Reflections on researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

I’ve landed back in Perth after a whirlwind trip to Melbourne for this year’s researchED conference. This post is an attempt to unravel the tangled threads in my head, after what was a big day of thinking, listening and talking.

On coaching: Our panel

Being on a panel with Corinne Campbell, Chris Munro and Jon Andrews was the highlight of the day for me. That included not only the panel presentation but the opportunity to be in the same place, at the same time, able to flesh out our ideas about coaching together (as well as plenty of other educational issues).

Founder of researchED, Tom Bennett, saw the four of us working together early in the day and joked that it was like four Avengers coming together in one movie. That struck a chord with me, because we are four individuals deeply committed to making a difference in our own contexts, in four different Australian cities. But we’ve come together across social media time and space to collaborate on #educoachOC, a monthly Twitter chat on coaching in education, which aims to centralise, clarify and tease out the global conversation around coaching in schools. I met Corinne and Chris for the first time at last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, the first Australian iteration. I hadn’t met Jon until yesterday, yet we’ve been collaborating for months, and talking about practice, writing, leadership and coaching.

So getting together with my fellow Avengers was like landing in my nerd heartland for a day. We are, however, less about avenging and more about advocating for supporting teachers and trusting in their capacities for improvement. Coaching was revealed in the panel discussion as an enhancement and growth process, not a deficit model for fixing underperformers.

Our panel seemed well-received, and I learned from my fellow panellists as we covered what we mean by coaching, why each of our schools adopted coaching, what it looks like in each school, the impacts we’ve noticed, and the broader implications for coaching in schools. We explored issues of trust, implementation and mandation. We considered the conference theme: how coaching might fit with ‘working out what works’. On the one hand coaching does not prescribe ‘what works’ to coachees, and yet coaching has been shown to work. It is a researched but contested approach to learning and growth, with coaching models varying in intent and execution. Coaching is about practitioners being given the time and space to work out what works, for them, in their contexts.

On research ethics: My presentation

My individual presentation was on a topic I later described on Twitter as the unsexy undergarments of research: ethics. Necessary and crucial, but often viewed as unexciting. I looked at ethical considerations and decision making, for teachers researching their own schools, using my PhD study as an example.

I shared this quote from Helen Kara’s book Creative research methods in the social sciences:

Ethics should underpin every single step of research, from the first germ of an idea to the last act after dissemination. And ethical problems require ethical decision-making – which allows for creativity.

Here, Helen reminds researchers that ethics is creative problem solving. It does have to be well-considered, systematic, respectful and just (see the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research), but it doesn’t need to be tedious.

I outlined the ethical challenges in my PhD, and the ways in which I grappled with those and made decisions. My operationalising of ethical solutions included writing information letters and consent forms; using an independent interviewer to interview teacher participants (and a rigorous approach to protecting teacher identities); designing deliberate interview protocols; drawing data together into composite stories; and utilising metaphor to protect participants while making interpretive meaning.

I discussed the benefits and limitations to being a researcher embedded in one’s own context. Below are the implications and questions I ended with.

Evidence-based practice in education

Among other presentations, I saw two on using evidence and research in schools, one by Gary Jones and another by Ray Swann. What I enjoyed about both approaches to evidence-based and research-informed practice in schools, is that they promoted valuing of not only the ‘best available evidence’, but also the wisdom of practice of teachers and school leaders. That is, they valued tacit knowledge and the expertise that comes with lived experience. They also acknowledged the value-laden and culturally-influenced nature of using evidence in schools. I think these are important layers to understanding what works in schools, and how schools can work towards finding what is shown to work in other contexts, and how they might therefore pursue what works in their own.

What I enjoy about Gary’s work is that he provides explicit frames for applying systematic approaches to evidence-based practice. He manages to make sense of the complexities of evidence-based practice, in order to communicate it with clarity, and in a way that educators can understand and apply. I recommend reading his blog and his handbook for evidence-based practice.

The researchED Avengers?

Thinking back to Tom’s analogy of the Avengers, the crowd at researchED is kind of like a room of fantastical superheroes. Here were close to 200 educators—teachers, school leaders, researchers and professors, each with their own individual gifts, talents, passions, stories and arenas of expertise—spending their Saturday dedicated to learning, connecting and talking about working out what works in education. There were some great questions from the audiences in the sessions I attended. Those that got me thinking included:

“Who decides what the ‘best available evidence’ is and how do they decide?”

“Where should coaching happen and how long should a coaching conversation be?”

“If you were start your research again, would you make the same decisions?”

There were also great comments, questions and provocations from those educators on Twitter who were engaging with the conference hashtag from afar, adding another level of richness to the online and offline conversations.

When Dylan Wiliam popped into the speakers’ dinner, it added a further layer to discussions. Here was another educator coming out to talk education on a Saturday night, after coming straight from presenting at a national conference, and before getting up the next day to present all day again. For me, it was great to be able to discuss his new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning, the use of the Danielson Framework for Teaching, and performance pay.

