Saturday, 19 August 2017

False profits, and why representation matters at researchED

I think it’s important, once in a while, to write about what researchED stands for.  It’s important to continually define ourselves, in order not to be misrepresented or misunderstood. Recently some people have asked me where researchED stands on a number of issues, and I am glad to do so.

One of these is representation at conferences. It shouldn't need saying that conferences should represent the communities they serve; but then, many things that shouldn't need saying do need saying, and if we take them for granted, others will create new, bleaker narratives.

So, to be carved in the side of the wall:

researchED welcomes submissions from all people regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. We particularly welcome submissions from under-represented peoples or groups, considering all such submissions equally. In order to redress historical and cultural misrepresentation, I would urge anyone reading this to encourage any members of underrepresented groups who wish to, to send me a session submission. It would help us to improve representation, (and on a personal note I would welcome the expansion of my networks for future conferences). And we will always endeavour to increase our efforts to improve representation as we grow. 

A shorter versions of this is already to be found on the submission page of the researchED website here, and an expanded update will be added shortly to clarify our position.

Representation at conferences 

I also acknowledge that as a white man working in the education sector, my own immediate networks are overwhelmingly white. This isn't unusual for many; the term sunset segregation was coined to describe the process where people would often learn, work and travel in highly diverse communities, but when it was time to go home, went back to their often very mono-ethnic communities. While this might be a reasonably instinctive phenomenon, I believe it has no place in a formally organised public event, which should be as representative of the communities it serves as possible.

In the initial year or so of researchED I struggled with breaking past my own immediate networks, and if I’m honest, it probably wasn't as close to the front of my mind as it should have been. In addition there is a problem of representation in the broader educational community (see below). But talking to great educators like Alom Shaha and David McQueen in the UK, and listening to Dr Anthony Dillon and Charlotte Pezaro about this had a significant impact on me, and opened my eyes to the urgency of the matter. At first it was hard to accept that such an obvious thing had been overlooked, however accidentally. Since then it is part of my thinking process for every event, and I’m grateful for the guidance that many people have offered in this matter. I endeavour to do better with each conference as we grow.

I’m delighted to say that our efforts have borne some fruit. Our national conference has just over 140 speakers and 100 sessions. Over 11% of those sessions are presented by people from BAME communities, which at least begins to approach the 2011 census of 13/14% of the UK population, and higher than BAME representation in teaching posts (7.6%) and far higher than the sadly low 3% of BAME representation at leadership level, let alone the terrifying statistic of 0.4% of UK professor posts. The gender representation is almost exactly 50/50. researchED isn’t entitled to any medals for this- it should be automatic. But importantly, it is something we care deeply about, and every co-organiser I work with will testify that it is a routine agenda item in our every discussion. And I’m delighted that it is.

Our mission is to break things

researchED delights in debate, changing paradigms, and helping to generate a polite revolution in the classroom. I started it because I believed passionately- and still do- that education needs a revival, if not a reboot. It labours under so many false dogma and uninformed suppositions that in many ways it resembles medicine in the 18th century, when the doctor’s authority was privileged, and his hunch was the final word. Just as medicine finally succumbed to empirical science, so too should education- as an aid to our decisions, not as an authoritarian mosaic tablet. It should intersect with our every action, so that when evidence is available we use it to inform our pedagogy and policy rather than stifle it. Bogus fads like Learning Styles and Brain Gym are the least of it; wild, unchecked pseudoscience abounds, untested, unrestrained. It is still possible for a teacher to be told that group work is the best way for children to learn, without any consideration of when, and where and how it might be applicable. teacher talk is reviled, despite the enormous amount of research that suggests that careful, dialogic teacher talk is one of the most effective ways to convey information that is then retained. There are many more example of such things. None of these matters are settled, but every educator should be entitled to hear the evidence on both sides and make up their minds. on the matter.

As such, we often provoke strong reactions, particularly from people who might feel their orthodoxies are being challenged. Sometimes this leads to pointless conflict when discussion would be better; to personalised insults rather than ‘let’s talk.  researchED is a machine to create change for the better. Change always means knocking a few things over.

No tolerance for intolerance

But, as Karl Popper wrote in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies, 'As paradoxical as it may seem, defending tolerance requires to not tolerate intolerance.’ It is undesirable for any opinion to be expressed without limitation. This is not to suppress the right to hold unpopular opinions, but to acknowledge that in a pluralistic society, any right can come into conflict with other rights. One things researchED will never tolerate is racism. Specifically (in light of recent discussions) the idea that any ethnicity is in any way inferior to another, morally, genetically or in dignity is both factually false and morally repugnant to the principles of researchED. And I know of no research or evidence that indicates otherwise. As educators, our duty is to remove barriers to achievement, not reinforce them; to liberate rather than collaborate in enslavement,

There is of course significant evidence of differences in outcomes for different ethnicities: SAT scores, sentence lengths, imprisonment rates, salary outcomes etc. But these raw data point to societal inequity, circumstantial inequalities, and contextual issues, rather than to an intrinsic personal lack. More importantly, it points to areas in which we need to improve; where we need to find the invisible chains that hold certain strata back, and break those chains from here to Kingdom come. That is the duty of the educator, and it is the duty of everyone in education to enable. And it is researchED’s duty. I would not have anyone speak at the conference on the matter if I thought they thought otherwise. Better evidence in these areas can help us to right these wrongs.

