Research? I’m just a blogger.

It’s been a busy few weeks for me with work stuff, so it’s taken me longer to write this post than I’d hoped.

In recent weeks, the ResearchED conferences have come under some scrutiny, with critiques and accusations ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. I don’t intend to engage with the latter, but would like to explore a particular facet of some of the discourse that has emerged in these critiques.

I must confess at this point some inevitable bias. Having attended a rED conference for the first time last September, I was impressed by the willingness of people from a range of education practice, theory and positioning to spend their time sharing and discussing an even wider range of topics. Some of these people are university based academics, others are classroom teachers, and others still are members of the inspectorate, consultants, politicians, academy chain employers and so on.

A further aspect of my own bias is that I’m honoured to be speaking at two forthcoming rED events. So I accept that some of this response is likely to be influenced by some personal attachment to rED and what I believe it can achieve.

So, the two main criticisms of rED that I took particular notice of were aimed at the rED Rugby event and can be summarised as follows:

  1. Speakers have been drawn from the ‘trad’ side of the great educational debate, or from the ‘trad’ group of teachers on EduTwitter who maintain the false trad/prog dichotomy.
  2. Speakers are not engaged in research; they’re just bloggers.

A quick glance at the line-up of #rEDRugby should be enough to reveal to anyone that neither of these arguments is accurate. The first argument is baffling since it has been put forward by the same people who argue that the trad/prog thing is a false dichotomy, and that ‘trads’ are the ones who maintain this false dichotomy. But, even we if are to accept that there is some ideological battleground (and I strongly suspect that there is, even if some don’t wish to fight on it), it’s hard to see how the #rEDRugby line-up consists of predominantly ‘trad’ voices, unless we are using the term ‘trad’ to denote something other than “traditional” in its, um, traditional sense. Perhaps ‘trad’ is now being used to refer to teaching practices which aim to be informed by, or even grounded in, a certain kind of evidence. I’ve also seen some recent concerns expressed about a perceived reliance on cognitive psychology, suggesting it is being used as a kind of crutch for arguments being put forward by people who don’t know about cognitive psychology. Indeed, this particular branch of science is being critiqued on EduTwitter as somewhat unreliable. Now, I’m not an expert in cogpsy, so I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of it as a science. However, it does seem to me that an approach to teaching which attempts to make use of the latest findings from scientific investigation into learning can hardly be labelled as harking back to some imagined Gradgrindian past – which, despite being a stale cliche, is still the image that is often used to portray the ‘trad’ teacher.

[I do have my concerns about this sort of approach to evidence, though. I’m not all for a complete turn to scientism, or for the apparent push for empiricism that seems to be driving some thinking in the call for research informed education. But that’s for another time.]

The point is, that seeing these speakers as being dominated by a ‘trad’ voice is, to put it gently, odd and somewhat misleading. It only serves to enforce the very divisions that these same commentators bemoan in the discourse of EduTwitter.

The second criticism of #rEDRugby, that its speakers are not researchers, is a far more interesting one as it raises the question of what constitutes research and who can conduct it. For example, one term that came up was “serious academics”. This seemed to be offered in contrast to the kind of people that speak about research at events like researchED. 

This view has echoes of the notion that research shouldn’t be attempted by school teachers, as apparently espoused by Professor John Hattie amongst others. Indeed, the debate over whether teachers should be involved in research, or the extent to which they can be involved, was explored by Tom McAleavy in his report for the Education Development Trust.

The NFER is quite clear that “anyone can do research” and I would argue that anyone who actively reflects on their own practice in a systematic way, making informed decisions about their strategies and methods, is involved in research. ResearchED exists as a platform for people to come together to immerse themselves, and actively participate, in a culture of informed practice. This may lead, ultimately, to publication in peer-reviewed journals, but that shouldn’t be a necessary prerequisite or even the goal. (It’s also worth noting that the state of education research published in peer-reviewed journals can be described as wanting; ask Stephen Gorard (@sgorard) for his views on this.)

Ironically, this criticism is more aligned with the kind of scientism of which I am so wary, promoting a certain kind of research which not only leans toward empiricism, but also maintains traditional structures of power. Meanwhile, many of the voices across the various #researchED events problematise and interrogate some of this hard-science way of thinking; see Martin Robinson (@trivium21c) for a good example. My own presentations will be very much grounded in a theoretical positioning – the empirical stuff is interesting and important, but it’s for other people to do.

