Why #researchmatters

by Howard Stevenson.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese proverb that is intended to be more an ironic curse than a blessing. Whilst we certainly live in interesting times I cannot think of any time in the 30 years I have worked in education that have not been ‘interesting’.  Nor should that surprise us. Few areas of social life have such an impact on every one of us individually. Education is, above all, about shaping our individual and collective futures.  Who are we? Who do we want to be? How do we want to live together? It is inevitable it will be the subject of discussion, debate and indeed dispute.

Education does not just prepare us for living in this new world, but it is also part of creating it. Education both shapes, and is shaped by, the world of which it is a part. At any one time, it both reproduces and transforms. This precisely why, for those who work in education, the opportunity should be a mix of privilege, exhilaration and responsibility.

Unfortunately many educators do not experience their work in this way. The fast pace of change, and the uncertainties of globalisation, have made politicians both anxious and arrogant. Tony Blair once said of education ‘we know what works’, the challenge apparently was to ‘apply those lessons [and] push them right through the system’. Change has to be rapid. Results must be immediate. All of this, in England at least, is reinforced by a top-down quality assurance system that decides what ‘good’ is without any meaningful involvement from local communities.

Powerful voices, often far removed from classrooms and the experiences of young people and their teachers, get to answer the big questions – what is education for? What should it look like? What is ‘good’?

Small wonder that teachers often feel devalued, and their professionalism undermined. Faced with constant changes to the curriculum, assessment and the high stakes accountability system that judges them it should not be surprising if a new dependency culture emerges. Over-worked and under-pressure teachers lower their sights – ‘just tell me what to do’. In such a world education research is either an irrelevance, or it is only useful if it is able to respond to the desperate plea ‘tell me what works’.

There is now an opportunity to change this. At policy level, there is a rhetoric that encourages teachers to engage with research (even if, for many teachers, having the time to be able to do this properly remains elusive). There are also many examples of teachers self-organising around research-engaged activities – in conferences, teachmeets and on social media. More and more research is becoming open source and accessible.

The problem remains that whilst access to new knowledge maybe opening up, the structures we often work in can serve to close it down. Much of the work that takes place is driven by a narrow set of questions, or the search for ‘quick wins’. The irony is that whilst we expect research to be transformatory, the reality may be that it is simply serving to reinforce. The challenge is to change this.

The answer lies in resisting the logic that separates teaching and research, and instead seeing teaching and researching as two sides of the same coin. Too often the two are divided (and this increasingly applies to universities as well as schools). Teachers teach. Researchers research. This is very different to the model of the early universities for example where teaching and research were seen as indivisible. The need now is to reinvent what Newman called ‘the idea of the University’ as a site of independent, critical thought and robust debate.  We need to celebrate research that asks big and difficult questions. We need to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty as the natural order, rather than pursuing quick fixes and easy wins. We need to debate what matters, as well as searching for what works. Above all we need to remind ourselves that the values of academic freedom, in schools as much as universities, are important features of a democratic society.

Such an opportunity provides a challenge to both researchers in universities and teachers in schools.  The challenge for researchers is to reinvent the idea of the university, but also to extend it beyond the bricks and mortar of the building we call ‘the university’.  The image of university education departments as disconnected and isolated ivory towers has long been a caricature. For example, in England the level of partnership work between schools and universities in relation to teacher education has been substantial over very many years. To portray it as otherwise is often a deliberate misrepresentation for political ends.  There is a need however to develop new relationships, be active in new spaces and not only make research more open and accessible, but more engaging.

The challenge for teachers is to begin to look up, in a system that often only encourages looking down.  Engaging with research is the way to re-professionalise the work of educators, and to counter the trends towards de-professionalisation that are long established in the system.  This is not easy.  Teachers’ working conditions often militate against such engagement, whilst the system, intentionally, does little to encourage discussion of big questions. However, the only people who can change this are teachers themselves. Many years ago, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves wrote a book entitled ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ I think teacher professionalism is worth fighting for.  However, this cannot be a ‘leave it to me, I’m the expert’ form of pseudo-professionalism. Rather it is a claim to professionalism predicated on a recognition of the extraordinarily complex work of teachers. This requires an engagement with research to help address the deep and complex questions that present themselves every day in every classroom in every school.

There is an opportunity to move beyond the impoverished debate about theory vs practice. Such divisions are unhelpful, and often cultivated deliberately. Another world is possible, but those of us who work in education must be willing to build it for ourselves. That possibility only becomes a probability if we find new ways to work together.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Does handwriting matter?

by Jane Medwell.