Riches in Heaven

researchED has no staff or significant funding; I started it four years ago on the back of a huge amount of enthusiasm, love and support from many, many people who gave their time freely to help make it happen. Access has always been at the forefront of what we do, and I was determined to make sure that as many people as possible could come. Almost all events are on a Saturday so that employment issues are reduced as a barrier. We run a free creche at the larger events so that parenthood doesn’t prohibit attendance. Most importantly, ticket prices are rock bottom to try to reduce income as a barrier to attendance. Most of our conferences cost around £25 to attend, which includes lunch, coffee and a full program of some of the world’s top voices in education. Most teacher ‘training’ days I see charge upwards of £250-£400 to attend. I wanted to break that mould and make it easy for educators to meet with research generators in useful and symbiotic discussion. I wanted to break down some barriers between those who investigate and those who are investigated.

To some extent I think we’ve succeeded. In one room you might have a government minister taking questions of the evidence base of their latest policy, and next door there might be a teaching assistant discussing how she launched journal clubs at her school. I love that sense of levelling, of democratic representation that it embodies. It’s just one way that teacher (or educator) voice can be platformed.

Hail Hydra

One issue we currently face is, ironically, one of too-rapid success. We now run about 15 conferences a year, on three continents in 7 or 8 countries. Our national conference has around 1000 attendees this year. And we still have no staff, no capital. Allegations that we must be secretly funded in some way by shadowy conglomerates and HYDRAs make me sigh, wearily, when I wonder if I can pay my mortgage in three months time. But I love running it too much, and I believe in what researchED stands for too much, to let that be an impediment. As long as I am able I’ll support it. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with a small army of volunteers who give up their spare time to help make it happen, and without them, this wouldn't exist.

But this incredibly thread-bare model that has somehow, inexplicably worked for the last few years, means that organisationally we lack the capacity to operate in the way that better funded bodies with spare staff do. I work every day of the week, often way after midnight, just to keep up with the admin, and the decision making. I couldn't do it if the reward wasn't immense, but we are still an army of enthusiasts, and while we may look like a large corporation with committees and subcommittees, it is still largely me and a few volunteers stuffing bags on a Friday night. I hope we can be forgiven some of our frailties that we sometimes appear a little rough round the edges.

False profits of education 

There is no profit in researchED, and because I vowed to keep ticket prices low, for the last few years the only way I’ve been able to break even is by accepting sponsorship support from a huge variety of sources. All of our co-sponsors are listed on the website event pages, and they vary from event to event. We’ve been generously supported by a magazine of sources: charities, unions, publishers, research organisations, government institutions…and all with this condition: no one gets a say over who we select to present. We maintain complete editorial and curatorial independence at all of our events. Plus, having so many sponsors means that we experience no financial pressure from any one of them. researchED is driven by moral concerns, not financial ones.

The great thing about being zero profit is that it means we can keep costs low AND it means that people are far more willing to help out for free, whether by speaking, or running a room, or handing out fliers. It’s been amazing to see what is possible with love, determination, and a sense of achieving a public, common good.

A tall poppy?

We welcome informed and positive feedback to help us improve, and I'm grateful to many of the people who contacted me recently, most of whom did so in a collegiate and collaborative way. Do other events receive as much scrutiny over this? I don't know. I think if I’m honest I suspect some of the less positive scrutiny is because researchED represents a challenge to the status quo in education. We want to reform education for all children and teachers. We want every child taught in as evidence-informed a manner as possible. That means change from what we do at present; and many do not like change. We also represent an unashamedly empirical attitude in our sessions, and many do not like that either, preferring other approaches. It’s a big world and there are room for lots of kinds of conferences, and I have no objection to any of them existing. But we must allow plurality of viewpoint in the education system.

And you know who benefits most from working with evidence? Children. And of them, who benefits most? The least advantaged. Those with no second chances, no tutors, no jobs waiting for them in publishing no matter how they do. The children who are poor, marginalised, miles away from the opportunities and privileges of the elite. They are the ones who need this the most. It is our duty to over turn every dogma we have, obtain the best evidence we can, and turn that into rocket fuel for the ones that need it the most. Evidence informed education is the best vehicle for that I can think of.

And that's what researchED stands for, and continues to stand for, and always will. I hope to see you at a future conference where together we can pull down the moon an inch at a time.