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.

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ECR reflections on #AARE2016

welcome drinks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

welcome drinks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

As a neophyte researcher less than five years post doctoral completion, I get to claim the label of ‘early career researcher’ or ‘ECR’. I’ve just this week returned from the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) national conference, which provides excellent opportunities for an Australian early career researcher in the field of education: presenting, attending, connecting and thinking.

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Presenting

I was a last minute delegate at AARE this year, so didn’t present myself, but presenting last year was a highlight. ECRs can present alone (but papers are usually grouped with other thematically-like papers), with other ECRs, or with more experienced academics and professors. These presentations are important in helping to refine ideas and develop thinking, of both audience and presenter. While there are some ineffective discussants and unhelpful non-questions from audience members, discussion time after a presentation can be a great opportunity for the presenter to clarify and extend their thinking, thanks to questions, comments and provocations from the audience.

Presenting is also important for refining the precision and effectiveness of your science communication. How have you titled your presentation? How have you designed your slides? How have you distilled the essence of your paper down to a 20 minute presentation? The decision making required in order to present helps to refine ideas, clarify theory and fine-tune language.

Attending

The sessions at AARE are arranged around a number of Special Interest Groups including: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research; Arts Education and Practice; Assessment and Measurement; Educational Leadership; Gender, Sexualities and Cultural Studies; a number of school-subject specific SIGs; Politics and Policy; various theories and philosophies; Professional and Higher Education; Social Justice; methodologies; and Teacher Education and Research Innovation.

This year I was able to spread my time between sessions relevant to my own research and practice, and those that interested me outside of my normal bubble, such as a session on the intersections and interactions between academia and the media, and a particularly indulgent session on theory and writing, which buoyed and provoked me. That theory session, while not seeming directly relevant to much of my work and research, will influence my writing and the ways I consider research and practice.

One thing that struck me this year was what I learned as an ECR watching more experienced academics. Some of the sessions I attended involved very experienced academics presenting as-yet-unformed ideas. They were sharing and modelling the ways in which they explore a theorist they are reading for the first time, or work through a newborn idea. The vulnerability of these academics–willing not to present the workings-out of their practice and not just the result of layered years of thinking–was a great example to ECRs of embracing what we don’t know. Not only do we evolve as researchers over time, but we can embrace knowing what we don’t know and celebrate working through discomfort to interrogate those gaps.

Connecting

As I attended AARE last year in Fremantle, and I also presented at the AERA (the American Educational Research Association) conference this year, I began to see patterns of those who attend these conferences and those who are active in the research community and in particular SIGs. As I am active on Twitter, there were many additional familiar faces in the room. That’s one thing I love about Twitter – that it allows me to walk into a room in which I’ve barely met anyone, yet feel like I know a number of people.

The AARE conference is a great opportunity to connect with academics across a wide range of Australian and international universities, who approach education research in a variety of ways, through multiple different lenses. Many experienced or well-known academics are very open to meeting ECRs, and most are incredibly generous with their time and their advice. And the great thing about kicking on to dinner with a bunch of researchers is that it’s a wonderful opportunity to go full-nerd and explore all kinds of real and theoretical possibilities in a conversational environment. A Melbourne cocktail or two only adds to the conversation. I can see the potential for many a collaboration or co-authorship to be sparked at an AARE conference.

Additionally, editors from academic publishing firms like Routledge and Sage are at the conference venue, so it is a great opportunity to discuss your book idea.

Thinking

A conference like AARE provides a wonderful opportunity to break from the daily routine and think. While the program is busy, it allows delegates to listen to, cogitate on and talk about those arenas of research and education in which they wish to immerse themselves. The time and space for this kind of immersion and thinking is an excellent opportunity in itself.

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Having been conferred my PhD earlier this year, I am an ECR, but I am also a teacher and school leader. I’m a boundary spanner, a ‘pracademic’, traversing and often transgressing the boundaries between practice and theory, doing and research. The AARE conference allows me to indulge intellectually in the education sphere, and to engage in current thinking in educational research.

I live and breathe teaching and leading for most of the year, but here for a few days I get to engage with multiple lenses for considering and improving that work. What does current educational research have to say about areas of practice? How might I—as teachers, school leader and researcher—positively influence my own contexts, as well as broader narratives of education?

AARE provides the time, space and stimulation to help me do this. No doubt I’ll be back for the next round: Canberra 2017.