Sunday, 20 May 2012

The New Influencers

The worst research uncovers the bleeding obvious, 

the best illuminates ways to wisdom

Reading the executive summary of the OECD report, “Human Scale Schools” (published April 24th 2012) I see that it concludes schools should ensure that “all students, regardless of their personal and socio-economic circumstances, achieve high level skills”.  It goes on to urge, presumably those who don’t want students to achieve, to develop:  “a supportive climate”, “an environment for learning” and “positive teacher-student and student-teacher relationships”.  At this point I began to make notes.  Here was another contender for my SOBO research award.  (Statement Of Bleeding Obvious, from the Monty Python School of Education).  Reading on I found more SOBO phrases encouraging schools to, “set up classroom learning strategies that combine student-centred and teacher-led instruction”.  I had a passing wonder about other forms of instruction in a school peopled by teachers and students.  It SOBO’d on…  “Develop alternative ways of organizing instruction time”, Alternative to what? I moaned, only to read the ubiquitous, “Build links with parents and the communities around schools”.  At this point I wailed at the screen, “What do you think schools are doing every day?”

In three minutes I had morphed from interested educationalist into angry activist.  Why so angry?  It reminded me of the pre-election poster, the size of a tennis court, with Cameron’s face and the slogan, “Bring back discipline to schools”.  I dropped my forehead to praying hands, realising this stuff feeds the ignorant about an imaginary failing system, by stating the obvious in way that suggests it is not happening,

I was recently asked to remove a critical paragraph from an evaluation report for a government office.

OECD reports usually have real clout, as opposed to election posters, because they are based on quality research.  But, check this with any decent researcher, if you ask a simple question to thousands of professionals and reify their responses you get generalised mush.  The crucial and enlightening stuff is not in an averaged response from all but in the differences and nuances between the equally successful.  Confusion is in the totality, clues are in the detail.  I stomped off returning, caffeined up and calmer, to read the full report and do it justice.  I then discovered I had to pay £15 to download it!   Conspiracy theorists would claim inaccessible research is funded by those who want a high status report to feed an agenda.  I was recently asked to remove a critical paragraph from an evaluation report for a government office and told, “If we are critical, we won’t get further contracts.” I refused – the paragraph and my name were removed and the report submitted.  My cynicism was flaring up but I vowed, long ago, never to be negative, for long. “Don’t just dismiss poor thinking, keep calm and offer a way forward” I say to colleagues.  So my challenge is: What would my research hypothesis and methodology be?  Here’s my answer… I would make the OECD conclusion my presumption and assume schools want to, “achieve high level skills” and, “have good relationships” etc. I would then research the ways different schools created circumstances for their students to succeed. 

Researching what works is never enough – we must develop Communities of Practice

My hypothesis would be that teachers and schools educate successfully in a variety of creative ways but those with a vision for education that combines,  “academic achievement (high level skills) ” with, “a moral purpose (good relationships) ” are more successful than those who concentrate on just one of these complementary visions. 

My methodology would be to identify and collate evidence of activities, programmes and lesson plans that successfully linked learning with this dual purpose.  And, because this is a huge question, rather than try to answer it all, in one go, I would seek to develop a Community of Practice where workaday teachers exchanged practical ideas and strategies to move students along some well defined continuums. From illiteracy, to literacy , on to high level thinking; from isolation, to dependence, through independence to interdependence in learning; from innumeracy, through arithmetic to creative mathematics;  from egocentricity, through ethnocentricity, to global thinking in attitude and from a meek accepting of what is given, through initiative taking, to entrepreneurship on to philanthropy.  In short, my research would be about finding the ways to wisdom.

The internet is evolving into our community of practice…

Finally, I would look for a simple dissemination, or publishing strategy and access would be free.  I would want my research report to be easy to read and practical.  This would ensure it was seen, read, reread, augmented, transposed and amplified.  Then I saw a blinding light and it was my twitter feed….this is already happening!  All we need to do is read the twittering educationalists, follow their hyperlinks and gut their BLOGS.  The detailed research is already out there. There are wonderfully talented teachers who, after gruelling days in the classrooms of the world, go home to tweet, or BLOG about the gems of their thinking.  They share ideas, humour, despair, hope, successes and failures.  They ask questions, offer links and resources.  Of course there is crap too, lots of it, but amongst these honest offerings there are nuggets.  This is our new reference library.  The internet is evolving and revolutionising our community of practice…  

The dull libraries of limited access and paid for memberships are gathering dust. Book thick research papers are no longer the first place practising teachers and leaders look for inspiration.   

The best research is accessible research, meaningful research that goes beyond SOBO and, therefore, is referenced in the tweets and BLOGS of the professionals. Few, if any are going to pay £15 to access a report that advertises itself as stating the bleeding obvious. If the OECD and others want their research reports read and used they have to wake up and use the new media.

See this BLOG in THEDAY here which is, amongst others, trying to disseminate the work of the New Influencers - come and join us! 

John Pearce is a Freelance Leadership Consultant and writer

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