Research informing, transforming, overlapping and ….. unravelling practice.


The Institute of Education, my old University –  achieved in 2014 the highest position in the QS World University subject rankings. The IoE – according QS  – is better at education, than Harvard, Stanford and Melbourne. Is there a more secure base from which to sponsor a new free school? It’s hard to imagine what better qualification could be demanded, if being the world’s leading University – for education – is not sufficient.

Research Informs Practice

But perhaps this is a common-sense belief that doesn’t hold. The assumption that the IoE is best placed to run a free school implies a particular relationship between research and practice. Namely – those in the University develop ‘knowledge’ which those working in sites of practice implement. This is most neatly framed in the strap line of a research centre devoted to adult literacy and numeracy: ‘generating knowledge and transforming it into practice’. The relationship between knowledge and practice is assumed to be uni-directional and unproblematic. Even when researchers and practitioners occupy quite different spaces, they are assumed to have common values, beliefs and practices as well as shared conceptions of quality, knowledge, policy, pedagogy and curriculum. Framed in tis way, research may well inform practice.

Research Transforms Practice

It is also possible that research might transform practice.  To cultivate their recently found professional status, post 16 teachers will need an ongoing and continuing familiarity with a highly-codified and esoteric body of knowledge. Research encloses our epistemic boundaries, mapping the territory upon which our professionalism is premised. While evidence-based-practice would at first glance seem like an obvious aspiration, it has some troubling implications. If practice is evidence based, practitioners are required to adopt practices proven by research as liable to bring about improved outcomes. Failure to improve is willful. It is a failure to properly implement practices that have been devised and proven elsewhere.  Teachers are here understood as ‘knowledge surrogates, practitioners of others’ (Taylor-Webb 2005) design. Teaching becomes a teacher-proof activity, as teachers are required to become conduits, implementers of a scripted, standardized pedagogy that has been tried, tested and proven to be effective. When knowledge about teaching transcends the pedagogic encounter between teacher and student, the intellectual authority of practitioners is negated. The grammar of professional practice – improvised, spontaneous and internalized – is subordinated by the insistence that it should be something other than what it is. In this conceit only knowledge generated by research – decontextualized, transferable and theoretical – is True Knowledge.

Research Overlaps Practice

But if the rage for accountability requires evidence-based-practice to the belittlement of teachers’ knowledge, it also belittles research.  The pragmatists ‘what works’ mantra offers what research in the social sciences is unable to deliver.  Truths about the social world unfold unexpectedly. They are partial, tentative and suggestive rather than equivocal.  To understand what works may require diverse and seemingly irrelevant questions. What may or may not influence practice is open to contestation.  An approach which stimulates one group of learners may confuse another. What works here might not work there. What worked then, might not work now. There is no future-proof knowledge. The invitation for research to inform education practice is an attempt to erase the ‘privilege and precariousness  of human sciences, caught as they are in the interstices of the mathematizable and the philosophical’ (Lather 2006: 784).  It also threatens to usher in a purpose, procedure, reporting and dissemination standardisation future for research in the social sciences (Ball 2001).  There is, in the move towards evidence-based practice, an uncomfortable coupling that casts researchers in the role of purveyors of snake-oil – promising what they cannot deliver for a community that would pay a high price if it were to accept the gift.

Research Unravels Practice

My own experience of the research, policy and practice nexus is of an unraveling. Research informs, transforms, overlaps but also uncomfortably unravels practice.

Research  yields incommensurable truths that make coherence between policy, practice and research almost impossible.  My ongoing explorations into conceptions of quality contrasts professional aspiration with policy embodiment, but offers no neat resolution. Instead research promises practice a Goliathian struggle, a series of intricate and shifting compromises.  Adhering exclusively to professional judgement is not possible and would place practitioners in a perpetual state of conflict. Yet ignoring professional judgement extracts high transaction costs. It causes stress and discomfort and limits professional possibilities.

The quality regime – OfSTED – with its decontextualised strictures, exhausting array of mimetic templates and managerial tactics contributes towards, rather than illuminates, what policy-makers most fear: poor practice. Inspections may weed out the unacceptable, but it is also possible that they simply encounter conceptions of quality that are other than that which has been written into the Common Inspection Framework.

