Headed off to the USA and the sense of excitement never lessens – 12 days, two conferences, a number of institutional visits and, of course, catching up with “the network” of people engaged in some of the same areas that consume our interest – disengagement, priority learners, continuity within the system and so on.
The best of what is in the USA is as good as it gets in the world, the worst is unspeakably bad and there is a huge mountain of stuff in between. I like to think that I get to see the best.
That’s why I think the discussion about Charter Schools in New Zealand has been one of lowest quality which defies the evidence (see previous paragraph!). They make that mistake in the US as well. The education research industry is huge but like so much of the education research throughout the world (should I qualify that and say “Anglo Saxon world?). It gets done, researchers meet to report their research to other researchers. The elegance of the methodology can be breathtaking, the discussion cerebral and well-informed. The trouble is that by and large classroom teachers are left largely unaware of the research and its implications for practice.
And they have little choice but to continue to do the same old thing with the same old way to get the same old results even with some misgivings. It isn’t the fault of teachers, it is the result of a research industry that is driven by its own imperatives rather than by what is best for students.
I first came to this conclusion in 1983 when I returned from a year at the University of London Institute of Education working with the great and sadly now late group that consisted of Harold Rosen, James Britten, Nancy Martin, John Dixon, Lesley Stratta and a wider group of acolytes who were changing the face of English teaching. They were doing this by immersing themselves with teachers in their practice and in their daily lives as teachers rather than other applied linguistic researchers. Indeed, the researcher on the other side of the corridor, the Department for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language may have been a tribe in Papua New Guinea for all the sharing that went on.
At that point in my life I made a decision, the life of a researcher was not for me. I preferred the life of a broker of research. It’s not about showing how clever we are, it is all about what impact we have. Give me a number of research studies and I shall tell you in five bullet points what they mean for practice. And there is not enough of this happening.
Fortunately, New Zealand has an impressive list of exceptions to all this. John Hattie has through his work brought vast tracts of research into the orbit of teachers. His Visible Learning is a touchstone for many a discussion. Wait! Before you indulge yourselves, check out what the research says. Russell Bishop is another who has had impact – takes the research and turns it into action in classrooms and schools through a deeper understanding of culturally sensitive pedagogy. Instead of simply setting up an agenda, Bishop has given teachers a technology for better performance and better results. Marie Clay was another – her research into reading translated onto a programme for “reading recovery” that captured the interest of the education world internationally.
This is not to devalue the worth of good educational research but without that second wave of simplifying and popularising, without the processes of translation into practice, change would not happen.
In the area of disengagement there is a bucket load of theory and research. It is just that it appears to have little impact on keeping students in school. This will be a key interest in the next two weeks. The statistics in the USA continue to go south while the researchers head north to conferences – I promise you that on my return I shall in one blog (800 words) summarise where the thinking is at, without smoke and mirrors, wire or trapdoors and in a language that runs the danger of being understood.
That is a little bit flippant, I know, but I do long for a simpler world where those who know can explain to those who don’t know what it is we all need to know. And in education it will be all about how we do a better job for someone else, the student. One day the penny will drop that this whole industry is not about serving those who work in it, it is entirely about others. But is that very different from most businesses?
Ahh, the USA looms closer and closer – that magical land of the best, the worst, the greatest successes and the greatest failures. It will be good to visit UC Berkeley when I catch up with those I worked with in 2007 and 2008. And to enjoy those quirky features such as the parking sign – P for Parking, NP for No Parking and those spaces marked NL – those parks reserved for Nobel Laureates! I shall do this on my way to Oakland to visit community colleges serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the US. Talk about contrast!!!