The Christmas Research Leads Conference

16th December 2014 at 00:15

Soup and research. Maybe not the first couple of concepts you'd marry in many circumstances. But today's Research Network Conference – the first in a series of many, I hope – threw up many queer and wonderful ideas. As a host and organiser, I have perhaps the least important of perspectives, but I want to record my odd angle anyway.


After the last researchED conference in September, where we hosted the first meeting of a new role in schools – the research lead – in the now legendary "Lunchtime of Champions", it was obvious that people in this embryonic position wanted, needed, a day to meet and talk about what that role should look like. This conference was a direct consequence of that. I had no idea how many tickets to float and thought, meh, let's cap it at 100. They sold out in three weeks.


It was a smaller, more compact day than previous researchED conferences, which is as it should be – it needed to be a place for professionals to come together and talk, network and discuss what they wanted the role to mean – and to find out what it could mean. This is a very new thing for most schools, and most schools don't know what to do with it. There's a wonderful sense of possibility in that ambiguity; it could become anything from a butterfly to a bulldozer.


The reason why this is important isn't because I want every teacher to be a researcher (they can't be) or to pore over research (they don't have time) or to say that research can solve all our ills (it just can't). And it isn't because I want teaching to be a research-based profession. It can't be.


But it can be research augmented. It can become a profession that is immunised against the enormous amount of terrible research that exists. It can recognise good evidence from bad. It can dispute poorly justified policy and interventions when it faces it. Even those who eschew the use of research and evidence in teaching are probably themselves in the thrall to the theories of long-dead educational researchers and theorists. You don't need research to be a good teacher. But in this increasingly besieged profession, shredded and drained of autonomy, you need to have some in your back pocket to resist the many, many claims made on your time and practice.


There's been a lot of talk recently about royal colleges, and my thoughts of that need another post to breathe. But for us to claim, as many wish, that we are a mature profession, we need to be able to say with confidence what approaches assist us in the classroom and which do not. Many of these questions will be settled by experience and reflection – the craft of the job. But many will not, because we are trapped inside our own lives, and if we ever see further than others it's only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. 


There is an ancient and collective wisdom in teaching that needs more than an oral tradition; it needs transmission. Where we can discern patterns, then those patterns need to be shared and analysed and, crucially, scrutinised for portability. Where patterns cannot be discerned, then the experience and craft of the teacher becomes pivotal. Discerning where these matters overlap is high on our agenda.


Rob Coe – who, incidentally, packs as much value into ten minutes of delivery than most whole-day Insets in some dreary Travelodge – offered counsel of caution to embryonic research leads, and I think this needs to be emphasised. Teachers can't just throw themselves into what they think looks like research, then hope that the conclusions will be meaningful – they need to become familiar with how you would form a hypothesis, test the same, and then analyse the conclusions. Usually, I advise that staff bundle up with partners who already work in research, such as universities and other institutions. If they're in a large-enough chain, they might have the capacity to work efficiently in that way. It's important not to just "do a research".


This is a movement in its infancy, but, I think, one with huge potential. There's a need for leads; teachers don't have time to do this all themselves, and until such a time as research literacy is built into teacher training and then revisited periodically throughout the career, there has to be a way that schools can stay abreast of the best of what has already been known, without relying on the partiality and bias of the gatekeepers of research. Recent history has taught us that it's easy for those in control of research to presume authority. It's time for teachers to look up, look to themselves and truly become the profession they need to be.


The day was brilliant. We're having another one at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, on 14 March. The Polite Revolution continues.


Thanks to everyone who gave so freely of their time: the Avengers-like SUPER network; Quigley and Hendrick, the Ant and Dec of the research lead circuit; Grand Fromage Rob Coe; Laughing Daniel Harvey; Gareth Mills; Sam Brainiac Freedman; David Inspirational Weston; Kevin Bartle The Incredible Shrinking Man; Rachel Brilliant Lawrence and Michael Brilliant Slavinsky. Thanks too to Meg and Becky Francis from Kings College London for hosting and helping. To Mary Whitehouse and Daisy Christodoulou for omnipresence and to Jude Enright for more energy than a goddamn windmill on Skye.