Saturday, 27 June 2015

SUPER Conference 2015

I know I'm a few days behind, but it's been one of those weeks where I don't feel like I've been given time to catch up! However, they do say that it's better late than never, so below I'll try to summarise some of my thoughts from the SUPER Conference 2015. Luckily for me, I've recently re-joined Twitter (in a purely academic capacity - @ReflectiveRambl), which is how I will subtly 'remind' myself of my thoughts at the time.

To start, Dr Frank Cornelissen opened the conference with a really inspiring and interesting KeyNote Speech about networking between schools and universities, building a research network between the two and throughout schools. This is an area which I am already passionate about, so listening to him speak was like having many of my own thoughts confirmed. I strongly believe that schools and universities should work to build and maintain relationships, especially if we want teachers to become more engaged with the research around their own practice. Universities should find ways to encourage these types of partnerships in ways which are practical and financially viable for schools, especially in today's economic climate.

What struck me throughout Dr Cornelissen's speech was the similarities that exist between school-uni partnerships and staff-student partnerships within schools themselves. As you know, student voice and partnership is a huge 'hobby horse' for me. I think that it's really important to empower students as 'agents of change' within schools,  just as I think it's important to empower teachers in the same way. It wouldn't make sense to get students actively involved in a research culture without first getting teachers involved themselves. I think it would be a sad state of affairs to have more students involved in research than teachers; this is something I hope we can change in the next few years, at least at my own school.

One 'hurdle' that Dr Cornelissen really highlighted was the issue of communication within schools. Through his own study, he was able to highlight the fact that teachers don't seek each other out enough for advice. While I agree with this statement, I think the issue behind the lack of communication is that many teachers are unsure of where the knowledge exists. For example, I don't know how many other teachers in my school have completed an MEd or even EdD; I have a rough idea, based on those teachers who engage in the (now defunct) Research Enquiry Group, or who go by 'Doctor' in school. However, while I might be able to identify these teachers, I most certainly do NOT know what they studied for their thesis/dissertations!

I think that we're missing a huge trick here. Teachers with this type of knowledge, past or present, should be given the opportunity to share their knowledge with other teachers. We should be aware of who knows what within a school; for example, who specialises in group talk, or feedback, or building independence in lessons. This type of knowledge shouldn't be written up once into a paper and then left to stagnate; it should be widely advertised, shared, and built upon! If we want students to become lifelong learners, then surely we need to model the same practice ourselves.

Dr Cornellissen spoke of communication in schools as being that of an echo chamber, or worse, isolation chambers. Teachers regularly engage in conversations with  members of their own department or faculty, but how often do they seek advice from teachers in other areas of the school? Reflecting on my own practice, I realised that I do this very infrequently.

Part of the problem at my school is space; it's a very fragmented school site, with Maths and English located on one side of a public pathway while Art and Drama are tucked away in their own new builds, Languages and Science are housed in their own separate buildings, and the Humanities and Technology are grouped together on 'the other side'. While we do have whole staff meetings, we often sit with members of our own faculty, which only makes the problem worse. The occasions where we're forced to mix are, in my opinion, the most beneficial - but how often does this happen? I would argue that it doesn't happen often enough.

Another issue is that, in whole staff meetings or even workshops, we're often bunged into groups where someone (or a group of someones) talks at us. There is little engagement or communication, and certainly very little opportunity to practice. While it might be seen as a 'sharing of good practice' it's often a one way conversation in which we're given loads of ideas, but not given the chance to work with them, to truly embed them in our practice. How many of these ideas get put on top of a pile of 'things to try later'? I know that I've got a desk drawer full of these types of ideas.

What we need to do, what many schools need to do, is to open up the pathways of communication. We need to get teachers to really share not only their practice, but the evidence behind why it works. Stealing from David Weston's metaphor, surgeons don't just go to meetings and watch other surgeons do an operation before repeating the operation themselves. They might watch, then get involved, with support and help of others, then try it multiple times. We should expect no less of teachers. If we want to embed practice, it needs to be discussed and used often; it needs to be seen to work.

This linked well with the other sessions that I attended, namely that given by Samuel Whitbread, where they shared not only their Research Lesson Study programme, but also the way that they embed research into their daily practice. Their system is something that many school should aim to emulate, and one that I am very envious of myself.

One thing that we discussed was how incentives can be used to encourage teachers to engage with research. I don't think that this is a bad thing; we provide our students with incentives to learn, so it makes sense that we should have them ourselves. Incentives don't have to be monetary either (in fact, I would argue that monetary incentive should be the last thing offered, or at least the least important one).  If teachers aren't motivated by a desire to better themselves, in terms of their knowledge and practice, then I'd argue that they're in the profession for the wrong reasons.

The biggest incentive that I think senior leaders can offer teachers is time. Time can come in the form of additional PPAs or even just allotted time after school or during training days. The number one complaint I hear from teachers is that we don't have the time to do all the things expected of us; many teachers might be initially resistant to engaging in research, but if they were given the time to do it, I think their argument would lose a lot of steam. Even just one hour a fortnight would be viewed favourably by many teachers (or at least myself!).

By linking research with performance management, I think a lot of the issues about 'time' and 'pressure' would really drop. Sam Whit require each teacher to develop a research question as one of their PM targets; I think this is fantastic. Often, teachers complain about 'unattainable' targets which focus on results - while I understand why these exist, I don't think they challenge teachers to consider ways to ensure their own practice facilitates 'good' results. Instead, these types of targets can feel burdensome and unfair. They are statements of goals to achieve, and don't provide teachers with a way of thinking about HOW they could be achieved beyond 'I'll just have to work harder'. If teachers were asked to consider WAYS they could reach these types of targets, and then conduct research into various strategies to get there, I think they'd find results based targets much less threatening.

For example, one of my PM targets this year is that 90% of Year 11 students need to achieve at least 3 levels of progress. To link this to research, what I could do, in a meeting with my line manager, is sit down and look at the results from my previous year and try to identify some trends or patterns. Maybe it was mostly boys who held me back from reaching this target, or perhaps it was the Pupil Premiums students. Either of these would provide me with an interesting area to research; How can I better engage boys, or Pupil Premium students, in English? What strategies would work to help ensure these students made progress? Already, by looking at things in this way, I've established a research question that could drive my PM which focuses on attainment, but is much less threatening then saying '90% of Year 11 students need to achieve......'

By exploring the literature behind these issues, and conducting action research in my own classroom, I would not only be developing my own pedagogical knowledge, but by default I SHOULD be making changes in practice which would lead to better teaching and ultimately better results! Win win, in my opinion.

Developing greater practice SHOULD be high on every teachers list of priorities, and it certainly should be encouraged by school through performance management and pay progression. Engaging in research will, without a doubt, develop each and every teacher who engages with it. By making it part of PM, you instantly embed it into everyday teaching. This is what makes a research culture.