I thought that with the tough time researchED has had in the last few weeks together with the fact that there’s a few more international conferences coming up, it would be useful to share a cynic’s experience of the conference. Admittedly this is going to be one of those blogs that detractors of the researchED movement will probably hate because it will be unashamedly depicting what an excellent experience I had at this year’s National Conference so apologies in advance.
I went to last Saturday’s event full of cynicism, a sceptic and admittedly not a huge fan of a number of its presenters. I’m laying my cards on the table because I feel that far too often we criticise aspects of education under the guise of a balanced and well-evidenced argument when actually we have a personal dislike for the ethos/attitude driving it. We simply can’t bring ourselves to admit this, so instead, we collect evidence that will support the case we choose to build, the cloak within which we hide our personal prejudices. I started to realise this about myself whilst reading David Didau’s What if everything you knew about education was wrong? David’s views and attitudes about education can infuriate me but often he is right. His claims about cherry-picking evidence to support your own personal bias are bang on the money. So I try to be aware of my personal biased and not act on them, not an easy thing to do when you have a strong sense of what you think is right or wrong!
Since joining Twitter I have always had the utmost respect for Tom Bennett and Helene Galdin-O’Shea and the work that they do, both in the social media staffroom of tweeting and blogging and in the real world too. What they have created and the way which they go about developing their work is something to be admired. Similarly to the wonderful work that Debra Kidd and Emma Hardy have done with their grass-roots movement, Northern Rocks, Tom and Helene have created an event for people passionate about education. Whilst looking at the line-ups from previous researchED conferences I perceived a bias in what would be represented there and in the audience that would be attending, it was reassuring to read Debra’s blog in defence of researchED in the days leading up to the event itself. Unfortunately, researchED had been a victim of being guilty by association in the weeks leading up to its national conference. One of its regular speakers had naively made claims in a blog that were ill-thought out and suddenly this became the tag-line for the researchED movement. Everyone associated with said speaker was tarred. An ideal opportunity for the detractors of the researched movement to jump on the band wagon, efforts to unsettle the Canadian event and to infer that researchED was Tom’s alternative ticket to winning the lottery ensued, along with a number of academics passing criticism about how teachers conduct research etc, etc.
There’s a number of things I struggle with here. First of all, the so-called divide between HEIs and the rest of the world, I just don’t see it despite what some try to create. I don’t buy the picture the dusty academics stuck in the ivory towers of education yesteryear, shielding their work from the outside world whilst a grass-roots movement of teachers at the chalkface are using research to trail-blaze a path for classroom practice (and never the twain shall meet). We have an excellent working relationship with our HEI, Liverpool John Moores University and indeed all of the HEIs that we have worked with over the years. Jan Rowe, who is the Head of Teacher Education at LJMU, is part of a network of teachers and academics collaborating on research projects, our ITT programme is an innovative School Direct model in which everything is delivered on site, Jan and her team have been a driving force in making this happen. University staff are part of the furniture at our school. There is collaboration never condescension. Again, I guess this is anecdotal, my experience. However, we went to LJMU looking for this, asking what could we learn from them and what could we do to help them to develop their programmes. We often tend to get the answers we’re looking for so if you’re looking for conflict I’m sure somewhere there’s someone who will meet your needs. Myself, I’m much happier to find collaboration and to see what I can learn. The other issue is the mud-slinging about financial matters and perceived conflicts of interest. Tom has done well for himself, he’s a voice that is listened to in many circles. Though I don’t always necessarily agree with his viewpoint, you can’t argue that the boy has done good. He’s also got to earn a living and as a behaviour tsar I’m guessing his main crust will be made in this field. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t question financial matters to do with researchED or that Tom is beyond reproach but there are ways and means of doing this (in my opinion). The whole public airing of other people’s laundry seems to be a popular blood-sport on Twitter and the timing of such suggestions seemed an attempt to discredit the event, not ok in my book.
