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Education research and policy in an imperfect world

Blog Editor, IOE Digital24 February 2016

Geoff Whitty
In 2005 it was my turn to deliver the British Educational Research Association (BERA) presidential address, typically a ‘state of the nation’ review for education research. I considered many topics, but an overwhelming issue for the education research community at the time was the ‘what works’ agenda and its implications for the kinds of research that would continue to command funding. After consultation with colleagues, that is what I chose to focus on. Our concern was that this agenda would narrow the discipline of education, on a false prospectus of determining policy. Actually, in our political system research evidence is just one factor among many in policy decisions – and often a relatively insignificant one at that.
At the time, the address received a mixed reception: many welcomed my defence of the breadth of our discipline, but some colleagues working in the ‘what works’ mould rejected what they saw as its premise that researchers and policymakers were necessarily on ‘different sides’. But that reading was not my intention. I simply wanted to highlight the
messy and often indirect relationship between research and policy and the way in which all kinds of research could usefully input to public and policy debate about our education system – and the need for this to be reflected in research funding policy.
Ten years on, my IOE colleague Emma Wisby and I have revisited the BERA address as part of my new publication, Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact. In (more…)

The riddle of autonomous schools: how will researchers crack the code?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital30 September 2013

Chris Husbands
The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox’s hugely readable account of the deciphering of Linear B in the 1940s and 1950s tells the story of half a century of frankly obsessive work by utterly determined individuals. Some 2,000 clay tablets unearthed at the Cretan Palace of Knossos at the turn of the century were covered in a script the like of which no-one had ever seen. The challenge to deciphering them was that they were written in an unknown language in an unknown script about unknown topics.
The story is ultimately a triumph of research: a combination of mind-numbingly patient transcription, comparison and analysis, with flashes of interpretive genius, before, in 1953, amateur scholar Michael Ventris cracked the code.
The real fascination of Fox’s book is not in the outcome but in her account of the research process. The hero is Alice Kober, a now almost forgotten classicist in New York who, in a series of technical papers in the 1940s, identified the nature of the script, unlocked syllabic patterns and pointed the way to a solution – a solution which was frustratingly just out of reach when she died age 43 in 1950. Times were tough times for research. Kober’s communication with other scholars depended on a slow transatlantic postal service. Paper was scarce: when Kober could not get notebooks, she began hand-cutting two-by-three-inch cards from any spare paper she could find: backs of greeting cards, examination book covers, library checkout slips. It was in this unprepossessing environment for research that the breakthrough was made.
Here is another riddle: what – if anything – is the connection between Margalit Fox’s fabulous book and the autonomous world of schooling in which we now find ourselves? I’ll give you a clue: complexity. As the experiences of Kober and Ventris demonstrate, complexity is good for research, and a fecund ground for the imaginative development of practice: in complexity there is a great deal to be explained, much to be studied. Autonomy brings opportunities. Autonomy creates spaces in which differences can be explored and evaluated.
A key feature of the autonomous school system which has emerged since the 2010 Education Act is the school group, or chain. There are now something over 500 such groups — a genuinely new feature of English publicly funded schooling – a (normally) non-geographic cluster of schools with integrated management an financial arrangements and, in some cases, strongly corporate approaches to school leadership and teaching.
Autonomous schools can become autarchic schools, looking inward and concerned with their own practices and development. One of the arguments elaborated about the school system being created following the 2010 Act is that it is inter-, not in-dependent: schools are being encouraged to collaborate one with another. And there is some evidence that a consequence is an inward focus within the group or cluster. Where collaborations have a formal and legal form, some of its details are tightly protected.
So we find school clusters or groups developing distinctive curricula, pedagogies and approaches to professional development — and the best of collaborative innovation is structured, coherent and researched. But where concern with branding and commercial intellectual property issues begin to predominate in schooling, researchability can take second place. Not all innovative practices are open to scrutiny. Moreover, autarchic schools could begin to operate as closed systems, drawing together a strongly coherent but strongly protected set of arrangements where the defined pedagogy and practices are unexplored and unevaluated.
The tendency for autonomous institutions to face inwards, to be concerned with developing distinctiveness and in some cases protecting that distinctiveness calls for new and distinctive relationships between academic research and practice. We need to develop practitioner-researchers who can work in schools to diagnose issues and synthesise evidence to support initial teacher education and school improvement. This work needs to be linked to researchers who can stand back and make sense of the bigger picture.
Individual universities can do some of this, but we also need more thinking on how the education research and development infrastructure needs to develop. What might an education equivalent of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence look like and how might a member-led Royal College of Teaching operate? Isolated, separated researchers did solve the “riddle of the labyrinth” but it took them a long time – 50 years from the excavation of the tiles to a solution. That’s too slow. Educational researchers, and universities who employ them, have shown great inventiveness in finding ways to get close to schools. In an autonomous school system, it will be a highly prized skill, and a huge amount may depend on getting it right quickly.
This post is adapted from Chris Husbands’s address to the British Educational Research Association Conference earlier this month

The workers who surf the zeitgeist – how can we help others learn what they know?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 October 2012