Tom describes researchED as built on and powered by (I’m paraphrasing and embellishing here) blood, sweat, volunteers and fairy dust. That is, those supporting this conference, around the world—including participants, presenters and schools—care deeply about education. These are people dedicated to making classrooms and schools better places for better learning.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conversation for the second year in a row. I’ve been left with plenty to think about.


And some more reading …

You can see my reasons for attending researchED Melbourne 2016 here.

Jon Andrews has shared his reflections on Melbourne’s researchED here.

Pamela Snow has written this post about her presentation at yesterday’s researchED on justice re-investment.

Greg Ashman wrote this post about his day at researchED.

Gary Jones wrote this post reflecting on Melbourne’s researchED.

Susan Bradbeer has written this post about her experience of researchED from afar, as someone who followed the conversation on social media and the blogosphere.

Tom Bennett had some reflections after the Melbourne event, published here on the TES blog.

You can see my reflections on researchED Sydney 2015 here.


Why I’m going to researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

Research evidence is essential to the task of improving outcomes for young people, but research will never be able to tell teachers what to do, because the contexts in which teachers work are so variable. What research can do is identify which directions are likely to be the most profitable avenues for teachers to explore. ~ Dylan Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, 2016

Why would a Western Australian fly to Melbourne for a one day conference? Here’s why researchED is drawing me to the East this May: cognitive conflict and robust discussion around educational matters.

In drawing together academics and education practitioners working in schools, researchED conferences are less about transmission of information and more about provocations and conversations. researchED’s tagline is ‘working out what works’, and those that gather at its events around the globe are interested in working out what works in education, for the benefit of the world’s children. The website tells us researchED’s mission:

researchED is a grass-roots, teacher-led organisation aimed at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education, getting the best research where it is needed most, and providing a platform for educators, academics, and all other parties to meet and discuss what does and doesn’t work in the great project of raising our children.

Whether individuals come from Australia, Europe or the USA (all locations where researchED events have been held) they share the goal of bridging the gap between research and classroom practice.

As Dylan Wiliam points out, research cannot tell teachers and schools what to do, but it can inform the decisions educators make, and help them follow trails most likely to be beneficial for their students. Tom Bennett, the founder and director of researchED, says that researchED’s mission is to “to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof.” That is, teachers need to be critical consumers, curators and questioners of information and of evidence.

Gary Jones, who is coming from the UK to present at and attend researchED Melbourne, has written an excellent guide to evidence-based decision making in schools. He points out a number of popular ideas in education that are not backed by evidence and reminds educators of the need to be conscientious, judicious and explicit in their use of evidence to make decisions and shape practices.

I’ve made my view clear that teachers can and should be researchers. Taking research into account, enacting practitioner-research practices, and engaging with scholarly literatures, is important in an educational world focused increasingly on accountability, performativity and rapid change. Sometimes, the best thing for a teacher or school to do is to press ‘pause’ and ask some critical questions of the evidence they are accepting or the practices in which they are engaging.

As a teacher and school leader who has recently completed a PhD, I can see the benefits of research thinking to the school environment. It means applying carefully considered and thoughtfully designed methodologies to decision making and innovation. It means trusting in teachers to be a core part of school reforms. Research becomes, not an add-on, but a way of being which is embodied and enacted by educators as they go about their important work.

researchED is part of a global movement to give teachers voice and agency in their work, their schools and their systems, while ensuring that school leadership and classroom practice is informed by research and evidence. Conversation between academics, researchers, leaders, policy makers and teachers can help all involved in education to best serve the students at the heart of our education systems. A wonderful publishing example of this kind of movement is Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, which brings together the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working as cogs in the neoliberal machine.

So I’ll see you at researchED Melbourne. There will be interesting research and practice shared. There will be classroom perspectives and scholary ones. There will be graceful disagreement. I’m looking forward to presenting among the diverse voices, and learning from them.

(Here is my post on last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, at which I also presented.)

Brighton Bathhouses

Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers?

Sarajevo bullets, by @debsnetWhen we respect teaching as an intellectual activity and give teachers the opportunities to raise serious questions about what they teach, how they teach and the larger goals for which they are striving, they can play a dramatic role in transforming their institutions. ~ Sergiovanni, 2005

This month – April 2015 – is the month in which Dylan Wiliam argued in the TES magazine that teaching cannot and will not be a research-led profession, in which Tom Bennett responded that evidence-based education is dead (but that evidence-informed education lives), and in which John Hattie was quoted in a TES article as saying that teachers should not try to be researchers and that ‘I don’t have any time for making teachers researchers.’ In response to his own question, ‘Asking teachers to be researchers?’ he replies, ‘They are not.’

In this article Hattie is also quoted as saying that teachers should use the “literacy and sensibility of research to inform their practice” and that the worlds of research (by academics, not teachers) and teaching should “orbit together”. This resonates with Tom Bennett’s assertion that teaching be evidence-informed (but not evidence-based) and with the mandate of researchED which is to raise research literacy in the teaching profession and promote conversations between teaching and academic communities (my post about researchED Sydney 2014 is here).

