ResearchEd Swindon

Yesterday late at night I came back from ResearchEd English and Literacy conference in Swindon. Primarily, I was one of the speakers – speaking, of course, on EAL (details below), but I was equally as keen to simply attend ResearchEd as it promotes this one thing that, shockingly, is missing from too many a school – teachers doing their own research and using it to improve their own practice. If you read some of the blog posts of mine on this website, you will likely be under the impression that I consider research one of the most important aspects for teacher developments. How can we possibly not engage in academic research if this is precisely what we ask so many times of our students. You know, “Don’t just say it / Don’t just write it. What evidence do you have to support your claims?” I strongly believe that if we say so to our learners, we should follow the same route ourselves.

The conference took place at the Swindon Academy, and was organised through the cooperation of the school’s SLT (Ruth Robinson @RuthKRobinson, Nick Wells @NSMWells) and Tom Bennett (@tombennett71, Director of ResearchED) and David Didau (@LearningSpy). I am sure there were many others involved, apologies for not adding you!

The conference opened with a fascinating talk from Prof. Ray Land with the Durham University. He was speaking about Threshold Concepts (http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html), what he called “pedagogy of uncertainty”: without emotional investment, nothing new and important will happen and new knowledge will not be generated. The concept involves a sub-concept of Troublesome Knowledge – that is, being troubled is required for old beliefs to be changed (reference to Dewey). Threshold, therefore, is the state of being between two stages – the old belief and new belief, e.g. teens between childhood and adulthood. This is also referred to as liminality, and Prof. Land claims that all subjects have concepts that provoke liminality. Crossing that middle-stage threshold is also irreversible – once you’ve learnt that the world is not flat, everything changes for you and you can’t go back to the previous way of thinking about the world. The suggestion here was, of course, that it is this middle stage that we, as teachers, should focus on. Prof. Land also says that this view is inconsistent with the consumerist view of learning: it is concerned with whether or not students are happy, but, clearly, it is precisely their anxiety that is supposed to allow them to cross the threshold. I’ll leave it up to you to decide your own response to this approach!

I then attended Vincent Lien’s (@fratribus) talk. Vincent works as a teacher at a school in Harrogate, researches teacher professionalism and identity and has an excellent blog at https://fratribus.wordpress.com/. There’s quite a lot on there on vocabulary, literacy and writing – very interesting research-based writings, so make sure you bookmark it! Vincent delivered his talk together with Frank Cornelissen (@Frank_Corneliss), who is a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge (Faculty of Education). They spoke of the importance of granting teachers access to academic journals – got me excited straight away. It is so important that this is the case – why would teachers be cut off from the source of information, research and studies that directly affects (and could potentially enrich) their profession? I don’t know what I would do without reading academic journals! Even better, they have started a petition to the UK government that such open access is granted to teachers.

This petition is called: Free access to research ejournals for teachers. Please please please sign it – teacher agency is particularly important if you are ever to make sense of and in some cases resist the “research-based” orders from upstairs. If a member of staff tells you that this particular strategy is “good practice”, what’s it based on? Which journal was their study published? Has anyone corroborated this? Ejournals access – so important! Sign this petition now! And share with others.

Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) ran a fantastic workshop on The Complex Matter of Reading. Rather than telling us “what works”, she presented us with a number of citations on what influences children’s success (or lack thereof) at reading, looking at it from different perspectives – for instance, social-cultural, emotional and instructional (I believe it was). By reading out and making links between different aspects of the challenge that reading can pose, we were able to appreciate the complexity and multi-facetedness of the issue. Debra’s argument was that you can’t just pick one aspect and ignore the others, but as a practitioner, you need to consider the children you have in front of you and then make a decision about which strategies might be effective. In other words, synthetic phonics instruction for everyone regardless of who they are, and regardless of the complexity that reading is – not a good idea! It was a terrific session. I am only waiting until ResearchED publishes the presentation – keen to get my hands on all those journal articles we read the quotes from!

In the afternoon, I went to see Frank Cornelissen again, who spoke about The SUPER Power of Collegial Networks in School. SUPER is a network of the Faculresearched02ty of Education at Cambridge and partner schools. The idea is, of course, to develop research networks at schools. In this case, they were working with the Biddenham School in Bedfordshire. Space prevents me from writing at proper length about it here – but hopefully the image to the right will give you the idea of the complexity of it and the scale of it as well as what a large project this has been. I would love to be involved in something like this at any school I might be teaching at!

Then, eventually, it came to me presenting. My talk , titled “English teachers are (not) teachers of English”: language focus in the English classroom” was about the Legitimation Code Theory’s Semantic Waves and how I suggest they should be used in an English language classroom for the benefit of both EAL and English native speakers alike. I have written a very extensive post about Semantic Waves and Repacking on this website before – which I advise you to read. I used the findings from my very own MEd research (Do the attitudes and opinions of EAL pupils and classroom teachers to class withdrawal vs mainstreaming differ? for the University of the West of Scotland) as a springboard for this discussion. The English teachers are not teachers of English was, indeed, a citation from one of the interviews with the mainstream teachers in my study. Have a look at the presentation embedded here below. In essence, I am contesting the notion (which is what this teacher seems to believe) that literature can somehow be taught without investing time in teaching the language, or that literacy is somehow independent of language. Through presenting a structure to teach how to write academic texts, as suggested by Karl Maton (Legitimation Code Theory’s Semantic Waves) and based on papers surrounding his work, which incorporates the Power Trio: power words, power grammar and power composition, with the help of graphic organisers, substitution tables, DARTs and activities to teach nominalisation, I aimed to show (reiterating what Maton has written already) that language is the integral part of teaching academic writing. Can’t do it without it.

I think, however, that it was what happened after my presentation finished that I will remember the most from this. First of all, I got a really lovely reception, some feedback was superbly flattering to the point that I didn’t quite know how to respond to that! The discussion opened into how to support EAL students in the various schools represented in my audience. Particularly obvious was the fact that, once again, there is very little to no training at many schools, and that EAL staff is all too often non-existent. I was, in fact, asked (on the spot) if I could deliver training in one of the schools. We also discussed the fact that KAL (Knowledge About Language) is very limited amongst mainstream teachers, which – not a big logical jump here! – prevents the same teachers from supporting their EAL (or not EAL) learners effectively with their language gaps. The LINC (Language in the National Curriculum) programme, a long-gone scheme to train teachers in KAL, was mentioned as well (it’s now being sold by the University of Nottingham) and I was really glad people still remember!

The discussion about the need for EAL training and the interest in this crucial area of teaching – so painfully obvious to the teachers and professionals at my session – really made my day. There is support and interest amongst teachers to develop this area of their practice – there is no doubt. I was very glad to be networking in this way. It is so important to support teachers in supporting their learners. The EAL field should build on precisely these committed and dedicated professionals and engage with them fully. Our fragmented system of schools these days means that many teachers are not certain where to go for resources, advice and training (and training will not normally be provided to them anyhow). We need to go out to them, link up with them, build up the expertise. The teachers that I met yesterday will, without a shred of doubt, share that expertise with others. But those bridges need to be built. I hope to continue building them.

Superb event overall – my thanks to the Swindon Academy, Tom Bennett, David Didau, all the wonderful young people at the school, who acted as prefects on the day, for making this day enriching. I made new excellent connections, and what feels like new friendships – enough to make me wish to go to another ResearchED conference if and when the opportunity presents itself.

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