Tag Archives: education research

Sunbucks, Heimekem and the College of Teaching

I enjoy half term. It’s a time to relax and treat myself to some of the guilty pleasures I often don’t have time for during term time. It’s nice to enjoy a frothy latte from my favourite coffee shop, Sunbucks…

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And I do like a beer or two. There’s nothing like the sound of a cold can of Heimekem opening…

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And if I get the chance, I kick back and play on my PolyStation games console…

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Of course, these products are all Chinese so aren’t actually available in this country. But these sorts of products are ubiquitous in China. In fact, this liberal attitude to brand imitation means that, “on average, 20 percent of all consumer products in the Chinese market are counterfeit“.

This copycat method seems a very easy route to market in places where regulations aren’t particularly stringent. But they piggyback on a brand that’s worked hard to establish itself and offer an inferior product in its place.

Such practice is very difficult in this country, due to market regulations which rightly protect businesses and brands. But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop businesses seeing the success of others and entering the same market to compete with them. This can actually make for a healthy marketplace.

But should the same be said for teacher-led organisations aimed at improving research literacy in education? How many of these do we need?

On 18th March 2013, Tom Bennett had a Twitter exchange with Ben Goldacre, decrying the relationship between research and practice in schools. Goldacre had a simple response – do something about it yourself, Tom:

Within 6 months, Tom Bennett, along with Hélene Galdin-O’Shea  had put together a conference. Held on 7th September 2013, researchED was an event that aimed to bridge research and practice in the profession. Since then, Tom and Hélène have put together increasingly popular national conferences each year, plus regional conferences, and subject- and sector-specific conferences. And, what’s more, they’ve taken taken researchED to an international audience, hosting conferences in New York, Sydney, Gothenburg and Washington, with plans to take it elsewhere already well underway. They have established these relationships with international researchers and educators, whilst continuing to focus on there core activity of bridging research and practice in the UK education sector.

So it was a surprise when I read yesterday that the College of Teaching’s “core activity” will be to do this. To do exactly what researchED is doing.

A few things strike me about this.

Firstly, the College of Teaching has been years in the making. The people involved in the project are always at pains to emphasise the efforts of the many professionals it has taken over the past few years to get to where it is today. There have been multiple consultations, meetings and focus groups. There have been iterations and reiterations of forms of leadership, from Trustees to Chairs to a CEO. There is a pledge of £5 million on the table from the DfE to help fund this, after an attempt to crowdsource funding from the profession failed. There is a website that has been “under construction” for as long as I can remember. It has taken years and huge numbers of people for the College of Teaching to get to where it is today, and we are now told they are merely trying to copy a model that already exists. A model that was set up by Tom and Hélène and a handful of volunteers in just a few months. A truly teacher-led model.

This strikes me as following the model seen in China: see what others have done successfully and just copy that. But is this fair on researchED, given that the College of Teaching have DfE backing and up to £5 million in funding? Is this similar to Tesco being able to shut down the local butcher?

Indeed, if this is what the College of Teaching is offering, why doesn’t the DfE hand the £5 million to researchED instead? It is already established in the area that the College of Teaching is trying to establish itself in.

Secondly, is this what we need the College of Teaching to be? What about, as Michael Merrick suggested here, someone to stand up for teachers and to protect them from workload issues and to improve their working lives? I’m pretty sure that is how many see the College of Teaching. They don’t need another researchED. They already have one of those.

At the moment, it seems like the College of Teaching is an organisation trying to decide what it should be. It’s an organisation in search of a purpose. Which is an odd thing. Surely a government-funded organisation should be set up because it fulfils a need? This is an organisation that has more needs than the profession whose needs it should be fulfilling. It needs to know what it is for. It needs teachers to back it. It needs money to keep it going. It needs membership numbers to sustain it. It needs to copy and cash in on researchED’s success.

It needs to justify itself. This latest announcement that its “core activity will be to bridge research and practice” really doesn’t give it the justification it seeks.

Anyone, it’s still half term. Time to have a break, have a Kicker.

