Sunday, 6 September 2015

researchED 2015: Part 2

The second session that I attended was 'Hack your own teacher-researcher career' by Becky Allen (@drbeckyallen). My reasons for attending this session were quite selfish, in that I entertain lofty ambitions of pursuing a career (part-time or otherwise) in educational research at some point. I like to think that I've got an 'exit plan' in case I decide that classroom teaching isn't for me. To be honest, if you'd have asked me before I started my Masters degree if I planned to teach my entire life, or even beyond two years, I can guarantee I'd have said 'Hell no!' (the actual words would have been much worse, but I'll save you from that). There was a period back then where I became really depressed about teaching - I often came home in tears, adament that I was going to quit and that the joy had been taken out of the job. Luckily, my passion for teaching was reinvigorated by my Masters; I want to remain in teaching in some capacity for the rest of my life, although I'm unsure that it will always be at the secondary level.

Anyways, I (once again) digress.

I attended Becky's session in the hopes that she'd provide me with some interesting insight into how I might make my 'pipe-dream' of being a teacher-researcher a reality. I can honestly say that she DID do that, but it wasn't necessarily in the encouraging way I'd thought it would be.

She started off by saying that nowadays you don't have to quit teaching to get involved in educational research. This was welcome news, as I don't want to leave the classroom entirely. In fact, I think that people who DO leave the classroom instantly lose some amount of relevance with the profession; I don't mean this to sound negative, although I realise that perhaps it comes across that way. What I mean is that teaching is a constantly changing profession. I've seen more policy and curriculum changes in my seven year career than I can shake a stick at. Not a year has gone by where I can teach the same curriculum more than once. For example, within those seven years the GCSE English specification has changed three times, with more change likely to come. While I agree that adaptation is important, it would be nice to not have to reinvent the wheel every year.

It's for this reason, the constant evolution of teaching and education, that I don't want to have to give up teaching entirely to pursue my research aspirations. Plus I know how hard it is to get access to schools as a researcher; if I remain a teacher, I've at least got lots of connections and ease of access!

However, I did take issue with her suggestion that teachers don't have to do research to do their job well. I'd argue this isn't necessarily true. While I agree that it isn't necessary for teachers to conduct reserach, it certainly does have it's place in fostering better teaching and learning. Lawrence Stenhouse and Donald McIntyre (among others) would agree. I felt it was rather condescending of her to suggest that teacher-research is fine for performance management or professional development, but that it lacks any wider uses. She described how it 'lacks reliability' and generalisability.

In response to this I'd like to point to the writing of Michael Bassey (2001). In the article, Bassey refers to his previous belief that educational research should focus on 'the value of reliability' and about how 'the merit of a study of singularities lies in the extent to which teachers reading the report of the study can relate it to their own teaching' (pp 5), suggesting that teacher-research was of no value to anyone other than select groups of teachers experiencing similar phenomenons. However, he then goes on to say that he'd changed his mind, stating that 'it is possible to formulate outcomes of empirical research as fuzzy generalisations*, and these can be useful to both practitioners and to policy-makers in education and probably in other fields of social research' (pp 6). He goes on to say that 'While I am amazed that this simple, but powerful, distinction eluded me for 20 years, I note that it also eluded many others who have written about generalisation...' (pp 6). I would suggest that perhaps it still continues to elude researchers. 

Linked to this argument is the idea that teachers are 'piffling around' with action research, a statement Becky made in the course of her presentation. This immediately got my back up; as someone who spent the greater part of a year learning about various methods and methodologies, read extensively the literature around feedback, student voice and students as researchers, and then put together and conducted an admittedly small scale research project, I found it hugely offensive for that work to be described as 'piffling'. As @SUPER_Network Tweeted: 'Our teachers who have just finished their MEds certainly not 'piffling around''.

I recongnise whole-heartedly that my research cannot be generalised, a fact which I admit to in my thesis. However, I subscribe to Bassey's idea of fuzzy generalisations and firmly believe that my study could be replicated in other schools and could return similar results; surely that should account for something. To think that my research is of little value to anyone other than myself because of its lack of reliability or generalisability is depressing.

Personally, I believe that there was a bit of 'elitism' coming out in the session. While I recognise that large scale studies do have the ability to affect change much more easily, it's unfair to discount small scale, teacher-researcher projects as 'piffling' bits of action research. It's this mentality that is perpetuating the gap between teachers and researchers. If the academic world isn't more open to action-research conducted in classrooms by teachers, then I'm afraid things will never change. What's the point of holding researchEd conferences if teacher-research isn't taken seriously?

Anyways, I could argue on and on about this for ages, but I think it best to move on to what I enjoyed about the presentation; it wasn't all negative, I assure you.

The ten tips that Becky provided on how to 'hack' a career in research were very helpful. I found that I was able to 'tick' the first seven tips! To summarise, they are:

1) Create a Twitter identity (@ReflectiveRambl)
2) Start blogging (Hello, reader!)
3) Learn about research methods (done)
4)Become a research lead (I've applied to be a Pedagogy Leader)
5) Engage with others (build a team) interested in your topic (SUPER Network has provided me with access to many like minded educators)
6) Find researchers interested in your topic (Again, I owe a lot of thanks to the Cambridge Student Voice conference for allowing me to meet and interact with THE key voices on student voice and students as researchers)
7) Get research experience (done)
8) Work to develop your ideas
9) Get funding
10) Negotiate to reduce your teaching hours

I'm even getting my feet wet and starting my own pilot project this year, which was yet another piece of advice she offered. By engaging my form in a students-as-researchers project I hope to be able to set myself up for further study of the effect of student-research projects on achievement, etc. 

Overall, despite some of what she said grating on me, I did leave the session feeling quite positive about my own ability to become a teacher-researcher. Here's to hoping I can make it!

 *according to Bassey (2001), a fuzzy generalisation is 'one that is neither likely to be true in every case, nor likely to be untrue in every case: it is simply something that may be true...A fuzzy generalisation is expressed in a tentative way: if x happens in y circumstances, z may occur' (pp 10).

(NOTE: This post forms the second part of  my blogs about researchEd 2015. Please make sure to check out the first post, available here.)

Reference
Bassey, Michael A. (2001) 'A solution to the problem of generalisation in educational research'. Oxford Review of Education. Vol 27, No. 1. pp. 5 - 22