Research says…

Recently I have felt slightly under siege by ‘research’. For some of this I have only myself to blame, for choosing to study for my MEd, for choosing to attend lectures about educational policy, for engaging in discussions on social media, for reading newspapers and for listening to politicians and journalists talk about education. However, what is completely not my fault is the way in which this ‘research’ is presented, not as findings constrained by particular methodology or context or situations, but as fact, indisputable, broadly applicable and as a basis for a wide range of policy and practice decisions.

What worries me particularly is how much I accepted this, how much I took what was delivered and believed without question what it told me I should be doing in my classroom. This is not my normal behaviour, I am captain of the “Really? What do you mean by that? Why should I do that?” questions. I am critical, and at times cynical, and really not known for just accepting what I am told. Turns out when it’s presented me under the umbrella of research I follow blindly, happily accepting ideas that challenge my fundamental beliefs without question. Well, not any more.

After some very interesting twitter conversations (the more I engage in twitter, the more I’m learning) I realised that at no point had I read the actual documents prepared by the researchers. What terrified me was that I wasn’t accepting actual research as fact, but rather someone else’s boiled down interpretation of the research, frequently having selected points that best suit their own political or philosophical agenda. To be clear, I wasn’t at some sort of off the grid meetings discussing random aspects of education, I was at professional learning developed and sanctioned by the educational system in which I work. There are some very popular pieces of research getting rather a lot of airtime and policy time and learning time at the moment. However, as I’ve started to read the actual research and articles critiquing said research I’ve come to realise that all is not as it might have first seemed.

It turns out that research comes in all shapes and sizes, some of it is based on other research, some of it uses small samples, some of it large, some of it publicly funded, some private. All of these aspects of the research are of great significance in terms of its validity and applicability. The key for me is that I need to go to the source. I need to ask questions when someone says “Research says…” I need to remember that generally, people use research to prove a particular point, often focusing on particular aspects rather than the research in the fullness of its intention.

There is a huge emphasis at the moment about C21 learners and learning. One of those skills is critical thinking. Are we as educators modelling this skill for our students or are we bowing down under the research presented to us as truth. Are we succumbing to the ‘headline’ approach to research? What do you ask when presented with research that challenges your beliefs? How often do you read the original documents? I’m going to start clawing back some of this power, I’m going to start asking questions and I’m NEVER going to use the phrase “Research says” unless I’ve actually read the research first hand. Promise.

Education: Who are we hearing from?

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading, watching and listening about current educational discussions, policies and issues. I’ve read papers written by university lecturers, by economists, by journalists and by organisations responsible for large scale testing. I’ve watched lectures, both online and in the flesh, by university academics and by economists and statisticians. I’ve listened to politicians, journalists, parents and friends share their ideas about education and how it can be ‘fixed’. Here’s the thing though, rarely, if at all have I heard the voices of actual educators in all this noise. Those people blamed for the ‘problem’ and tasked with fixing it.

Here, on social media, on blogs, twitter and Facebook I hear from educators who work every day with students and who spend a great deal of their outside of work time thinking, planning, discussing and sharing about education. I hear from these educators, I hear the talk of exciting new plans and projects, of what books they are reading in order to improve their practice and outcomes for students in their care. I hear them ask questions and support each other. I hear how much they love what they do and how deeply they care about it. I hear because I am one of them. I have access to this wealth of knowledge and amazing online community.

I know I’ve got a lot to learn, this is why I engage in reading, watching and listening. What I would love is to hear more from educators out there in the mainstream media. More of these stories, of educators reflecting and sharing, with educators celebrating the amazing things they are doing, with educators participating in reasoned discussions about our education system rather than being told that they are to blame and that everyone else has the answers. Why isn’t this happening? Why isn’t this part of our culture?

I know that there are a range of education unions who take up this cause, however often these arguments are lost in the political point scoring that occurs in any discussion of education policy. This is also not presenting the full picture of the role of educators and the depth of the profession. Imagine if there were regular stories in the news, in magazines, papers and online, sharing what education looks like in our long daycare centres, our preschools, schools, universities, TAFEs and other centres of education. Imagine if people saw the range of programs taught, the experiences offered and the passion of educators. I wonder what impact this would have on people’s perception of educators? What I wonder is: how can we make this happen? How do we balance this sharing of work without being accused of being defensive or trying to sell an argument about teachers’ pay or conditions. Should that even be a concern?

There is so much more to a discussion of education than arguing about class sizes or the latest round of testing. This is not what educators spend their time doing each day, these are not the questions that occupy us. Let’s move the debate beyond these issues. Let’s talk about our reality. Let’s celebrate our passion, our learning and the learning of our students. Let’s be heard.

Education: the heart of it

These are tricky times in education. Educators are faced with funding arguments and uncertainty, accreditation systems lacking coordination, upheaval in the government sector and confusion about employment prospects for new graduates. A career as an educator is one often met with ridicule from the media, lack of respect from the community and a barrage of blame statements from society. Despite all that, beyond the policy arguments, shifting priorities and increasing scrutiny there is absolutely no other job I would rather do. None. Not a single one.

I say this as a fairly experienced teacher, having taught for 12 years now, half in London and half in Sydney, in a range of schools and in a range of roles. This week, it struck home to me just how much I care about my job. It was the first day of the school holidays, where was I? At school, not alone, but with my colleagues, preparing for next term’s learning. There we were, sitting at the computers every so often saying to each other, “I’m really excited about this.”, or “I can’t wait to do this activity.”, or “What do you think about trying this?”. No one made us go into work, we care about what we do and believe in the potential of education, it makes it worth it.

Change can be challenging. It can be confronting. It can mean the end of things you like, or understand, or feel comfortable using. For me change is what I love about education. Change is at the heart of what we do and what we seek to do. Education is change: change in understanding, perceptions, ideas and lives. I can’t remember a term (or a week, or a lesson) where I haven’t changed what I intended to do. I’ve changed my lesson structure or activity in response to student interest or needs. I’ve changed my strategies for classroom management. I’ve changed the way my desks are organised, the technology I use, the questions I ask, the groups I organise for students, the texts I read, the materials I provide and so much more. Sometimes these changes work well, sometimes they don’t, but regardless of that, learning has happened, I’ve learnt, the students have learnt and my colleagues have learnt.

At the moment I’m learning about Project Based Learning. I’m thinking about what student engagement looks like and how I can maximise that. I’m reading, I’m watching videos, I’m asking questions, I’m talking to people and I’m trying things out. I’m excited. How many other careers give you this freedom? The freedom to take charge of your practice, to try new things and to change. This is what excites me about education, this freedom and the potential it holds. The potential for change, change in me, in students and my school community. What a privilege.

A quote from a book I’m reading at the moment struck a chord with me today. Agnes is a librarian in Zambia. The author asked her how she copes with all the difficulties she faces and asks “…isn’t that a challenge for you?”. Agnes’s response was “Yes, it can be challenging. But when you love something, when you love something, you do it with all your heart, all of your passion, and all of your energy.” (Wood J, 2012, Room To Read, p47).

While the challenges I face may be different to those Agnes encounters, her belief in the power of education resonates. I know of no other way to be an educator other than wholeheartedly, passionately and with love. Why would I want to do anything else?

What do you say when people ask why you are an educator? What’s at the heart of it for you?