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By the teachers, for the teachers, about the teaching.

Pamela Dow shares her thoughts on ResearchEd, and the need for a culture of dynamic inquiry across frontline practice.

11 September 2017

This Saturday over 1000 teachers filled Chobham Academy in Stratford for what can only be described as a festival of evidence and ideas. It’s hard to explain concisely what makes ResearchEd different from the many other conferences or online repositories of ‘best practice’. If I said the conference programme is a bit more like the Glastonbury guide than a professional event agenda you might think I was exaggerating.

It’s partly about the way it started as a grass-roots, teacher-led movement, with a nudge from Ben Goldacre. It’s partly about the way that it has ballooned since 2013, with events on three continents and over 15,000 attendees (so far). It’s partly about the tenacity and enthusiasm of its founder Tom Bennett and his determination to bring academics, policymakers and classroom teachers together, to learn, share and challenge. It’s partly its recognition that ‘how’ is at least as important as ‘what’, if not more so. It’s partly the absence of any Government or professional body direction or funding. ResearchEd is by the teachers, for the teachers, about the teaching.

Embedding a new culture in frontline practice

More than any of this ResearchEd has helped embed a new culture and expectation of dynamic inquiry, at all levels. It counters the myth of a professional canon, available and acquired with PGCE. It is generous in being a transparent platform, not a transactional hierarchy. Every single presentation and discussion is available online, with associated materials, and often live.

There isn’t anything like ResearchEd for social workers, prison officers or probation officers. That’s not to say there aren’t networks of knowledge, or conferences, or continuing professional development programmes. There are a lot of these. In the main they are delivered by central or sectoral bodies, and targeted at specific cohorts. They might be positioned as uniting theory and practice, but they are rarely uniting theoreticians and practitioners, and certainly not at scale. It may be that the incentives aren’t there, as they weren’t in education until recently. Schools or chains of schools now explicitly value and reward teachers who attend ResearchEd, or Northern Rocks and seek out new practice and share it. Does a prison expect its officers to do this? Are social workers allotted time for building a national network, looking for evidence, and questioning what they do and how?

How can we expect frontline staff in the most demanding jobs to feel valued and invested in what they do, to improve, to know what works, if there are few opportunities and no culture of doing so?

Attending ResearchEd this weekend with a colleague we were struck by how relevant so many of the sessions were for social work practice. Harry Fletcher Wood talked about the evidence for good and bad professional development. Less theory and more practice. Small bits of intensive feedback over a defined period. ‘Buddying’ across disciplines. Acquiring good habits and changing bad ones. There was actually nothing he said that wouldn’t also have been useful for someone learning prisoncraft. Our good friend Natasha Porter of Unlocked Graduates talked through the need to embed effective education in prisons. Emmanuel Akpan Inwang talked through the lessons to be learnt from social pedogogy. Daisy Christodolou gave a typically brilliant presentation on the four wrong but common practices in assessment/measurement, which lead to distortion and unintended consequences. I would have stayed for another two hours to listen to her discuss the accountability frameworks for Transforming Rehabilitation, or the thresholds for children in need, with a group comprising those who devised and those who use them.

Perhaps we don’t need a ResearchEd for social work and criminal justice, perhaps the same can be achieved through social workers, prison officers and probation officers attending ResearchEd? At least until one of them becomes the next Tom Bennett for their profession…