The second criticism of #rEDRugby is also echoed in some of the wider criticism of #researchED more generally – that some of its big names may claim to be involved in research, but are merely curating and reheating the work of others. And yet, these acts of curation and dissemination are a fundamental aspect of discourse; indeed, as Foucault explores in his essay on ‘Self-Writing’ (1), the act of reading and synthesising that reading in our own writing is an important act in the forming of the Self. By bringing together various snippets and doing something with them, we internalise them, we consume them, and they become part of our being. A further element that Foucault pursues is that of “correspondence”. Here, by sharing our writing with others, we open ourselves up to scrutiny, to interrogation, and to challenge. These in turn help to form us. Education blogging – and tweeting – is a modern extension of Foucault’s self-writing; his hupomnemata and his correspondence.

A book like What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong by David Didau (@daviddidau) (2) serves two principle purposes. Firstly, it reveals Didau’s own acts of self-writing. It is the culmination of hours’ spent reading and questioning material from a range of sources. It documents his own shifts in understanding, how his own shibboleths have been shaken. And it presents a moment in Didau’s own journey; he may well revisit some of the ideas presented in it, he may even abandon some of them. Didau’s blog, www.learningspy.co.uk is a fascinating map of the progress in his thinking; just look at how his views about SOLO taxonomy have shifted.

Secondly, Didau’s book provides a prompt for our own building of Self, as it challenges our thinking. Whilst we may not be able to argue with the pages before us, this is none-the-less a form of correspondence as we turn those pages and offer ourselves up to its challenges.

And so, the criticism that #researchED hosts speakers who are not really researchers, but are just bloggers, is flawed. It is flawed because many of the speakers clearly are researchers in the academic sense. But it is flawed too at a more fundamental level. It ignores what research actually is and what it can be. It denies that research can be – and often is – the process of identity formation. It pretends that curation isn’t a kind of research in and of itself. It fails to see that research is the critical ontology of the self.

And as I come to the end of this blog post, whilst I acknowledge the potential of my paranoia, I strongly suspect that these criticisms are a carefully constructed ad hom.

 

References

(1) Foucault, M. (1997) “Self Writing.” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) Ethics, subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 1. New York: The New Press. pp. 207–222

(2) Didau, D. (2016) What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? Carmarthen: Crown House

Michaela’s Job Ad

I’ve been resisting the urge to write about Michaela Community School. This is mainly because I am ambivalent about it. I have not visited the school, and I have not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I know nothing of the school beyond the discourse on Twitter, and some basic Internet searches. I am aware that my initial thoughts about the school probably reflect my own ideology (and there’s a whole other Foucault inspired blog post waiting to be written on that topic).

Therefore, it is not my intention (yet) to comment upon its practices, and certainly not my intention to comment upon the individuals who work there. I’d like this to be very clear because there are those engaged in EduTwitter who are perfectly happy to criticise and make comments about this school and its staff without looking beyond the rhetoric. They argue that the school puts itself on a pedestal, engaging in aggressive self-promotion via insulting the rest of the teaching profession. There is some interesting dialogue occurring in response to the information which MCS puts out, but I fear that this gets lost in the shouting and boo-hissing which seems to erupt around this school, as if it were some pantomime villain. I must confess to finding some of the rhetoric from MCS somewhat distasteful, but it certainly does not warrant the kind of venom which oozes through a tweet labelling its staff as a “bunch of c****s”.

So, whilst I am not here to critique the school itself, I am really rather intrigued by the discourse surrounding it. And this is perfectly exemplified by the reaction to an advert published in the TES purporting to be for a School Detention Director at MCS. I say “purporting” because some of the response on Twitter has been to question the authenticity of the advert, such is the nature of its wording. Here it is:

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-20-27-16

Days are 7:30am to 5:30pm, with Friday ending at 3:30pm

Do you like order and discipline?
Do you believe in children being obedient every time?
Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?

If you do, then the role of Detention Director at Michaela Community School, could be for you.

This role isn’t suited to a would-be counsellor or to someone who wants to be every child’s best friend. This role is for someone who believes children need clear, firm discipline. This role is for someone who believes tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults.

We want someone who will analyse data, organise detentions, line-manage staff, be a sergeant major in the detention room, ring parents, be extremely efficient with time and paperwork, have heart-to-heart conversations with pupils and be inspirational.

You do not need any experience, but must be willing to learn on the job. You will need reasonable spoken English, but your written English does not have to be excellent. You must also be hard-working, willing to get stuck in and own the job like it is the most important thing in the world to you.

We will train you if you are the right person for the job. So don’t imagine you cannot do it. If you have presence, passion and a good voice, then we want to meet you!

