On bridging the gap
between research and practice
Three exciting things happened to me during COVID-19. The first was that I went to my first researchED event. The second was that I was a panelist at said event. The third was that I met Greg Ashman, who was (unbeknownst to him) hugely influential in my decision to start writing. With a Sydney event coming up in October, I interviewed Greg about the origins of researchED, the grassroots movement that exists to bring relevant and rigorous research to classroom practitioners.
I have written before about the long and arduous journey that faces early career teachers as they come to grips with the gaps in foundational teaching and learning knowledge left by their initial teacher education. I asked Greg why he thinks there is such a big gap between research and practice in education. It’s an issue that seems quite unique to our industry. He said:
This is structural and I wonder whether it is partly gendered. Most other professions interpret 'autonomy' to mean self-governing: The profession sets its standards and is involved in accreditation. However, teaching is not like this. Instead, we are told what to do by a small army of academics and bureaucrats whose one common feature is that they are not teachers. In Australia, it is even possible to train teachers without ever having taught in a classroom. I wonder whether this is because, from the nineteenth century origins of the modern teaching profession onwards, it has been a feminised profession and so never trusted to run its own affairs.
The gender angle sadly makes sense to me. And in an age of increasing compliance, we are seeing the imbalance widen, especially in secondary schools. Greg elaborates, pointing out a unique feature of education research conducted by faculties of education — note that a lot of the more helpful research comes from the cognitive and reading scientists.
While it is fallacious to simply dismiss someone's views on the basis that they are not a teacher, when you build the entire system around non-teachers running the research and training end of teaching, you create a researcher class that is untethered to the practical considerations of the classroom and can instead pursue whatever is most fashionable in the field. This leads to performative research that teachers do not find useful. And despite the verbose language, it leads to an insistence on sweeping, simplistic solutions that are counterproductive when faced with the complexity of a classroom.
I can see how a rejection of the research that ostensibly shapes our field could be construed as anti-intellectualism, but Greg makes the gap between the nature of the research and everyday teacher practice clear. Early career teachers — and even those at mid and late career stages — might not have access to quality research about teaching and learning were it not for their own curiosity.
I asked Greg whether it was important that researchED was and remains a grassroots event. He said:
I guess it depends what you mean by grassroots and I am sure some would contest this. researchED was founded after a discussion on Twitter between Tom Bennett, a teacher at the time, Sam Freedman and Ben Goldacre. Freedman was a former UK government advisor and Goldacre had written a report for the UK government on making education research better. This has led some conspiracy theorists to put two and two together and make thirteen. But the reality is that it is Tom and his trusted coterie's gloriously ramshackle enterprise.
Anyone involved in organising a researchED event knows how lo-fi the whole effort is and how much it depends on the good will and voluntary efforts of teachers and researchers. Why do they give so freely of their time? For teachers, it fills a vacuum. I am always amazed at how energised people are at the end of a researchED conference. They frequently say it is the best Professional Development they have ever had. Why? Because researchED is practical and includes a range of voices offering diverse views.
Contrast this with the usual education conference where everyone agrees with each other, pushes the same few ideas, mouths the same few tropes and then half the attendees leave after the buffet lunch. researchED has something to say in a way that other offerings do not.
We all know that establishing and maintaining research literacy can be overwhelming and everything in education seems to be contested! So I asked Greg how teachers can keep up with research on best-practice in the absence of formal or informal pedagogical leadership in their school — other than coming along to researchED of course!
They should read your Substack! That would be a good start.
I think that teachers typically go through a number of stages. First, they believe what they were told during their training. Then, they spend a few years struggling to make this work. Then they find someone like you or me making the opposite argument to what they heard during training and it strikes them as revelatory. Then, they start to look into the research themselves and realise just how complicated, messy and contested it all is. At this point, nihilism becomes a risk.
However, if we keep focusing on what we do in the classroom and on each of the small changes that, together, can add up to a big change, that gives the right critical lens through which to look at the latest proposals or initiative. We don't all need to be able to understand the statistical tests used in a piece of research, but we can know enough to be critical consumers.
Writing, networking and researchED are all good places to pursue this goal.
If you’ve never been to a researchED event, I highly recommend that you come along. Katharine Birbalsingh CBE is one of the keynotes. She is founder of Michaela Community School and I can’t wait to hear what ‘Britain’s Strictest Headmistress’ has to say. The other keynote is the legendary John Sweller, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, and I will clear my calendar to hear anything he has to say about human cognitive architecture. This year, the Sydney event is at Queenwood. I hope to see you there and if you would like to present, you can apply here.