In 2012 a survey of 2,000 people in the UK reported in the British press found that one in three people had not written anything by hand in the previous six months and two thirds of people said that anything they handwrote was only meant for their own eyes, such as scribbled notes. So it is reasonable to ask whether handwriting still matters. Is it really worth teaching handwriting to our children? After all, parts of the USA and Finland no longer teach joined writing.

We think there are some persuasive reasons why it is still important for both young children and older learners to learn handwriting..

Why handwriting matters for young children

The research evidence suggests that handwriting plays a part in young children’s cognitive, sensory motor and phonological development. Learning to write involves a complex mix of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (Jones and Christensen, 1999) including fine motor control, bilateral and visual–motor integration, motor planning, in-hand manipulation, visual perception, sustained attention, and sensory awareness. These skills support early reading with a clear causal link having been identified between early printing and reading acquisition (James and Atwood, 2009).

James and Engelhardt (2012) used MRI technology to observe the effects on brain activation of 4 and 5 year old children engaging in a variety of writing-like activities, such as writing letters by hand, tracing letters and typing letters. They found that areas of children’s brains previously associated with reading (the so-called ‘reading circuit’ (Wolf, 2007) were activated when the children wrote letters to a much greater degree to when they engaged in other forms of sensorimotor activity – including typing of letters.  They suggest that that writing letters by hand was somehow implicated in the development of reading in young children.

Writing skills developed before children enter formal schooling can predict young children’s academic achievement years later. Dinehart and Manfra (2013) examined the links between the fine motor skills of 3000 preschool children on tasks (such as building blocks, weaving string, lacing beads, cutting with scissors, copying letters, numbers and shapes, and drawing simple objects) and their academic achievement two years after starting school. All fine motor skills examined had some link with these achievements, but writing skills were consistently the strongest predictors of reading and mathematics achievement.

In other words- learning to write by hand helps children to learn to read, to remember sound- symbol correspondences and may well help them to think about literacy.

Handwriting is still important for older learners

The most important issue in handwriting as children develop is not how it looks (though legibility is useful) but how automatically they can produce it (Medwell and Wray, 2007). Automaticity in writing (the ability to produce letters without allocating cognitive attention to it) frees up that attention to allow writers to tackle the difficult parts of writing- collecting ideas, sorting out the order, choosing words and grammatical combinations. In short, automatic handwriting frees writers to focus on composing. Our own research with children aged 7 and 11 revealed that for a seven-year-old child achieving a score of less than 12 alphabet letters per minute on an automaticity test correlated highly with not achieving the expected national writing score (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2007). For the eleven-year-olds the relevant score was 22 alphabet letters per minute (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2009). Simply put- children who don’t have to give cognitive attention to handwriting can compose better. Sadly, many writers are not automatic even at the end of primary school, and it holds them back right across the curriculum.

Speed also matters. Graham and Santangelo’s meta-analysis of writing proficiency (2012), noted that the students using pen/cil and paper wrote more words, wrote words faster, and expressed more ideas than those who used keyboards. Connolly et al.’s (2007) comparative study of students in Years 5 and 6 found that apart from a few cases, students’ handwriting speed was consistently faster than their word processing speed. The compositional quality of students’ hand written text was also superior to that produced through word processing.

So should we teach handwriting?

Some children do figure out how to form some letters on their own, but for the vast majority of children and letters, handwriting needs to be taught! For some children, a moderate amount of teaching and practice does the trick, and they seem to “catch” it. But Graham (1999) has made the point that if teachers only give specific emphasis to handwriting when children have failed to ‘catch’ it, then poor habits become progressively harder for teachers to remedy and the children who have not developed automaticity become progressively more disadvantaged!

Our project

We are focusing on mark making and letter formation in the foundation stage. We all know early reading has a very high profile in both schools and homes. We’d like to find ways to make writing as high-profile.

We are working a group of Early Years Teachers, supported by the University of Nottingham’s What Matters programme and Newall Brands (the home of Berol, Papermate and Sharpie). We aim to research ways to promote mark making and letter formation for Foundation stage children.

Teachers from schools in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and Leicester aim to answer these questions:

  • What do settings and homes do already to promote mark making and letter formation?
  • What more can we do to promote mark making and letter formation?

