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:
- 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.
- 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.
(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