This view is consistent with QS regarding as world leading in education an organisation that the Department for Education considers  unable to surmount the ’high bar’ required to sponsor a school. Were such a school to exists it is possible that something might unravel as state sponsored practice comes into contact with research.


Ball, S. J. (2001). ‘You’ve been NERFed!’Dumbing down the academy: National Educational Research Forum:’a national strategy? consultation paper’: a brief and bilious response. Journal of Education Policy16(3), 265-268.

Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: Teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International journal of qualitative studies in education19(1), 35-57.

Taylor-Webb, P.  (2005). The anatomy of accountability. Journal of Education Policy,20(2), 189-208.

Another notion of ‘new’ in New Literacies Studies

ImageI like chancing upon ideas that chime comfortably with my own. When coming up with ideas about how to talk, write and think about blogging, I wanted to move away from placing too much emphasis on blogs as digital spaces. They are digital spaces of course – but they are also social spaces, places where people meet and interact. The digital, the virtual and the embodied overlap:  an embodied person writes and another embodied person reads and responds to what is written. The mechanism through which their communication is enabled is ‘virtual’ but the communication itself – is not.

Blogging implies a changed relationship between the reader, the writer and the text. An extended, ongoing relationship in which the text is never quite complete and the audience too dispersed in time, place, position and visibility to imagine. Blogs may be directed at a particular imagined reader, while the actual reader experiences them as over heard snippets of a conversation. All of this implies an additional variant on the ‘new’ in New Literacies Studies: an additional exploratory lens.

Digital text is interactive and as such always has the potential to be ‘new’.  It is always ‘on the move’ (p6) – as in mobile.  Part of what my analysis of Globalising Dissent will include is an analysis of how and where blog posts are reblogged – which posts are reblogged in and which are reblogged out, from and to where. Blog posts are or have the capacity to be multi – modal, media, platformed and  authored; they are interactive, distributed and dispersed.  Their diverse audience sync their reading between desk-top, lap-top, tablet, pc, mobile device and print.

All of this makes another notion of ‘new’ in New Literacies Studies possible.

‘New’ implies that literacy – as concept and text – is always being remade. The new accentuates the multiplicities that surround literacy.

Albers, P., Holbrook, T., & Flint, A. (Eds.). (2013). New Methods on Literacy Research. Routledge. (Currently being reviewed for journal of Education and teaching. I have read 13 out of 16 chapters)

Maps as representations and sites of power-knowledge

Maps as political

“The mental map of the world though the eyes of Guardian Online readers in recent years may look a little bit like the above cartogram adding up the distribution of all online news items in the period of 2010 to 2012 (excluding the coverage of domestic British news)”

The point would seem to be that once mapped in this way the world is not recognisable. Maps rather than a technical presentation of stable, known information, they become exploratory mapping environments in which knowledge is constructed: a mapping rather than a map.

Reflections on the pedagogic soul


In my early years of teaching adult literacies, I made a Frierean pact. A pact that has required me to relinquish all hope of liberalism. So lost am I that I can see nothing to gain from a discussion which weighs up the possibilities of an education that is in some way neutral, balanced or objective. On this point I agree with Dr Henry Tam.

I think it misleading to suggest that neutrality is an acceptable counterbalance to bias; or that a continuum ending in honesty, in authenticity, in solidarity offsets betrayal.

Post 16 Teachers have ethical obligations that not only define the way they work – for many – they underpin their reasons for wanting to teach. Their professional modus vivendi is based on an ethical project.  The erstwhile LLUK professional standards provide some indication of what this project might be. Soon to be abandoned, the standards are encoded within the Further Education, Post Graduate Certificate in Education learning outcomes. Trainees are required to:

  • explore and evaluate potential connections between learning and the wider social, political and economic contexts;
  • or evaluate the complexity of the interaction between learning, learner and context.

There are several ways in which these outcomes might be interpreted. Whatever inflection is placed upon them, inviting a student to explore connections – assumes that those connections exist and are worthy of exploration. The same is true with the invitation to evaluate complex interconnections. The economic imperative – which usually subsumes all other purposes for education – is tempered here. It is neatly contained between the social and the political. What these outcomes also suggest, implicitly at least – is a situated pedagogy. A pedagogy that is deeply contextual, spatial and critical: a critical pedagogy of place (Gruenewald 2003).