Questions you might want to share your views about:

When do you use handwriting?

Do you think joined handwriting is important? Why?

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.


Connelly, V., Gee, D. & Walsh, E. (2007) “A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed”, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 77 No. 2, pp. 479-92.

Dinehart, L. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 1-22

Dinehart, L. and Manfra, L. (2013) Association between early fine motor development and later math and reading achievement in early elementary school. Early Education and Development 24(2): 138–161

Graham, S. & Santangelo, T. (2012) “A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of teaching handwriting”, Education Psychology Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 225-265.


James, K. and Engelhardt, L. (2012) The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1(1): 32–42

Jones, D. and Christensen, C. (1999). The relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students’ ability to generate written text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 44-49

Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2007) “Handwriting: What do we know and what do we need to know?” Literacy, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 10-15.

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2007) ‘The role of handwriting in composing for Y2 children’, in Journal of Reading, Writing and Literacy, Vol. 2 (1), pp. 18-36

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2009) ‘The links between handwriting and composing for Y6 children’, in Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 39 (3), pp. 329-344

Wolf, M. (2007) Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper

Closing or narrowing the gap? Taking a pupil centred perspective

by Carmen Mohamed.

The issue of Grammar schools has reared its head again as politicians argue about the most effective way of ‘narrowing the gap’ between the children of middle income families and those living in low income families or in poverty. Grammar schools have led the rise and fall of political parties since the 1960’s and the privilege ‘gap’ has been a bone of contention since the 1970’s in the UK with government reports as far back as Rampton in 1977. Since then, there have been regular reinventions of policies, ostensibly to promote social mobility, by all political parties. Policies were originally based on ethnicity and race such as ‘Contextual Value Added’ and ‘Every Child Matters’, and later on poverty such as ‘Pupil Premium’ and most recently ‘Ever 6’. Over the time of these circulating debates there has been no evidence that there has been any increase in the percentage of children from low income families attending grammar schools in regions where they have continued to exist and certainly no evidence that grammar-school-educated pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds did better in exams than those in local comprehensive schools. This continued pretence by elitist Government’s to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate than themselves is both patronising and unscrupulous.

As the generation from the tripartite system of education, many colleagues of working class heritage tell their own life stories of the impact of a Grammar school education. These stories offer rich diversity of experience and could provide evidence of any potential narrowing of a gap between them and the secondary modern pals they left behind. My own story is completely contrary, a close primary school friend opted for a grammar school education whilst I refused to follow, preferring, at that age, to stay with those I knew and understood. She is now an unemployed single parent living on a council estate and claims that was her biggest regret in life. I wonder how many of these stories remain untold, how does identification as an outsider (the Other) limit your potential once you are allowed entry to a different social strata through merit. Much is written about the way we respond to accents, vocabulary, social and cultural capital, these notions name us and sort us into groups ‘just like us’ and ‘not like us’. My own PhD drew on the work of sociologist’s discussions around how the ‘Pygmalion’ effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) is perpetuated through pedagogies employed in classrooms and investigated what we in ITE could do to mitigate this during the training year.

John Dewey argued that the ‘problem with so many discussions is that they articulate different positions within the same set of assumptions’ (Biesta, 2014). If we are serious about ‘closing the attainment gap’ between those with social and cultural capital and those without, we might require a new perspective. Bernstein (1977) argued that the way we educate pupils in schools dictates how we are able, as a society, to reproduce the status quo or to transform our social structures and practices. This may well provide an answer, rather than changing the school structure and ‘allowing’ a few poor but clever kids into elite schools maybe we should be giving serious consideration to the way we teach, to our pedagogic practices. State education suggests that every child is capable of profiting from education. However, we all realise that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same schedule. The routinisation and standardisation of education has meant that every child has to be equipped to learn something presented in just one of many possible ways. This one size fits all method of teaching and evaluating teaching inevitably leads to a belief that it is the best way to guarantee universal results. Rather than asking why particular methods haven’t worked teachers are expected to attribute the difficulty to the learner and provide more focused interventions within a limited curriculum of maths and English, reducing the pupils’ education as well as their self-belief. This reduced educational practice is most regularly employed in schools with a high ratio of pupil premium funding so in reality the most disadvantage pupils receive the most limited education.