As someone whose identity straddles ‘teacher’ and novice ‘researcher’ (as a PhD candidate coming towards the end of my PhD journey) I agree that research should inform teaching, leading and educational practice, and that worlds of education and the academy should work in collaboration. I am not sure, however, that we should draw a divisive line with ‘teacher’ on one side and ‘researcher’ on the other.

When I read the TES article which presented quotes from Hattie, a number of questions arose for me. What does Hattie mean when he says that teachers are not (and perhaps cannot be) researchers? What is his definition of ‘researcher’?

Is he discouraging teachers from reading academic literature and collecting data to inform their practice? Is he telling teachers they cannot be (taught to be) systematic thinkers who investigate, trial, collaborate, communicate and utilise scholarly literature and evidence to inform their practice?

Many teachers have been involved in action research projects, or Masters or PhD dissertations. Are these teachers, too, incapable of conducting and applying research thinking and methods? For me this is an issue of identity, of sense of self. Am I a teacher who researches? A researcher who teaches? A teacher and a researcher? Is Hattie suggesting that these identities are unavailable to me?

Is research in a real educational context by a real educator less valid than that of an academic from a university?

Many have responded to this conversation. Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, warns against encouraging teachers not to pursue evidence, as he articulates in this TES article.

Teacher Chris Parsons explores how the teaching profession might strategically develop its use of evidence to inform practice.

PhD candidate Charlotte Pezaro, writing for the Australian Association of Educational Research, explores ways in which academics and teachers might interact.

Policy analyst Patrick Watson in this post argues that we need to identify research which is worthwhile for informing practice, build the research-literacy of teachers and encourage action research to facilitate reflection and deeper understanding.

The 2012 Grattan Institute report ‘Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia’ asserts that high-performing school systems view teachers as researchers, continually developing their knowledge base through practices such as professional reading and action research. My PhD cites examples of literatures which promotes participatory action research as transformative for individual practice and collaborative cultures. All research and all researchers have limitations. I wonder what the impact is of viewing teachers as researchers and of encouraging teachers to think of themselves as researchers. How does it shape teachers’ identities, self-perceptions and practices if they are encouraged to be consumers, curators, engagers and creators of research? Perhaps it is partly a question (to reflect Dweck’s work) of developing a research mindset.

One of Wiliam’s points is that research cannot tell us what could be only what we already know. If we are always basing our practice on what has been done, we aren’t innovating or trialling new possibilities. Teaching and schools should be about more than doing what has been done and what is known; it should be about moving forward and even about innovation and creativity.

Perhaps teachers who see themselves as researchers could call themselves ‘teachers as innovative, research-literate, reflective, evidence-informed, systematically-thinking, data-using-and-interrogating practitioners who drive their own learning and improvement in regards to what benefits their students.’ Or maybe that’s a bit long.

While I understand that the issue of whether teachers can or should be researchers is nuanced, complex and riddled with semantic argument, I (as someone who identifies as teacher and researcher) would like to think we can view teachers as researchers, by my definition, if not by Hattie’s.

Research and education: a match made in the conference room? #rEDSyd

Luna Park, Opera House, Harbour Bridge

 If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. African Proverb

I have just returned from presenting at the researchED conference in Sydney. As explained on its website, researchED, founded by Glaswegian Tom Bennett (you can read his reflection on the day here), is a “grass-roots, teacher-led organisation aimed at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education, getting the best research where it is needed most, and providing a platform for educators, academics, and all other parties to meet and discuss what does and doesn’t work in the great project of raising our children.”

It is the first time this conference has come to Australia and I was pleased to, through attending and presenting, be part of a movement to close the gap between educational research and practice, between academic theorising and school reality.

view from Sydney Harbour Bridge

view from Sydney Harbour Bridge

As a hybrid teacher-leader-researcher I believe in consuming, curating and creating research in order to influence theory and shape practice. At the researchED Sydney conference, I presented with a colleague on our school’s emerging-from-research teacher-professional-learning-and-growth model. It was a current example of how a school might utilise research and a scientific-but-also-people-driven process to develop a strategically aligned, evidence-based, context-appropriate initiative.

Opera House

Opera House

Some of our key presentation messages about school change were:

  • Go slow to go fast. School change is an evolution not a revolution.
  • Start with context and vision. Align initiatives and interventions with it.
  • Believe in the capacity of all individuals to solve their own problems, do their own thinking and drive their own learning.

This next image reflects those things we hoped our model would achieve. We have data measures planned to measure, as much as we can and in a variety of ways, the impact of this model.

'Take one' (or take all!) for your school

‘Take one’ (or take all!) for your school

The researchED conference (or is it a movement?) was one example of a forum for real life, cross-continental, global sharing of research-influenced education practice. You can read some other blog reflections here and here. We need frames and contexts which facilitate conversations between school and academic worlds, in order to facilitate more considered and systematic approaches to education.

Luna Park

Luna Park