The salary we are offering is far higher than a job like this would normally pay. This is because we want someone who is truly excellent. Even if we start you at the bottom of the range, the pay will rise quickly if you are good.

 

[Link is currently here, but I don’t intend to keep this updated, and I assume it will cease to work once the deadline has passed.]

Every aspect of the advert has been commented upon or derided in the Twitter chat, from the salary of £22k-£35k (“How can a school afford this?”), to the nature of the rhetorical questions, to the phrase “sergeant major”, and the stipulation that “your written English does not have to be excellent”. Indeed, the very existence of the advert has been seen as evidence that the school’s infamous behaviour policy doesn’t work. I can’t help but admire the kind of double-think that such a complaint requires.

But here’s the point. You know what this job is about. There is a kind of honesty about the wording, even if it does revel in its own brand of hyperbole, that is often lacking in school job adverts.

For comparison, let’s have a look at some of the other adverts currently listed on TES. I’ve selected secondary and I’ve also selected teacher in order to discard promoted roles. I’m not going to include the names of the schools or provide links.

Here’s the first one:

We seek to appoint a teacher of Physics with the ability to teach to A Level. This position is a full time post. We require someone with a strong subject knowledge and a passion to teach all the sciences to our younger students as well as Physics to our senior and most able students. This is an exciting opportunity for either a newly qualified or more experienced teacher to work within an ambitious and supportive department in a high achieving school. Excellent opportunities for development exist.

[School name] achieves outstanding examination results, has a strong focus on extra-curricular provision and seeks to nurture “mind, body and spirit”. We expect our staff to be fully committed to this ethos.

 

Here’s the second one:

[School name] is expanding its team as the school scales up and we launch our new sixth form and middle school. We are looking for an excellent art and design teacher who is passionate about their subject area and ready to develop their practice in a dynamic and innovative teaching environment. [School name] is an all-through school and your role will offer the opportunity to teach in the middle school as well as 14 to 18. The successful candidate will be an experienced teacher of Art and Design with a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress. Ideally, the candidate would have experience of teaching A-level and GCSE Art and Design and will have a well-developed skill set in the areas of printmaking, painting or illustration.

We believe the teaching of art and design should support students to think independently and to develop their own creative confidence as a means to making a difference to the world. Creating beautiful and expressive work is a key feature of [School name] as a whole and therefore we are looking for a highly collaborative individual who is passionate about spreading the use of arts or design-led approaches across the curriculum.

We are keen to build cross curricular links and develop projects that involve external partnerships. Our ideal candidate will enjoy collaboration and be keen to share and develop their understanding of project-based learning. Art and Design is popular subject within the secondary school and this will continue to be the case in the sixth form and middle school, so we are looking for a confident teacher who can help us build a distinctive and bold vision for the department going forward.

You will be trained in and develop a range of pedagogies including oracy-rich learning, project based learning, coaching, advanced literacy techniques and using technology effectively in the classroom. English Language is central to the life of [School name] and all teachers are expected to develop reading, writing and speaking skills within their subject. All teachers will also be expected to be a coach to about 13 students, developing their professionalism, well-being and confidence. In order to do this effectively, you will be trained as a one to one coach. Our oracy curriculum, teacher toolkit and our collaboration with Cambridge University has resulted in a school filled with purposeful talk and thinking. You will have the chance to shape this exciting area of the school’s culture, along with the ethos and core practices of the sixth form and middle school.

[School name] is a very special and different kind of place to work in. We empower staff to find their voice and their creativity. We offer collaboration and learning across ages and subjects. All staff have more planning time than most schools and a tailored programme of professional development which results in extraordinary outcomes for the students. We offer multiple routes to progression through subjects and pedagogies. We believe strongly in developing the full potential of all staff.

[School name] has built strong foundations in a short period of time, confirmed by our recent Ofsted which was outstanding in all categories. There was strong recognition for the ethos and approach of the school:

“Pupils across the school make exceptional progress.”

“Pupils have excellent attitudes to learning, impeccable manners and show respect for everyone.”

“Staff morale is exceptionally high. Teachers at the early stages of their career value the ‘fantastic’ professional development and opportunities to learn from each other. Those with more experience said that they have become much better teachers since joining the school.” 

Through project-based learning “pupils achieve remarkable standards of work and demonstrated knowledge and skills at levels beyond those expected for their age group.”

“Pupils talk and discuss with a maturity and confidence that is remarkable for their years.”