NCTL recently funded a series of ‘test and learn’ research projects to identify effective ways of ‘Closing the gap’. In the final summary they conclude that ‘there is potential for a micro-enquiry approach in ITT, supported by good research design and analysis skills’ (NCTL; 72). They suggest that teachers engaging with research should be focused on developing a curriculum which allows all pupils to make the effort in their learning with positive encouragement, this will be a cheaper, more effective way of closing the gap than any grammar school system.

Recently there has been a groundswell shift to talking about the pedagogies involved in ‘Mastery’ approaches to teaching and learning. Mastery is attributed to Bloom (1968) whose work signified the importance of children developing a deep understanding of a concept before moving on, to the next part of the sequence or the next concept. He also gave consideration to pupils being afforded the individualised time needed for mastery of the concept to be achieved. One significant contribution to the eradication of the ‘gap’, I would argue, is a move away from labelling pupils as ‘high ability’ or ‘low ability’ in teaching for ‘Mastery’. Isn’t it about time we listened to the research rather than the politicians and gave pupils the opportunity to make the effort needed to ‘master’ a concept or skill with positive teacher affirmation so we can build self-belief and self-efficacy in all pupils? You never know, they may just close the gap themselves.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

What matters for women and gender in school leadership?

by Kay Fuller.

A resurgence of interest in women and gender in education and wider society shows up a range of issues that should matter to everyone involved in the education of children and young people, the employment and development of teachers and non-teaching staff, and the work and development of school leaders at every level.

On my way to the #WomenEd Unconference II  in Reading last month, I counted several stories on Radio 4’s Today programme (8/10/16):

  • Donald Trump’s confession of sexual assault on women “you can do anything” to women “when you’re a star” (subsequently downplayed as men’s locker room banter)
  • A ‘fight’ between two members of UKIP described repeatedly as ‘handbags at dawn’ thus using women as a frame of reference to belittle the incident and them
  • Menopausal women being prescribed testosterone to improve their libidos
  • Sexism in British Cycling (in passing)
  • Emily Thornberry’s defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet with herself as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Diane Abbott at the first Black Shadow Home Secretary
  • The Guardian’s report of sexual harassment and gender violence experienced by women academics – unreported because women feared for their careers
  • Responses to the armed robbery of Kim Kardashian ranging from scepticism of it as a publicity stunt to sympathy for personal violation and concern about society’s failure to take gender violence seriously.

These stories framed my session on Feminist Leadership II.

Opening with introductions to establish who we were and why we were there, women talked about their commitment to being feminists and teaching about feminism. Some were marginalised by colleagues as ‘the feminist’ teacher in the department or school.

At Unconference II, I was heartened by the contribution of the one man present in my session who talked about why he was a feminist. I had just heard the male panel talking about why #heforshe matters to them. They acknowledged feeling vulnerable in this women’s space of #WomenEd. They were worried about causing offence by sounding patronising, by ‘mansplaining’ things, in other words by using the wrong language. The women agreed this conversation in person was important. That something positive can come out of making mistakes and disagreeing. White men were in the minority in the room and they felt what it was like to be marginalised, possibly for the first time.

So the feminist man’s contributions were welcome in my session. They contrasted starkly with the everyday sexism of the one man who attended my session at Unconference I in 2015.

The focus for our discussion was Grogan and Shakeshaft’s (2011) five ways women lead . It is a framework I have used in Gender, Identity and Educational leadership.

  • Relational leadership – emphasises relationships in horizontal arrangements rather than hierarchical structures that demarcate power relations over one another.
  • Leadership for social justice – refers to a desire to change the status quo. Motivation might be about serving the interests of those who have been and continue to be least well served by current social and education policies and practices.
  • Spiritual leadership – whether or not we are of faith or no faith this is about a sense of who we are in the world and of getting to know the worlds of others. It is also about using the language of passion and hope.
  • Leadership for learning – learning and teaching is central whether it be related to the education of children, young people and adult learners or the development of staff as teachers, non-teaching staff and leaders.
  • Balanced leadership – achieving a balance between home lives and work lives implies these are separate. They need not be – in that families and friendships inform leadership.

Women disagreed about some aspects of these ideas.

They expressed different views about spiritual leadership, the role of faith, religion and/or spirituality in educational leadership and the potential abuse of teachers’ ‘passion’ to manipulate their goodwill; and about whether leadership for learning was necessarily a good example of a women’s way of leading in the UK.

