents and students have a part to play in knitting a community together around a common purpose. This year, those three words communicated from the executive down are helping to bind our community more closely together with common vision and shared purpose.

5 things I learned in 2016

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

2016 seems to have flown by at a rate of knots. I am so shredded right now that I feel like all of those ‘me at the beginning of 2016; me at the end of 2016’ memes floating around. But instead of a bleak image of end-of-year despair following this year of Brexit and Trump’s election, I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog post with the above sculpture. Part utilitarian shipping containers and part rainbow possibilities. The mundane made beautiful. Take from that what you will.

I figure that maybe if I take stock of what I’ve done and where I’m at, it might help me shed my 2016 skin and slip more freely into the new year. This year I submitted, was awarded and graduated from my PhD. I’ve since been appointed as an adjunct at the university where I did my doctorate, and have also been appointed to a cool new role at my school from 2017. I’ve had 3 peer-reviewed journal articles published, 3 book chapters accepted and presented 8 times at 6 conferences, including AERA in Washington DC. Emerald Publishing made a cartoon abstract of one of my papers. This is my 66th blog post for the édu flâneuse in 2016. I’ve also written for other sites including The Conversation and the Times HigherEd blog. I won an ACEL New Voice in Educational Research scholarship, and an international award for my PhD thesis. I worked a 0.8 FTE load: teaching English, coaching teachers and middle leaders, and refining professional growth and performance review processes at my school. I parented my two boys, who will both be in full time school next year. The youngest was in part time kindy this year, so I’ve had my last term-time weekday frolic with him.

This time last year I wrote about 5 things I learned in 2015. 2016 has thrown up some similar and some different learnings. Here are my top 5.

  1. Carve out a work routine.

I’ve had what has felt like a really busy year. To manage, I have instilled more structure into my work flow. This is about more than my Post-It note system. It means I try to find a regular ebb-and-flow routine, like blogging here every Friday, and carving out time for strategic project work at school, to make time for it among all the operational and relational stuff that fills my days. It also means figuring out where and how to make time for academic thinking, reading and writing.

This #1 point is totally unsexy and eye-rollingly boring, but it’s becoming more and more of a necessity if I’m to manage the work I have coming my way in 2017.

  1. Prioritise breaks for self-care.

One thing I’ve learned this year was something I already knew but seemed to forget: I need regular proper breaks. This year I didn’t carve out enough time for space, family and myself. Time. And. Spaaaaaaaace. A couple of weekenders does not a break make! Also, I have realised, conference travel does not count as a break. Between presenting, rushing around to sessions, meeting up with people and time zone changes, I often came back more exhausted and more behind than when I left. Doing good work that inspires and nourishes me is important. But taking a break from work to regenerate and re-centre is, too.

Watch out, 2017. I have plans for some spectacular holidays.

  1. Support and trust the individual.

In my work in leading professional learning, coaching and performance review processes, I have become more convinced than ever in the need to balance the individual and the organisation, personal vision and organisational purpose, support with accountability.

In particular, I remain despairing about the increasing media and policy focus on high-stakes standardised testing and performative measures for teachers. I’m also increasingly committed to supporting middle leaders in our schools, who are often forgotten between the popular rhetoric of and focus on the teacher and the principal.

  1. Be who you wanna be, yeah.

I continue to do identity work through my writing, my online interactions and my professional engagements. I struggled this year with fitting into doctorly robes after my degree was conferred, but am now enjoying the freedom that comes with being beyond-PhD. Being a post-doc adjunct whose paycheck comes from industry, not a university, means that I can start to play with ideas that are interesting, divergent and experimental. The joy of being an unpaid academic is that I’m not tethered to the world of academic measures and impact factors, so am able to flex my writer-scholar identity, to see what sorts of crazy-beautiful writing I might be able to work towards. In 2017, I hope to continue in my journey to becoming the scholar, writer, teacher and leader I want to be.

