A story of practice, theory & sense-making: researchEd Sydney 2015

researchED-logo Sydney

Well, my brain was fit to burst as I headed back to Melbourne after spending my Saturday in the company of a great bunch of passionate educators at the inaugural Australian fixture of researchED (#rEDSyd). I recognised this kind of brain-ache. It’s what the best professional learning does to you. Maybe it’s what learning feels like? The cogs were certainly turning all day as I moved from one presentation or workshop to another, not to mention the conversations caught in between! All of them were engaging and informative, and even entertaining.

This felt different from other conferences, researcher- or practitioner- led, that I’d attended before. Perhaps it was the slightly different theme for the day – teacher engagement with research and theory – that led to a different kind of conversation and reflection. I did attend presentations that were about new approaches or interventions, and I learned from these, but what I think was different for me this time was that I was looking through a different lens at this one. I was more interested in the approach and basis of the work, and then the ensuing conversations around questions like “is this research?” or “does this count as research-informed?”.

Making sense or sense-making?

We may appear to make sense or to present a sensible proposition or explanation for a problem of practice. Indeed, some are very good at selling things that appear to make sense. This is very different from sense-making. I pondered this difference during the day and I recalled the words of a very learned former colleague (Professor Lani Florian) presenting a lecture on educational theory to student teachers at the University of Aberdeen. She described learning theory as “frameworks for thinking about our practice” – simple as that – not rules or tools but a set of frameworks to help construct and examine our practice (and reconstruct it).

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) talked passionately about the need for teachers to “engage profitably” with educational research. He suggested that one way-in was for schools to start with a question which they would like answered and then engage with the research literature before implementing a new practice. Tom alluded to the tension between our in-the-moment “craft” as teachers (something I think some teachers hide behind) and theoretical understandings of what is going on in any given classroom or school situation. There is no instruction manual for dealing with the myriad of complex social interactions that we encounter daily but there is a body of evidence-informed knowledge out there that can help us to better understand what is going on and how it might be different next time.

theory-practiceOver the course of the day I saw great examples of teachers “engaging profitably” with research.

We had Glenn McLachlan presenting the TALIS research data as a starting point for his school’s implementation of Instructional Coaching and Instructional Rounds as powerful forms of professional learning. Then, in the design and implementation of these interventions, we could see that the work was informed by relevant and credible educational literature. (Note – not all “educational literature” is credible – critical engagement is key!)

Similarly, Deborah Netolicky and Janelle McGann spoke very convincingly about their school’s research-based model of teacher growth. This model was built around widely recognized frameworks for teaching and teacher growth. The key term here is “built around” – not plugged-in – but tailored to their local context. It was very clear that this solid grounding in research informed literature (and their experiences of success so far) put the winds of confidence and courage in their sails as these leaders implemented new approaches with their teachers.

I heard Corinne Campbell tell her school’s story of how they had investigated and revamped their approach to the controversial subject of homework. This was a great example of starting with very local data – from parent and teacher surveys – to gain clarity around the full range of beliefs, views, misconceptions and practices that existed within their community. This very clear picture of reality was then placed alongside a wide range of research evidence on homework before decisions were made about the way forward. The big message here was: this is what works for our community, go and find out about yours.

I was intrigued by Pam Ryan’s presentation title – Putting Practice into Theory: sharing process, sharing thinking. Pam repeatedly stated that she did not “do research” and that this would not “count as research”. However, this did not make what she presented any less credible or relevant. Drawing on her 30 years of educational leadership experience, Pam described a process of deep reflection enabled by the deconstruction of her experiences. This analytical process had led to the development of conceptual frameworks and ways of understanding that could then be augmented with relevant theory. It’s that sense-making thing again. This process will be the subject of a forthcoming book. To my mind Pam’s work is surely a form of scholarly activity that sits somewhere in the research/evidence paradigm.

Finally, Cameron Paterson went for an active learning approach to engaging his audience in some of the key components of Reggio-inspired approaches to learning. As we participated in an activity (making paper aeroplanes!) I adopted one of the roles of documenter. The role of documenter was to capture the process of building knowledge during the group activity. I learned something about the theory behind the approach (through trying and then discussing it) and found myself considering how this kind of observing and documenting could be a powerful strategy for peer observation between teachers. Again, I was connecting the theory to my own practice, and other associated theories relating to design thinking and meta-cognition.

By the end of the day a pattern was emerging. There seemed to be a cycle of questions that those presenting had gone through with each one starting at different points in this cycle depending on their context or starting point. I tweeted these questions and a response came back that it was “the perfect storm of questions”. I would perhaps add “What will I do now?” between the stages and you might add other stages to the cycle. Here they are:

  • What do I think?
  • What do others think?
  • What does the research say?
  • What do I think now? 

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment if any of this has made you think.

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3 comments

  1. Sounds like it was really interesting, thanks for sharing the learning, Chris.
    I like your 4 question sum up of the process used:
    What do I think?
    What do others think?
    What does the research say?
    What do I think now?
    We do something similar with the kids. We use a concentric circles model which typically might have ‘me’ in the middle, then ‘friends and family’ or ‘other people’ in the next circle, then ‘experts’ in the outside one. (There are many different versions of this model!) In this version, faced with an issue or a big question, they start with What do I think (in the middle), then find out what others think (next circle) , then find out what experts say (interview, ask online, or simply google), then refine their own thinking… and then come up with new wonderings and questions…
    This reinforces my belief that kids and adults learn in the same ways, despite opinions to the contrary!

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  2. Thanks for commenting Edna. That is a very similar process. I suppose the key to both is the level of critical analysis of the “evidence”. I was going to say that perhaps kids are more open to new ways of seeing things and maybe need more “teaching” about how to engage critically with the “expert” views they find. However, now I’ve said it, that probably applies to adults (teachers) too. Although we probably see more academic arrogance (or blissful ignorance) from adults!

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