From a personal perspective, my own main concern was the balance of themes, perhaps they wouldn’t be my cup of tea? It was great to see Tom address this in his blog here. To make something like researchED work, a great deal of favours are called upon, you ask favours of people you know, they’re generally within the circles you move in hence the bias. This made sense to me. Still I thought I may be struggling to choose sessions that would be of interest to me. How wrong I was…
What I experienced within the first twenty minutes was to diminish all prejudices I had about researchED. As I walked through the doors into the expanse of the school, I was greeted with a crowd the size of a pop concert, not just teachers, professors and consultants, the whole spectrum of people involved in education was right in front of me. Every category of professional you could think of was there. From government, HEIs, FEIs, secondary sector, primary sector, private sector, headteachers, classroom teachers, union representatives, trads, progs, those who don’t like to be labelled, NQTs, RQTs, OAPs (like me), the list goes on. The only people who weren’t represented were those people who choose to let their prejudice prevent them from hearing a cacophony of varied, informed and enlightening voices who had given up their time to contribute.
So many sessions, it was like a Netflix dilemma
Do you ever find yourself spending so much time browsing through Netflix that you don’t get to watch anything? What feels like an infinite choice of programmes means you’re scared of selecting anything because you’re overwhelmed and don’t want to miss out? ResearchED is in danger of giving you that feeling, with so much to choose from you get a little bit overloaded. Fortunately, I came away from every session with something to think about, admittedly some sessions were more useful than others. For every session I did choose, there were at least three others in that slot I would have liked to attend. How good is that?! I was glad of the live streaming so that I could revisit the talks I missed, although I was particularly gutted to lose out on Ben Newmark’s talk on target grades (which clashed with the great Dr Gary Jones) and Oliver Caviglioli’s Dual Coding workshop at the end of the day the most. There is a definite argument for a two-day event here. ResearchED could run exactly the same sessions on both days or perhaps give less choice – people would still go away happy bunnies. It might also give the opportunity for a slower pace or reflection time, with so much information and so many perspectives to consider a little quiet contemplation wouldn’t go amiss!
Variety is the menu du jour
From what I can gather, previous line-ups have appeared to be a little “trad” heavy (if you subscribe to those types of label) so there has been criticism levelled at the event. Similarly, the opposite criticism was given to Northern Rocks. As I mentioned earlier, Tom has explained the reasons behind this and having been to both researchED and Northern Rocks, I would say that this perspective is unfounded. The full spectrum of philosophies and approaches are catered for. What is missed in the condemnation by some is the fact that it is important to hear different views, theories and evidence to those thoughts of your own. The ability to hold two (or many) perspectives in your mind leads to wisdom and this is a wonderful thing for both us as individuals, the schools in which we teach and the children which our profession serves.
I had an illuminating and informative time at researchED and as much as I hate to admit it, I really enjoyed getting my geek on! Personally, I think it would be really hard to improve on what was such a fantastic event but maybe a few tweaks might open it up to a wider audience.
- A two-day event or moving the location around the country, even holding the same event in two locations (you’d be more than welcome to use our school for a researchED National Conference up North).
- More time between sessions to digest what has been said. I always walk away with a headache from these events, I’m not sure whether that’s from thinking, rushing, not enough water, excitement or a mixture.
- Publicising researchED beyond social media to hit the pockets of people who don’t engage.
- More involvement from HEIs and people who hold views/research in opposition to the regular speaker list.
I make these points a little tongue-in-cheek as I’m sure the first three are already being considered and are just a matter of logistics. I feel that the responsibility of addressing my final point is more that of the audience than Tom’s. You see, researchED is a grass-roots movement so it is owned by everyone, it is also our responsibility to influence it. If people feel that there is under-representation at researchED or similar conferences then it is our responsibility to make that change. Although Tom is the gatekeeper for these conferences, I have never had an exchange with him (either via social media or in person) where he has been anything but willing to listen and welcoming of both ideas and challenge. There often feels too much of the standing on the side-lines hurling negativity attitude on Twitter but in reality this is not the profession I know, it is one of collaboration and support which is what came across last Saturday. If you’re not happy with what researchED stands for then you need to be proactive rather than reactive. If you think that there’s too many “trads” presenting then submit a proposal to Tom, if you think that there’s too many of one demographic making up the audience then don’t complain, buy a ticket and address the balance. I for one am no longer going to be or entertain the BMWs of this world, I’m going to try and be part of the change. Five years ago, we had nothing like this in the profession, the only opportunities to talk to other professionals were if you got the golden ticket to an expensive course with a posh lunch. Now we have the opportunity to hear many ideas, research and evidence-based practice all in one place, we have movements like Northern Rocks and researchED to thank for that.