Sai Loo
Everyone knows the Ronseal advert. Like the product itself, it does what it says on the tin. Simple and clear, it has become part of our everyday language.
But producing an advert like that demands a great deal of complexity, flexibility and creative thinking, and a very wide breadth of knowledge. In my research on the relationships between the knowledge economy, learning and working, I have identified a particular type of person: creative knowledge workers (ckw). Their style of work involves creative application of knowledge using information, communication, and electronic technologies (ICET).
A paper I presented at BERA last month was drawn from interviews of practitioners and academics that are related to the two sectors in this new economy – advertising and information technology software – and from three developed countries of England, Japan and Singapore. Understanding how these workers apply their knowledge creatively to produce innovative products and services in this digital age has relevance not only to educationists and teaching institutions but also to business organisations and policy makers.
Creative directors make a good case study. Their role is to produce commercials, so accessing and acquiring ckw knowledge is crucial. Interviewees from this research used terms like “general sponge”, “zeitgeist” and “social chameleon” to describe how they had to be alert to possibilities and to use this knowledge to keep trying to be different, to push the boundaries and the limits of the medium. They also have to be curious and questioning. They need to capture the spirit of the time – zeitgeist – by the acquisition of ckw knowledge through reading, listening to music and accessing other forms of culture.
Last month, Business Secretary Vince Cable called for a long-term economic vision for Britain in order to improve its global competitiveness. He saw the knowledge industries as key, commenting: “universities are the most important mechanism .. for generating and preserving, disseminating, and transforming knowledge into the wider social and economic benefits.”
This is one reason why it’s important to study the relationships between the knowledge economy, learning and working. Creative knowledge workers may be defined as those who use advanced technologies and, depending on the nature of the jobs and contexts, carry out longstanding practices, ask new questions, come up with novel approaches, or create a variation or a vision, which are accepted by peers for a commercial purpose such as a new or improved product or service.
They may be producers or users working collaboratively or individually. The knowledge which is creatively applied may relate to the disciplines of science and technology or the creative/culture-related industries either singly or in combination. Knowledge can include previous job and life experiences.
Conducting this study has led to the observation that we need to re-examine the notions of learning and working. This is because:

  • CKW workers need knowledge of more than one discipline;
  • There is a trend towards collaborative working;
  • The integrated nature of learning and working in relation to the specificity of work contexts.

With these in mind, what are the educational implications for aspiring creative knowledge workers, teaching institutions, business organisations and policy makers? Learners should be given the opportunities to acquire knowledge and learn in an integrated – rather than the present compartmentalised – manner. Some higher education institutions are already providing their students with such opportunities through work placements, other disciplinary modules and collaborative project work.
Teaching institutions would need to re-examine their specifications, teaching strategies and assessments. Business organisations would need to re-examine their workplaces to support working and knowledge acquisition (with opportunities to acquire knowledge of other disciplines) in a collaborative manner. Policy makers would need to re-frame their policies from an individualistic to a collaborative approach with supportive frameworks for these workers to access advance technologies and to provide encouragement for science, technology and creative industries to flourish.
If you have any queries regarding this research, please contact Sai at s.loo@ioe.ac.uk

Teachers in turmoil – how can new teachers square the circle of inclusion v targets?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital30 August 2012

Ruth Heilbronn
What professions are likely to be tempted into unethical behaviour? Bankers? Politicians? Journalists? What about teachers?
They are not the first group of professionals who spring to mind, yet teachers are frequently drawn into tensions over what is the right thing to do because of the conflict between their deeply-held sense of vocation and what they have to do in school.
My research, to be presented at the forthcoming BERA conference, reports on the difficulties student teachers experience because of the contradictory demands they face. In England for example, the statutory national curriculum takes a principled stand on the value of inclusion and states that “teachers should aim to give every pupil the opportunity to experience success in learning and to achieve as high a standard as possible”. However, the drive to achieve high league table ranking frequently militates against the principle of inclusion.
The ethical implications here are that pupils may be conceived primarily as a means to an end of higher test results and not “an end in themselves”. Conscientious teachers working in schools that require lessons “delivered” with highly specified “outcomes”, who are trying to cater for all their students, experience conflict when working with the technical demands of a test-dominated curriculum.
With schemes of work developed to tight time-frames, teachers often feel driven on to the next lesson, and this weighs against going where the moment leads and attending to those spontaneous and teachable moments that can arise, or returning to something unfinished, when more time could be fruitful. Prescriptive schemes of work with detailed, specified outcomes for lessons give limited opportunity to follow up pupils’ engaged curiosity and teacher judgement is often overridden by having to “move on” in order to manage the demand for pre-determined lesson outcomes.
Lack of time to engage with pupils’ concerns and questions as they arise in the normal flow can be a source of tension for teachers when they know that some pupils may be left behind in the rush to move ahead. The tensions teachers experience in situations dominated by an auditing paradigm cannot be easily removed, since they have their source in beliefs and values.
Significantly, research has shown that pupils hold similar views. They talk about good teachers as those who listen and help them, and not in technical terms relating to targets and results.
To prepare teachers to enter into school culture with their values of good teaching alive requires teacher educators to act ethically. This creates a double injunction: to prepare student teachers to enable their pupils to learn and achieve of course, but also to develop student teachers’ capacity to withstand the contradictions of school life and keep their vocational ideals alive.
The research is a theoretical discussion in philosophy of education informed with empirical research taken from student teachers’ reflective writing. See Teacher Education and the Development of Practical Judgement (Continuum) and Critical Practice in Teacher Education (IOE Press) for more information.