  1. Shift the narrative. Make a difference.

I’ve been exploring voice and activism in 2016, and wondering about what those things might look like. Can I be a part—via my work, conference presentations, online writing, scholarly writing, social media engagement—of shifting education narratives? Can I make a real difference, not just to the lives of students and staff at my school, but to the wider system, to people outside of my local bubble? I’m not sure, but I’m inspired by Tolkein’s character of Gandalf who says, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” As a pracademic I’m excited about the synergies between educational research and practice, and I’m hoping my own small, persistent nudges at the narratives of education might make a small but important difference.

Personal and organisational vision

vision

The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision. ~ Helen Keller

A key theme in literature about school change is the need for compelling, coherent, and shared vision. See, for instance, Hargreaves and Shirley’s 2009 The fourth way, Senge’s 2012 The fifth discipline, Fullan’s 2001 Leading in a culture of change or Fullan and Quinn’s 2016 Coherence. For Peter Senge, shared vision is one part of nurturing a ‘fearless and open community inquiry’. For Michael Fullan, not only is shared understanding and purpose of members of an organisation important, but any new initiative must be coherently connected with the culture, mission, and moral imperative of the school in order for the change to be sustained over time.

So vision is important, but in order to propel a school forward it must be shared. While the individual teacher is sometimes the focus of school reform (improve the quality of each teacher’s teaching!), it is collective expertise–in teams, schools and the profession–that can shift beliefs, practices and narratives in education.

We need to constantly consider the symbiosis between individual and group, teacher and school, person and system.

Personal vision, that of the individual, is sometimes overlooked in the conceptualisation of vision in education. Yet educators’ identities, emotions, lived experiences and visions (for the kind teachers and leaders we aspire to be, for the influences we aspire to have on our students and school communities) are an important ingredient in the educational landscape. In her 2006 book Seeing through teachers’ eyes, Karen Hammerness longitudinally explored four teachers’ visions, and how these evolved and were enacted over time. She found that teachers were continually searching for a place that aligned with their visions for their students and their classrooms; they were always looking for a match between their identity and their context.

So schools seek to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while individuals seek to align with their contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.

Schools are more than workplaces; they are organismic settings for learning, collaboration and transformation. At worst, they can be ill-fitting contexts or pits of anxiety. How we feel and fit in our context influences our work and our community, and the experiences of our students.

I’ve written before about Costa and Garmston’s notion of holonomy (see Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools), which draws together the individual and the larger system, whether that be team, organisation, profession or system. Costa and Garmston base their conception of holonomy on Arthur Koestler’s work around the word “holon” as something which operates simultaneously as a part and a whole. The holon is independent and interdependent, disparate and united. Koestler combines the Greek word “holos” meaning whole, and the suffix “on,” which indicates a particle or part, in order to conceive of the holon as a part-whole.

Each person is both independent agent and interdependent part of the group, responsive to the larger system. Holonomous individuals, according to Costa and Garmston, possess the capabilities to maintain self-directedness while acting independently and interdependently; they are simultaneously self-regulating, responsive to the organisation and able to influence those around them. They are flexible and efficacious, simultaneously part and whole.

As I work in my own school in the arenas of professional growth and performance review, we are working towards, not just a shared vision, but also processes, practices and structures that are connected with the through-lines of our personal and organisational visioning, our shared beliefs, values and purpose.

Aligning what schools do with shared vision and purpose can be challenging work, requiring constant focus and attention to the relationship between intent and enaction. There are tensions to navigate if a school’s vision is at odds with external measures and expectations. Or if a school’s vision is at odds with those of its individuals.

How might schools find ways to address tensions between their contextual purpose, and an educational system that might rub against their grain? How might schools draw individuals into personal and organisational visioning? How might we each continue to kindle our internal purpose, that of our colleagues and that of our profession? I have some answers for my own context, but am continually asking these kinds of questions.