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The seven miffs of education (first sequence)

Time for a blog digest. These are the things that have gotten me miffed (read: concerned) enough to write about them recently:

1. Misplaced accusations of elitism

2. Edu-myths and lack of engagement in research

3. Truthiness

4. Grok

5. Rushing in to things

6. The dangers of sunk costs (and opportunity costs)

7. Mumpsimuses

Now that I’ve shared these bugbears, I’ll try and blog some of my thoughts on overcoming them in the coming weeks.

Undiscovering the Mountains of Kong

A West African Map from 1839.
A map of West Africa from 1839.

The map on the left looks unexceptional to me, a layman. It’s a standard, if rather archaic, map of West Africa.

But geographers are a lot sharper than most of us, with the kind of keen eye that can spot a child trying to pick up something very unpleasant on a wet beach at a distance of 100 yards. Through drizzle.

And those geographers would probably be able to tell you that the mountain range that runs along the north border of Upper Guinea doesn’t actually exist. It never has.

You see, this map was created by the cartographer James Rennell to accompany the Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s travelogue, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1798). Park was trying to find the source of the Niger river and was curious as to why it didn’t flow south of the Gulf of New Guinea. He saw a few mountains and assumed that this was the reason why. Rennell believed this theory and, wanting to show ‘proof’ of it, he forged on his map an entire (and entirely fictional) range of mountains that ran from West to East Africa: The Mountains of Kong.

John Cary's 1805 map of Africa
John Cary’s 1805 map of Africa

Following Rennell’s map, other maps began to include the Mountains of Kong. In fact, for almost 100 years nearly all of the maps we had of Africa contained this feature. Nobody checked to see if these mountains were really there. Indeed, explorers actually avoided the area because the mountains were stated to be of “stupendous height” and were considered an “insuperable barrier”, making them impassable. Other cartographers just added more lies when reproducing maps: one added snow and another connected them to the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa, they themselves being another entirely non-existent range invented in the ancient world.

It wasn’t until the French explorer Louis Gustave Binger went on an expedition to chart the Niger between 1887-1889 that this lie was uncovered. Binger effectively undiscovered a mountain range.

Whilst most cartographers stopped including the Mountains of Kong on their maps henceforth, they did still pop up now and again: they were indexed in 1928’s Bartholomew’s Oxford Advanced World Atlas and they even appeared in the 19th edition of Goode’s World Atlas as recently as 1995.

The reason that these mythological mountains prevailed in print for so long is down to the belief that cartographers are ‘guided by an ethic of accuracy’.

When I heard this story I was struck by how analogous it is with education, particularly with regards to initial teacher training. There are lots of edu-myths paraded around in these early stages of our careers, and they find disciples due to the belief that educators are guided by the same ethic of accuracy as people believed of 18th and 19th century cartographers. But the truth is that some of what we learn has little or no provenance of any discerning and plenty of it is based on the whim of people aiming to make money out of schools.

I faithfully followed many of these myths myself, and would still be doing so if it weren’t for the emergent wave of bloggers and academics engaging teachers with research via social media. My approach and practice has certainly been sharpened because of this. But not only have I noticed a change in my approach, I am also seeing a great deal more trainee teachers coming into schools with a critical, questioning and discerning mind; new teachers who are clearly actively engaging with research via social media and blogging. Whilst it took me a few years to undiscover education’s Mountains of Kong, there are loads of bright, new teachers who are questioning their existence from the very beginning. I wish I’d been so switched on at that stage of my career.

The difficulty I think we have in education is not in getting new teachers to engage with research, but rather in getting long-standing teachers to let go of the mumpsimuses that have been largely debunked by research. The good news is that there are people and institutions out there that have grasped the nettle of getting teachers to engage with research:

Today is the eve of another of Tom Bennett‘s prized researchED conferences, David Weston‘s National Teacher Enquiry Network is working with some great schools on research projects, and the Education Endowment Foundation is a great source for research and is developing an evidence base for school and classroom practice.

There’s a great deal of research available to teachers now. I’d encourage everyone to explore it.