What mattered in the room that day was that we thought women and men could do more to:

  • create and sustain an inclusive environment that nurtures equality between the sexes and a whole range of potentially marginalised children, young people and colleagues
  • promote feminism amongst students by showing, not telling them how to behave respectfully with a focus on equality and diversity
  • use the word ‘feminist’
  • hold up a feminist lens to our own leadership behaviours to think about modelling different ways of leading in our interactions with colleagues
  • think about how language is used to gender leadership qualities as male or female and as positive or negative
  • challenge patriarchy by calling out the gendered use of language to describe attributes of leadership
  • empower other leaders to challenge stereotypes in the use of language, in school culture, in educational resources, in organisational structures and in promotion processes
  • embrace and value authentic voices, perceptions and ways of being women.

These things mattered to the women (and the one man) in the room.

What matters to you about women and gender in schools? 

Kay Fuller is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Nottingham University 

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.



Time for a NEU Union?

jean-1-3by Howard Stevenson.

[This blog post was published prior to the Special Conferences of NUT and ATL. My understanding is that both conferences overwhelmingly supported the proposal – 97% in the NUT and 92% in ATL. This now presents a huge opportunity to engage with members and mobilise them around a much more optimistic vision of what it should mean to work in education].

On Saturday 5th November delegate conferences of two of the largest teachers’ unions in the UK (the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers) will meet to discuss disbanding as individual organisations to re-emerge as a new, single union. If both conferences agree to proceed, the proposal to create a new union, called the National Education Union (NEU), will go to a ballot of all members in both organisations in Spring 2017.

Should the new union become a reality (both unions are keen to assert this is not a merger of existing unions, but the formation of a new organisation), then make no mistake, this development will be both historic and significant.

Multi-unionism (the co-existence of more than one union in the same employment sector) is not unique to the education sector in the UK. Internationally, amongst teachers, it tends to be the rule, rather than the exception. The explanations for the divisions are complex – different sectors, different geographies, different political tactics and different ideologies are just some of the explanations for multiple unions in education. These divisions have often been maintained because teacher unions have not faced the same pressures on their influence and resources as have unions in manufacturing, or industries transformed by technology (think of publishing for example).

However, there is increasing evidence that divided teacher unions are a luxury classroom teachers and support staff can no longer afford. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in England.  As far back as 1987 governments have sought to marginalise teacher unions as the collective voice of teachers. This was when national collective bargaining was first suspended, and then abolished. This marked the start of the breaking up of the English public education system, and its replacement by a fragmented, competitive market in which privatisation looks to be the longer term objective.

Teachers experience all the negative consequences of these developments. Wholly unsustainable workloads, pay held down and tied to performance (often reduced to student test scores) and an accountability regime that is judgmental and punitive rather than developmental. The impact of these reforms is made visible in the labour market. It is difficult to recruit teachers, and even more difficult to retain them. This isn’t union rhetoric, it is the experience of huge numbers of headteachers everyday as they struggle to appoint and hold on to their staff.

England has the unenviable reputation as being the world’s global experiment in the neoliberal restructuring of public education. Fragmentation, de-regulation and privatisation are increasingly the hallmarks of the English ‘public’ education system. There are, inevitably, many complex reasons to explain how we have got to where we are, and I am not suggesting a divided teacher union movement is the only reason, or even the most important reason. However, nobody can seriously deny that a divided teacher union movement in England is one of the reasons why England has become the world’s laboratory for this dangerous experiment.

Research carried out by Nina Bascia and myself for Education International (the teacher union federation comprising 400 affiliates across 170 countries) and conducted in several countries outside of England has revealed how governments and employers deliberately seek to exploit the divisions between teacher unions in order to drive through unpopular reforms. Where unions have been effective in resisting these policies they tend to have fewer unions (sometimes a single union), avoid competitive multi-unionism (different unions competing for the same members as opposed to different unions organising in different sectors) and where there are different unions they still achieve high levels of cross-union collaboration. Such environments are also often characterised by classroom teachers and school leaders being represented by the same organisation (avoiding the growing divisions between school leaders and teachers that is a feature of the schools-as-businesses model of education).

What is clear is that the fragmentation of the English school system, in part introduced in order to weaken the collective power of teachers, is now, paradoxically, driving the unification of the profession. Faced with a beggar-my-neighbour system, in which each school and teacher is encouraged to undercut the other, teachers are realising they cannot exacerbate these problems with their own divisions.  In a fractured school system teachers need a strong, unified and independent voice that can speak for them on the full range of issues that confront them in their working lives – pay and conditions issues, but professional and policy issues too. Many of the most important issues in schools, such as testing and assessment, cannot be demarcated according to an old-fashioned separation between the ‘industrial’ and ‘professional’. The new union must speak for teachers in a way that bridges this unhelpful divide and which has influence at individual school and MAT level, as much as it has influence with government.

