Let’s send academics back to school

I am just back from an academic conference in Lisbon, hosted by CICE (Chidlren’s Identity and Citizenship Education) – a network of universities across Europe. I was very lucky to be there, for Lisbon is a beautiful city and I met several earnest and well-meaning researchers from whom I had much to learn. I was doubly lucky to be there, as the afternoon I flew out coincided with ‘the call’ from Ofsted. I was there at the invitation of London Met University, with whom I have been working this year one day a week.

Working with educational academics as I have done this year, I have come to respect their expertise. I value particularly the insights that can be afforded to those who have gained some distance from the classroom. Those of us who answer to the call of the school bell, whose planning for one lesson is trumped by the marking for another; those is the classroom more than I: teachers can rarely stick their heads up for too long to engage in the theory of what they are practising. It’s a good thing that someone does.

So, I value educational academics: we should spend a bit more time in their company. The trouble is, I suspect they could do with spending a bit more time in ours. If I was struck by one thing at the CICE conference it was that the academics are too reliant on the theoretical frameworks they started out with (their ‘critical theory’ and their ‘ethnological methodology’) and bereft of real opportunities to test them in schools. Very often, their research field was the student teachers they had in front of them. They wanted to know how happy teachers were, how teachers mix across age and ethnic divisions, how they experience racism, their attitudes to Europe in times of economic downturn – all relevant and important questions, and each time researched by talking (sorry, ‘discoursing’) with the class of student teachers they already had. In these cases, evidence may be the personal testimonies of these student teachers, their declared opinions expressed in questionnaires or surveys. I am not one to decry the use of affective, qualitative data, but I would prefer that it were substantial, reliable, valid and cross-referenced with other evidence. I repeat: academics are my friends and they are asking important questions. I just want to be able to trust the answers they come up with.

Which is why I reckon they should spend more time with us. But of course, they cannot. The  sort of immersion they would require to make an ethnological approach valid is not available to them. Frankly, schools are not very welcoming places to outsiders poking their noses into our business and asking our students questions. (Recall I mentioned Ofsted came in last week.) We could do with the work these academics are doing, but we are none too keen on allowing them to do it.

Others, such as teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ have written about academic research in school. I myself have blogged on my leadership of a work-based MA programme. Action Research conducted by teachers for their schools is just about the most valuable CPD I can conceive of. But I have something else in mind here. What if teachers conducted the action research (we could not, after all, be more immersed than we are) on behalf of an academic researcher? The academic could apply the theoretical framework, the bibliographic underpinning, and the access to publication. The two could be listed as co-authors. The academic would have a data field much wider than they normally do. The school would have been invited to think about its practice in a much broader context. And the product – the research – would be a much more trustworthy item altogether.

And before anyone thinks, ‘But schools don’t have time to collect data about their students or their teachers,’ what do we do every day? There is a degree of research rigour that goes into a simple learning walk (observing teacher practice, coding student responses, scrutinising evidence of impact, interviewing students) that I believe would be the envy of any academic.

So my small contribution to academe would be this: approach my school with a research proposal; have a look at our learning walks, our faculty reviews, our impact analyses; tell me what you think you can make of it; and let’s publish together!

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3 thoughts on “Let’s send academics back to school

  1. It says it all when a teacher has to suggest teachers researching or academics doing their research in schools – as if these are new ideas. They’re not, of course, but front-line evidence gathering and evidence-based policy are phenomena that appear to be receding rapidly into the past. (Also, I hope the data isn’t going to be restricted to the affective qualitative kind.)

  2. Pingback: #Teachers Matter | Lolwutpolitics.com

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