The successful candidate will be:

  • An excellent teacher and subject specialist 
  • Experienced at developing other teachers 
  • Skilled at fostering independent, student-led learning 
  • A creative and deep thinker about pedagogy 
  • A teacher of English language skills 
  • Innovative in using new technology to enhance learning 
  • A collaborative planner, able to work across subject disciplines 
  • Interested in the growth of every child – head, heart and hand 

ABOUT [SCHOOL NAME]:

  • 4 to 18 mixed, inclusive school in the heart of Stratford, Newham 
  • Cutting edge pedagogy and curriculum 
  • Small – only 75 children in each year group. From September 2017 we will have years 7 to 11, Reception to year 4, a new Sixth Form beginning and a Middle school starting for years 5 and 7 in the first year and years 5 to 8 in the second year. 
  • All teachers spend between 3 to 4 hours a week with their coaching group of about 13 students 
  • We have plans to set up two new schools in close proximity to [School name] which will give staff more opportunities to grow and develop. 

WE OFFER:

  • Outstanding career development and exceptional CPD 
  • Generous TLRs based on experience and skills 
  • The chance to network with outstanding practitioners and learn from the best 
  • Collaborative working across the 4 to 18 school 
  • Leadership training and development opportunities 
  • A strong feedback culture so that teachers can develop in areas of their practice that are important to them 
  • Every teacher being part of a team/circle that develops strategic practice

And a third:

[School name] is an established, successful and oversubscribed 11-18 mixed comprehensive school with 1300 on roll including a Sixth Form of 350+. The school is situated in outstandingly attractive grounds in a conservation area on the edge of London and achieves examination results well in excess of local and national averages. In addition to ‘Sportsmark’ we have also been awarded Arts Council ‘Artsmark Gold’ and the Religious Studies Bronze Award. In December 2016, Ofsted judged us to be a ‘GOOD’ school, maintaining this judgement from 2012.   

We are seeking to appoint a well-qualified, highly motivated professional who is an excellent classroom practitioner with a record of effective teaching or teaching practice to join our Modern Foreign Languages Faculty.    

Applications are welcomed from NQT’s and those professionals who can demonstrate a successful track record of innovation to inspire both students and colleagues alike. You must be able to teach French and Spanish to GCSE and either or both languages to A Level.    

We can offer well behaved and willing students; a friendly staff; well-equipped classrooms with interactive whiteboards; and well supported A Level classes. 

 

Advert #1 is short, but manages to pack in the key terms of educational jargon: “passionate”, “exciting opportunity”, “ambitious”, “high achieving”, and even “outstanding”. And yet these words tell us nothing really about the school. It could be anywhere, so generic is this language.

We go from the stunning shortness of advert #1, to the novella of #2. I suppose, at least, that that this one gives some sense of what the school stands for, with it’s reference to “project based learning” reflecting a pedagogy grounded in the progressive mythology of 21st Century Skills; a pedagogy which they see as being the grounds for securing the Outstanding Ofsted grading from which it quotes. This advert utilises jargon to which those of us whom work in schools have probably become so immune that we don’t even notice it anymore: they want somebody with “a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress”; they offer a “dynamic and innovative teaching environment”; and they are so keen for someone who is “passionate” that the word appears twice.

Advert #3 offers us the jargon bingo entries of “highly motivated professional”, “excellent classroom practitioner”, and “record of effective teaching” all in one sentence. Here we want people to “inspire” and we are still peddling “interactive whiteboards” as a perk. And whilst the school is only “good” by Ofsted standards (having made no progress in this regard for four years, it seems), at least the grounds are “outstandingly attractive”, and the school has some nice badges to hang in reception.

Interestingly, none of these adverts mentions behaviour.

I have, of course, been deliberately picky and harsh with my critique of these adverts in terms of the wording and language used therein. I’m having a bit of fun at their expense. But are they really any more desirable than the much derided advert from MCS?

Perhaps the bluntness of the MCS advert is hard for us to accept, so inculcated are we in the corporate banality of educational discourse as it typically appears in job adverts. Or perhaps it is the honesty with which the school acknowledges that behaviour is an issue, or certainly a priority, and that it demands a full time, well paid post in order to support its teachers. Or perhaps the school stands for something that is so different from accepted orthodoxy that it has become a kind of totem – or anti-totem; less a subject of worship but an artefact of scorn. Perhaps, for some, the school is a manifestation of pedagogical practice that epitomises the dreaded Gove. For others, the school is a victim of its own propaganda; an open target for ridicule.

For me, MCS generates a field of discourse that helps me to formulate my own theorem, where Newton meets Foucault:

For every statement, there is an opposite and totally unequal reactionary statement.