Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctoral examination limbo: Frozen in PhD carbonite

So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ~ Stephen King, On writing: A memoir of the craft

The irony isn’t lost on me that, the same month I set a blog writing challenge for PhD and other research students (and others in the academic pre- and post- doctoral world), I am struggling to find content for a PhD-related blog post. So, following Stephen King’s above-quoted advice from his excellent On writing: A memoir of the craft, I’ll write about ‘anything I damn well want’; or perhaps just anything that comes into my head as I type. This follows Pat Thomson’s technique (which she also attributes to Ray Bradbury) of writing with a blank screen and a few selected words which spark associations. Pat says it’s ‘writing fast’ or ‘running writing’ rather than ‘free writing’, but I’ll call my approach free writing here, because that’s what it feels like to me. Screen. Keypad. Words. Let them form as they will, then revisit and see what’s been made.

Part of the reason I’m finding a PhD-related post difficult is that I am currently in examination limbo. I’ve submitted the thesis and it’s been posted to three examiners, so now comes a wait of two to six months.

In this limbo period, I’ve got some papers to revise and to write, and I have work, parenting and life which go on. And thank goodness! Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer, has likened completing the doctorate to running off a cliff. I can certainly relate to that, in a Road Runner cartoon kind of a way. My little animated PhD legs are still sprinting even though the thesis is submitted and I’ve run off the edge. Suspended in mid-air, legs madly cycling, I’m grateful to have work to keep me busy, purposeful and grounded.

selfie scribble

selfie scribble

Meanwhile, today as part of the #aussieED Twitter chat, we were asked to ‘sketch note’ an introduction to ourselves. I have declared my love of notebooks in previous posts about my flânerial packing list and on my pre-professional-fellowship art journalling. So I sat with my kids and scribbled some bits and pieces, watching them join together. The interesting thing about the process of thinking-while-scribbling is that thoughts and ideas emerge, seemingly through the very process of the pen scratching across the paper. Before beginning, I hadn’t mapped out what I was going to include. Much like this blog post, which is free-written, I was free-drawing. I surrendered to the moment and watched what emerged. If I did the same exercise tomorrow, or in a week, or a year, I’m sure the result would be very different (there’s a time-lapse video idea!).

And how about free-talking? I am connected with educators and doctoral students on Voxer, and I sometimes find myself using that walkie-talkie app as a useful ‘think aloud’ tool. I find that if I press the ‘transmit’ button and start talking, I don’t know what I’ll say until I’m saying it (sorry VoxSquad for the occasional ramblings). The act of talking aloud helps me to surface my thinking.

What can we learn about ourselves, what internal thoughts can we surface or capture, through the acts of writing, drawing, or talking aloud?

Here I am, in limbo between PhD submission and PhD completion, frozen in carbonite as an almost-Dr (yes – I’m anticipating The Force Awakens and am reminiscing about my favourite Star Wars moments, like Han Solo being unfrozen from carbonite). I’m wondering what might come next. Continuing to work in my current job, at my current school, business as usual? Considering what kind of role might be possible in my present context? Starting at the bottom of the pile, after a 15 year career as teacher and school leader, by dipping my toe in the academe? Heading down a consulting or alternate/indie academic pathway?

I know my current thinking, but I’m open to being carried in other directions. Free-writing, free-drawing and free-talking open up possibilities, so why not free-professional-decision-making? Lay out the materials and see what surfaces.

* This post is for the #HDRblog15 challenge. Join me to blog all things higher-degree-by-research this November!

my PhD notebook stack <3

my PhD notebook stack ❤

Powerful & unforseen consequences: our butterfly impacts

#leaningenvironments - evolution of a new edu-revolution?

#leaningenvironments – evolution of a new edu-revolution?

 A cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland—a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on the Earth—can bring to a standstill the aerial traffic over an entire continent. ~ Slavoj Žižek

With the start of the Australian school year almost here – a year in which I am working to implement the teacher-growth model on which I have been working for two and a half years – I have been thinking about what it is that makes a trusting, impassioned, vibrant community of continuous learners.

Ok, as both the subject of my work and of my PhD research, I have been doing more than thinking about this. I have read close to 300 references and written about 85,000 words around effective school change, what makes effective leadership and what kinds of learning teachers find transformational. I have blogged briefly about some key ideas to anchor school change, about the importance of embracing discomfort for growth and about my own learning environments.

Tonight I was participating in the #aussieED Twitter chat when Australian educator Adriano Di Prato tweeted that ‘developing a leaning environment that is welcoming, warm and safe is a fundamental aim of every classroom.’ Now, I knew that Adriano meant ‘learning environment’ when he typed ‘leaning environment’ in a fast-paced Twitter chat, but it got me thinking: How are schools ‘leaning environments’?

It reminded me of psychologist and professor Ellie Drago-Severson’s notion of ‘holding environments’ (which I wrote a bit about here) in which she asserts the importance of teachers feeling ‘held’ by their learning and working environments, especially if positive change is to take place.

It reminded me of Costa and Garmston’s notion of ‘holonomy’ (explained in the Cognitive Coaching course material) in which the parts (individuals) and whole (organisation) are interdependent.

It reminded me of this great moment last year when a group of commuters on an Australian train platform used their leaning-together momentum to tilt a train and free a man trapped between the train and the platform.

So I tweeted back about ‘leaning environments’, and all of a sudden we were back-and-forthing about how the word ‘lean’ might apply to school environments. Would it be about individuals ‘leaning in’ to the community, to opportunities, towards each other? Could it be about students, teachers, parents and leaders ‘leaning on’ or ‘leaning alongside’ or ‘leaning with’ each other? Might it be ‘leaning out’, away from those things which should matter less but sometimes drive schooling (high stakes testing, grades, league tables)?

the power of a Tweeted typo

the power of a Tweeted typo

Fellow edu-Tweeter Melissa Daniels noticed the banter and asked whether this could be “the education revolution that started with a typo?” leading to another discussion about innovation, revolution and the evolution of ideas, all in 140 character bites.

Tweet @debsnet @DiPrato @PensiveM

This was an invigorating discussion for me, not because I thought it was to be the next big thing in education, but because of the thrill of the unsurprising serendipitous connections, conversations, ideas, thinking and challenges that come out of conversations and connections with like-minded like-passioned others. Here was a vibrant online environment of trusting, holding, leaning (in, out, on, with, alongside), impassioned, creative, continuous learners.

It also reminded me of our unforseen impacts. We never know the impact of a conversation, a word, a decision, or a typo.

I have noticed this in my self, in conversations or moments which stay with me until an idea bubbles to the surface. I have noticed it in my work with teachers and students, who often take some time to realise what moments or relationships have shaped them. I have noticed it in my PhD research participants, many of whom told me that the very act of being interviewed for my research changed something for them, opened something up, surfaced a reflection or became a moment of learning.

So, don’t ignore life’s typos. Even the seemingly tiniest things can have powerful & unforseen consequences.

You never know when you might uncover the next revolution.

Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result. ~ Kevin Michel

Montenegro by @debsnet