Research-informed education practice: More than lip service and shallow pools

stromatolites in shallow pools

stromatolites in shallow pools, Shark Bay

In a variety of educational contexts I have recently heard everyone from keynote speakers to respected educational practitioners talk about research in education, especially the notion of bringing a knowledge of research into schools.

The general gist of what I’ve been hearing is ‘we need research-informed practice’ and ‘we need to look to the best research to inform decision making in schools’. These are statements I absolutely agree with, but digging a little deeper has led to disappointment. When people have gone on to explain what they mean by those fashionable sweeping statements, they have mentioned one or two researchers or studies of which they are aware. These oft-mentioned authors or studies seem to be those that are highly promoted, wheeled out by well-funded organisations or publishers, or neatly packaged into half-day workshops or laminated sheets. Some are those promoted as a one-stop-shop of what works in education: the simple answer for which we’ve all been searching!

The problem is that education is not simple, and neither is research. Learning, teaching and school leadership, are highly complex and contextual. There can be no simple answer, magic wand, silver bullet or laminated sheet of pretty-looking graphs that can transform education. (I was, however, recently challenged to have a go at thinking about in which directions we might look in order to improve teaching and learning.) As Dylan Wiliam suggests, research can point us in profitable directions, illuminating those interventions on which we might best spend our time.

Research, too, is highly complex and multifaceted. To engage effectively with research, educators need to understand its limits and what it can offer. All research is limited. I’m well aware of the limitations of my own research. I know my research has something to offer, but that offering is a small nudge, a keyhole insight, a singular thread in a tangled web. Academic writers are constantly delineating the parameters of their work; what their work has done and can show, and what it hasn’t done and can’t show. Each study or paper or chapter illuminates a different part of the tangled web of research in education.

As educators teaching, or leading teachers, we need, not just to be able to spout a couple of scholarly names, assert that ‘so-and-so tells us that X doesn’t work’ or make decisions based on appearing to engage with research. We need to engage with, pore over and deeply interrogate—with a critical eye—a range of research. Jon Andrews points out that deeply influential people who penetrate huge educational conversations and decisions may be going unchallenged by the profession at large. Marten Koomen traces some of these influential figures and their spheres of edu-influence.

John Hattie’s meta-analyses are often referred to in education circles as examples of research that tells us what works; it is certainly his name that I am currently hearing most often in schools and at conferences. I respect Hattie’s work and that there are things it can tell us, but am skeptical about the ways in which it has been universally adopted as a ubiquitous beacon of research light in the edu-darkness. Dylan Wiliam, in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, discusses the limitations of meta-analyses and their application in education, cautioning that “meta-analysis is simply incapable of yielding meaningful findings that leaders can use to direct the activities of the teachers they lead” (p. 96). Snook et al. and Terhart also present critical perspectives on Hattie’s book Visible Learning. This is just one example of how a particular set of results has become so widespread that it unquestioningly becomes part of the fabric of edu-talk.

We can’t pat ourselves on the back for unquestioningly consuming the most pervasive or seductively-packaged research. Gary Jones’ blog is a good place to start for those looking for considered sense-making around how schools might interact with research.

I am committed to playing a part in bringing the worlds of research and practice, theory and action, academia and schools, meaningfully and purposefully together so that they speak to and inform one another. It’s why I am pleased by the schools in Australia embracing school-university partnerships and internal roles like Head of Research. This recent report (by Tom Bennett, featuring Alex Quigley and Carl Hendrick) tracks some of the impacts, successes and challenges of Research Lead roles in schools in the UK.

I believe that schools can lead and generate research. They can develop roles and processes that bring critical organisational mindfulness to the movable feast of edu-research and how practitioners might navigate, probe and be informed by it. Let’s do more than wade in shallow pools of research literature or pay lip service to being research-informed. Instead, let’s find ways to lead and embed research thinking and informed decision making into the fabric of what we do.