Both unions are confident their conferences will support the proposal for a new union. However, there can be no complacency that members will automatically support the idea. In the United States, dominated by two enormous teacher unions, much hard work to merge the unions was done in 1998, only for delegates of the largest union to reject the proposal and scupper the deal. All of this highlights the need for both unions, and their activists, to work hard between now and next Spring to campaign for the change.

However, if successful, the hard work will have barely started. The new union, due to be established on 1st January 2019, will have to fuse together very different traditions and cultures. For example, ATL is strong in the independent sector, organises in Further Education and has support staff membership, all of which contrast with the NUT.  ATL is often characterised as moderate, whilst the NUT may be seen as the most militant of the teacher unions. These differences will need to be ‘worked through’. Many differences may prove to be more myth than reality (on many policy issues there is a high degree of congruence), whilst others may prove harder to resolve. As a researcher of teacher unions, it will be fascinating to see how this unfolds.

My personal view is that teachers in England (in particular) have not been helped by a divided union movement. I have argued previously that a new union, representing a large majority of teachers, and possibly, in time, all those who work in education, should be seen as an exciting prospect for the profession. Teachers and school support staff desperately need an independent voice that governments and employers cannot ignore.Whilst I can see some merit in a new College of Teaching, it would be a grave mistake if any teachers thought for a moment this was a substitute for strong, independent unions. Indeed, the College of Teaching needs strong unions, because without them, the College risks being seen as an integral part of a smoke and mirrors system with a rhetoric of autonomy but a reality of managerialism and control.

In 1998, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan wrote a powerful book called ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ We would all have many responses to that question. Surely a genuinely independent and democratic voice for the education profession would be on that list. Given the scale of the challenges that have faced those working in schools in recent years, and which are likely to intensify in the future, my view is that it is a prize worth fighting for.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Interested in education and research? Interested in What Matters?

What Matters is a new project, initiated by the School of Education, University of Nottingham. It is supported with funds from the Economic and Social Research Council. We are working with our local schools, with whom we have a strong partnership, but participation is open to anyone interested in what we are doing.

What Matters is a network of people involved in education who are interested in using educational research to address the difficult questions that confront those concerned with the education of young people.

The project is called What Matters, because we want to celebrate all the exciting ways in which education research can help us understand, explain and make sense of education and learning as social processes. We want to know what works, but there are a bigger set of questions we must also engage with. Hence our interest with what matters.

We think one of the defining features of What Matters, is the values that underpin our approach to research and how we work together.

Our values:

  1. We all matter – we are committed to addressing the questions we decide are important.  Those who work and study in schools are best placed to decide local priorities. What Matters is about trusting education professionals and users, and those in our communities, to set the agenda.
  2. Co-construction – we are committed to working together, education professionals, community members and researchers. There is no What Matters blueprint. What we create we will build together.
  3. Diversity of methods and approaches – we are committed to research as a dynamic and democratic process of enquiry. A research community, based on the principles of academic freedom, values a range of research methods and a plurality of ideas.  Members of What Matters engage in a wide variety of research methods from randomised control trials to auto-ethnography and participatory action research. All are valued.
  4. Social justice – we are committed to research that makes a difference. We value debate about the purpose and ends of education, but our commitment is to developing education’s contribution to the creation of fairer, more equal and more respectful communities locally, nationally and internationally.

What does this look like?

As the text above indicates, there is no blueprint.  We hope that we will all be involved in creating something collectively. However, at this early stage we are planning for the following activities:

  • The What Matters blog and website – an engaging blog discussing all matters research and education. Written by teachers, support staff, students and academics. Expect hashtags of #researchmatters #policymatters #teachingmatters and more.
  • A What Matters Reading Group – using innovative ways to encourage teachers to read and discuss research based articles or reports.
  • What Matters research networks – teachers and academics working together on shared areas of interest. Linking with existing networks in the School of Education, but also addressing other issues – yet to be determined.
  • A ‘What Matters Week’ – a week of events when schools, the School of Education and other education sites throw open their doors to host research based events (speakers, show and tells etc).
  • A ‘What Matters Conference’ – a one day event, mixing high profile speakers and the work of local teachers and students.