Developing a critical pedagogy of place means challenging each other to read the texts of our own lives and to ask constantly what needs to be transformed and what needs to be conserved.

This doesn’t imply an introspective, self-referenced reflexive professionalism: it is rather an outcome that insists on the personal and the professional as political projects.

We’re used to analyzing this with regards to students.  But, what might it imply for teachers?

Post 16 Education relies on the willingness of teachers to work unpaid. In my experience teaching is intensely hard work. It requires diligence, creativity and determination. I have recently undertaken a series of interviews for a small-scale, minimally funded, collaborative research project: ‘Portraits of Authenticity’. Our enquiry is based on wanting to find out more about how recently qualified Post 16 Teachers are faring in the workplace. With colleagues from the University Centre Doncaster, University Centre Grimsby and Bishop Burton College – we have spoken with teachers who are determined to support their students as much as they possibly can; typically they echo the insistence  that ‘Nothing will prevent me from doing good job’ (Hillier 2007). All struggle with paperwork, wondering whether ‘Not doing all the paper work for my students’ makes them a bad teacher. They comply – albeit reluctantly – with audit requirements, translating the learning goals their students struggle to articulate into industrialised SMART targets.

All of this is very familiar. The trouble is, I wonder at what point do we question the what and why of our own behaviour. Teachers and teacher educators are to some extent complicit in this exploitation; we willingly give our surplus labour to the corporation.   It is not unusual for programme teams to operate with two instead of three members of staff while the corporation saves money by delaying the appointment of a vacant post. They accept a workload model that allows forty-five minutes for what is actually a two-hour job simply because there seems to be little other choice.

Trainees and teacher educators explore and evaluate the connections between learning, learner and context. But how far do we develop an explicitly politicized curriculum that elaborates upon the domains of power that envelop our selves and our trainees. And what frames of reference support this.  I’d like to think that this kind of analysis might reasonably take the form a critical ontology of ourselves.

A critical ontology that explores:

  • the domain of truth: through which we are constituted as objects and subjects of knowledge;
  • the domain of power:  in which we are constituted as subjects acting on others and acted upon by others;
  • the domain of ethics or ‘individual conduct’: through which we constitute ourselves as particular types of subjects.

(Foucault, 1984/1988)

Research #ukfechatRQ on twitter

  1. Does anyone take twitter seriously?

    Surely it’s just a fun way to chat about the news and rant about politics. There are a few serious professional tweeters. But they usually chat about drinking wine and politics on twitter with the occasional link to their more serious published writing or a blog (the throw away stuff in draft). Whatever the status of digitally mediated communication,  #ukfechat has inspired or at least generated the idea for a research project; an idea that has taken hold. That is, a few days later  (twitter days are longer than normal days – so a few days is ages) – there are still people say … me too!

    A quick look through the biographies of all those who have expressed an interest suggests a completely mixed group with varied backgrounds including established, star rated academics, recently qualified FE teachers and techy experts.

    Whatever the limitations of academic research – this is surely a possible basis for collaborative interdisciplinary work?  The trouble is – who amongst us has expertise in this situation.

    I certainly don’t but this is how it seems to me.

    Having established the interest, a new hash-tag has been suggested:


    we can at least talk without out our 140 characters taken up with naming people

    A few questions have been floated:

    This assumes we all want to work on a similar question, a project,  rather than seeing #ukfechatRQ as a space to discuss our own and others’ research. May actual live research is a bot ambitous. We are all – after all – busy people.

    The fact that this is an online group means we are likely to lean towards the use of online data; there’s no point in doing anything unless it leads to credible, original and meaningful work.  None-the-less as a digital community, when methodology is referred to, it is with the sense that it will most likely be  virtually enabled. As FE professionals we are all aware of the advantages and pitfalls of this type of communication.

    We’ve  had a few comments and questions about methods, live data and coding.
    Story so far, listed below.
  2. @drmattoleary @azumahcarol @MrsSarahSimons @EdTech_Stories think scope for data collection on Twitter needs problematising by us first 2/2