Yesterday, the Shore School in Sydney played host to the newly global phenomenon that is researchED. I managed to play a small part in this. I made initial contact with some of the presenters, had a presentation slot of my own and even ended-up corralling various people to do video interviews for the website. The only problem with this was that I could not see all of the presenters. However, a number of the presentations were recorded and will be up on the website.
For some of us, the event began with a panel dinner on Friday night organised by Education Partners. I was pleased to see quite a number of Australian Education’s rock stars in attendance, including Geoff Masters of ACER who I once showed a graph to after he gave a talk at the ACER conference (he wasn’t impressed, I remember). Geoff made the excellent point that, rather than looking at the absolute performance of countries in tests such as PISA and TIMSS, we should look at the direction of travel; improving or declining. This would strip out the effect of cultural factors. However, later speakers went on to talk approvingly of Finland, despite its own decline in PISA scores. I wanted to point this out but we ran out of time for questions.
The day itself began with me arriving far too early at the Shore School, desperate for the toilet and a look in the room where I would be presenting. It was hot and humid and only going to become more hot and humid as the day wore on. I was directed to the tea and coffee area. I didn’t drink much tea or coffee but I did return frequently to drink a lot of chilled water, stand under a fan and discuss the day with Kevin Wheldall and Jennifer Buckingham; just two of the people that it would have been worth travelling to Sydney to meet whether there was a conference on or not.
In addition, I met Tom Bennett, Kevin Donnelly – who gave me a copy of his book – Stephen Dinham, Kerry Hempenstall – who did a great piece-to-camera on what direction instruction (and Direct Instruction) is and is not – Pamela Snow – who has written recently about literacy teaching in Australia – Simon and Carol Townley, Corinne Campbell – whose presentation was sadly at the same time as mine – Cameron Paterson and lots of other fascinating people. Unfortunately, in a one day event, I also missed a fair few people for which I am truly sorry.
After the introductions, there was a panel discussion with Kevin Donnelly, Stephen Dinham and Kevin Wheldall, chaired by Simon Townley. I loved this. Donnelly is quite a controversial character in Australian education and he nodded to this in his contributions. However, I thought he made some good points. I didn’t agree with all of them but, frankly, too many conferences are devoid of actual debate. And this debate was polite and respectful. What was the disconnect between research and policy? Donnelly made a miss-step where he seemed to indicate that teaching is more of an art than a science. Under questioning from the audience, he then had to row back-from the perception that he had created that research was pointless.
Stephen Dinham took a line that policy operates at many levels; the school and various levels of government. He mentioned learning styles and riffed on why this dangerous myth has survived; is it something that people just prefer to believe? However, he left us in no doubt that it was dangerous because of the way that it labels children; a point he returned to on camera. I asked him why the AITSL teacher standards website illustrates its standards with best practice videos that mention learning styles. He suggested this was an example of research/policy disconnect.
Kevin expressed his own frustration at the lack of evidence to support many policies in schools, for instance in early literacy – I thought his point dovetailed well with what Kerry Hempenstall said later.
Then it was my presentation on Cognitive Load Theory for teachers. I was doubtful that I would have much of a turnout for this; it sounds a bit technical and I was up against Stephen Dinham and Corinne Campbell. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the attendance. I did my talk and presented my evidence. I wasn’t sure that my conclusions would go down very well and I was nervous about the Q&A session at the end. Some people clearly agreed with me but those who didn’t were still prepared to ask questions rather than just make point. Again, it is this sort of constructive debate that we need more of in education.
I was then sucked into a bit of interviewing before an excellent lunch. After that, I attended a presentation about professional development of teachers through coaching.
In the next session, Kevin and Robyn Wheldall delivered an excellent presentation on positive teaching. Many people are opposed to the use of extrinsic rewards and consequences – and this was mentioned in the questions. However Kevin and Robyn gave a reasoned explanation of the research evidence and explained how and when to use praise and how it should be gradually withdrawn. I have written about this – and about Kevin’s research on seating arrangements – for the TES and so it was fascinating to hear this from Kevin and Robyn.
The final session of the day prior to Tom’s summary was delivered by Kerry Hempenstall. Despite being in a small, hot room, I could have listened to Kerry for at least another half-an-hour. He left us wanting more, stating that he had over-prepared. As someone who has worked with educational research for many years he didn’t mince his words; at one point he declared that education research was anathema to some education academics. Kerry’s field is initial reading instruction and he took us through the various issues; reflecting on whole-language and its legacy. I will be reading more on his blog.
Soon, videos and presentation slides will be available on the researchED website so, if you missed-out, you will at least be able to get a flavour of the day and have a look at the presentation slides.
What we need is for this thing to grow. The intersection of researchers and teachers in a productive environment is something that I’ve not seen before. Yes, we have teachmeets and we have the ACER conference but researchED has a special dynamic that brings these groups together, asks hard questions and demands practical rather than esoteric responses. I think this was the start of something big. Watch this space.