5 Takeaways from researchED

On 26 November, HEP set off for researchED, the conference-organising group that aims “to bridge the gap between research and practice in education.” This time, the event was held in Oxford and consisted of five sessions throughout the day and seven different rooms in which the sessions were held. Naturally, we couldn’t make it to all 35 sessions, but I wanted to share some takeaways from the sessions I was able to attend.

Takeaway 1: researchED is NOT necessarily about research

This will be obvious to those who have attended and anyone who has read the website, but the name is a little misleading. Though there were several sessions about academic research, the majority of them were about personal experience, advice, myth-busting, and general knowledge sharing.

If at first this seems to diminish the credibility of researchED, allow me to explain why it really doesn’t. It is often difficult for school leaders and teachers to find spaces outside of their own schools to collaborate, talk, and share their own experiences with others in their profession. As important as it is for a school to be cohesive in culture, it is also vital that schools do not become overly insular. An organisation like researchED provides this space for teachers, leaders, and academics to share practice with one another. This is very much in the spirit of what HEP does by creating networks in which member schools can communicate and share knowledge.

Takeaway 2: The basics of reading and writing are essential core knowledge for pupils

The keynote speech by Kathy Rastle, titled “Learning to Read”, was a powerful and clear introduction into the English language, including concepts like phonemes and how elements of language vary in different languages. It subsumed the arguments about how to teach phonics by showing how English is organised and at what levels our brains can engage with it. Much of it reminded me of Chris Such’s book The Art and Science of Teaching Reading.

Alex Quigley, in a later session called “What is the problem with writing (and what can we do about it)?”, echoed some sentiments of Rastle’s talk, and really drove home the point: the basics of reading and writing must be covered in order for pupils to succeed. If reading and writing basics, like phonics and decoding, are mastered, then the writing problem disappears.

This may be difficult in classes with high proportions of disadvantaged or EAL pupils, but that is all the more reason to provide targeted support to these pupils in order to get them to the level on which they can be comfortable with their reading and writing skills and move on to more complex topics. An important note: this also applies to teachers. To quote Chris Such, “understanding the underlying principles of a concept provides a stable foundation for practical classroom choices.”

Takeaway 3: Leaders need to pay attention to the things that matter

Claire Stoneman, a principal from Birmingham, brought our attention to “Epiphenomena: Why school leaders are paying attention to the wrong things and what we can do about it”. She showed us a painting and told us to write down what we saw after looking for five minutes. She then went on to explain an art teacher’s assignment which was to stare at the painting for three hours. Does that sound mind-numbing? Actually, it turned out to be one of the students’ favourite assignments. Why? Because it allowed them to see things they would never have noticed before.

The same goes for schools. Leaders know their schools, no doubt, but do they spend hours looking to find out the details that really make their schools shine, or, on the other hand, the ones that really need work? Or are they stuck looking at epiphenomena – the superficial elements that don’t actually affect the workings of the school? It may seem like a simple message, but that doesn’t stop it from being powerful. Do the quotes posted up on the wall (epiphenomena) actually reflect your school’s culture (the thing that matters!)?

Takeaway 4: Education is especially susceptible to lethal mutations

In the wake of Covid, this probably sounds scarier than it is, but it is nonetheless a dangerous phenomenon. Adam Robbins introduced the idea of lethal mutations in education. The life cycle of a mutation goes somewhat like this:

  • A new idea surfaces in education
  • A teacher identifies the enticing examples of this new idea or technique and aligns it with their own personal values/aesthetics.
  • The teacher builds new resources based on a shallow or misapplied understanding of the original idea.
  • The teacher seen as an expert of the idea in their school
  • The teacher stops doing other useful things and focuses solely on this new idea, incorporating it as part of their identity. Their definition and resources are shared with others.
  • As a result, community definition shifts away from the true definition of the original idea.

An example of this is the idea of students benefiting from careful feedback/teacher response mutating into the triple marking of books.

The key question that Adam brought up, in my opinion, was ‘why is education so susceptible to lethal mutations?’ There are a lot of potential answers to that question, ranging from the way that education is structured, to the vast array of factors that impact students and teachers, to the character of educational research, but at the moment, I’ll just let that question linger in your brain.

Takeaway 5: Stories are and will always remain powerful

As humans, our brains are wired for stories, and throughout the tens of thousands of years of our existence as a species, we have mastered the art of storytelling. This was the underlying basis of Andy Lewis’s talk called “The danger of the privilege – making humanities 6395% better?” Andy’s talk featured a story – that of a journalist who bought cheap items, assigned each to a storyteller, and put them on eBay with their attached stories to test the value of storytelling. The 6395 per cent was the profit he made off the items (all later donated to charity).

But more than simply illustrating the power (and profitability) of narrative, Andy also questioned the objectivity of stories as vessels for learning. Students can indeed benefit from knowledge bundled in stories, but is the privilege of the storyteller considered in the process? As battles over what should be included in school curricula move to the forefront of educational and even political consideration, this question looms ever larger.

About the Author:

Luke Kemper

Luke Kemper is Insight and Intelligence Lead at HEP. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development. Before that, he worked for seven years as a university lecturer and high school teacher in China and Poland.

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