Get involved by:

Following us on twitter – @whatmattersUoN

Following the blog – click on the ‘follow’ button on the website

Attending events

Participate in an interest group

Blogging for What Matters – contact us

Participating in the Reading Group

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Monday INSET- Effective or just a non-uniform day?

By John Dexter.

INSET or as I like to call them non-uniform days. Over my teaching career I have done a lot of CPD – has it made me a better teacher? Yes I hope so, certainly some has challenged and made me change practice, hopefully for the better but a lot, especially some “done to me” hasn’t made much difference and I have sat thinking of all the jobs I have to do or would prefer to be doing.


Not more INSET please not more

Heck now I’m a head I can’t moan any longer but I can evolve our systems and CPD programmes and look for something better. One of the first areas I wanted to develop was CPD, we have great teachers and I love hearing their ideas so how do we capture that, mould it with current ideas and good practice even academic research? That was the challenge and I just didn’t have time so with a new deputy we set about working on a project. Huge credit to him for making this work, by working out the finer details, you know how it is -he does the work I take the credit; not today it was just too exciting. But let’s go back to the plans:

1.Get some topics we think the school could, should, might consider or be interested in, may or may not be on the development plan (summer 2015) BUT we are interested in.

2.Get some teachers who are enthusiasts on these topics or maybe their own topics?

3.Pay them – sadly no, no budget for that but maybe buy some time?

4.Give them a nice title “directors of learning” – 6 get going

5.Get them to choose a topic start some research/reading etc and tell the staff body about their projects Sept INSET day. Draw in a few other potential enthusiasts.

6.This becomes a learning community and the rule is to share the ideas, work out what might really make a difference in a classroom, try it; YES try it in a class in our school with our pupils and be preparing for a February INSET to share with rest of staff.

7.Meet them support them, get resources if necessary, bring in colleagues etc


”Directors of Learning” – gold stars

S0 in September through to February these little communities slogging away, reimageading about teaching and learning aspects of their topics, discussing with each other and other colleagues and then, that final rule they must try any ideas in their class, and do a bit of proper research and get feedback from staff, from observers, from pupils. [ and of course still teaching every day!]

So that was all going well but next up not just piloting with in the classroom sharing with that most critical of audiences – your colleagues – feels like the worst lesson observations ever.

Here were our topics

1.It’s not personal – How does student voice impact on teaching and learning

2.Don’t say please – Practical positive approaches to classroom behaviour management, using light touch and considering what to do for the “not very OK” pupils

3.Using data to inform day to day teaching and learning – instead of just looking at exam results and working out what did and didn’t happen, can those systems help us understand day to day interventions? can they help with new specs where we are in the dark a little about grading?

4.Why are questions worth thinking about? Are we still stuck on closed questions? Can we move the discussion on and will this lead to deeper learning?

5.Flipped learning – what impact can flipping the resource have on classroom time? How can we do it, what are the benefits and how might technology help us?

6.What does Independent Learning look like in the classroom? – a KS5 focus considering how we might use a) research b) group work)teaching methods and d) assessment to create more resilient independent learners.

Then today we had out INSET day whereby each community led a 45 minute workshop, repeated twice – Three slots for staff, and then followed by discussions in departments, what did you learn about, what might work in your subject. It wasn’t about throwing out old practice it was about tweaking it, was about marginal gains instead of marginal losses for all of us in the classroom. It was occasionally a reminder that praise does work and I need to bring that back a bit ….especially with my year ….

Don’t you love that buzz when colleagues from different subjects with different experience just get enveloped in the issues, jotting ideas and enthusing. Picking each others brains. “This worked in my class in our school, it made my practice better and their learning enhanced” “OK might try that”. Absolutely no need to worry about the gigantic lesson observations going on in your workshops – listen to the big buzz, the chatter, the concentration the “loving it” moments.

I do wish we had another INSET day tomorrow to get it all written into SoW or lesson plans but I know our staff, they’ll be trying stuff. Oh and follow up? Well from here we hope to try those ideas and feedback results to dept or pastoral teams, we have promised our Directors we will do that.

Next up we need to think if we can

  • continue the same topics and bring more effective learning
  • move to new topics.
  • bring in some more Directors
  • check out how staff are doing embedding the ideas
  • maintain a manageable workload but be more effective in the classroom

This blog was originally posted on John’s blog, mrjdexter.com, you can view the original post here.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.