The research raincloud

13 September 2022

Daisy Johnson

During one of my final meetings with the Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education team, I looked into the corner of the Teams window and watched myself gesturing vaguely to the area above my head. I was trying to explain how I sense there is a ‘raincloud’ of research that I can feel and see implemented around me, but as a classroom teacher, I have my umbrella up to it for much of the time because there are so many competing demands in my working days. Putting the umbrella away and making time for research to enrich and inform my teaching practice was, for me, a rare gift from the pandemic.

Illustration of Research Raincloud

There was a magical and never-to-be-repeated period during the initial weeks of lockdown where teacher workload dwindled to an incredible low. All external stresses had been cancelled and schools hadn’t yet mobilised the wealth of online teaching platforms, or at least mine hadn’t. For me, this meant time to spare for the first time in years – great, open afternoons of it. I joined the UKLA. I joined the Chartered College. I signed up for free OU courses. I finally opened and considered a good number of the TES weekly round-up emails that had been amassing in my inbox term on term. And I got a taste for it.

Later, when everything started frothing back up and we were back to full-on full-time, whether in-person or virtually, I decided this wasn’t something I wanted to lose. So I continue to seek time for research encounters in my professional life, or attempt to, and when I heard about the Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project at SHU, I was keen to sign up. Via Teams meet-ups with the project team and other participants, plus weekly emails with prompts for reflection, I was guided to notice when and how I was allowing myself to be watered by the pretty lively and flourishing research raincloud.

We were asked to begin recording these encounters using life-logging – my log was an online notebook software called Evernote, but a range of analogue and digital logs were encouraged. The act of logging began quite quickly to show key themes of my encounters, particularly in terms of where I was getting my research from. There seem to be a number of brokers who facilitate my exposure to literacy research, in particular the UKLA.

Via my UKLA membership, I attended an online conference and from there joined several teacher Special Interest Groups around reading and writing. A couple of these are led by The Writing For Pleasure Centre (https://writing4pleasure.com/). They meet digitally, roughly quarterly, and in the sessions different presenters share their examples of practice. Speakers range from classroom teachers explaining how they ran specific writing projects in their school, to professional literacy consultants who have contributed to educational policy, teacher training programmes and more; recent speakers have included Alex Quigley, Shelley Harwayne and Murray Gadd. I never leave a session without making some note of a book or website that I intend to investigate further – a kind of branching database of references, or a series of bridges as Gill has referred to them in her recent post. Some bridges I’ve crossed lately include https://rethinkingassessment.com/, https://www.icape.org.uk/ and Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels.

All of this research I encounter through choice – and more particularly, generally outside of working hours. It mainly serves to reinforce opinions I already hold about the way we teach reading and writing (more of it with fewer hoops to jump through, please and thank you) and assess it too (a little less of that would be nice). The life-logs record another side to my encounters – one brought about via my school and coming under the generalised heading of CPD.

With this type of encounter, often there is still an element of choice. For instance, staff are invited to select webinars that interest them from a list of events hosted by a local authority organisation – many coming from the prolific Huntington Research School and the Research Schools network. My school is also a member of an organisation called PiXL which hosts its own professional development events – I have attended two reading conferences and watched some of their online TV channel. While these kinds of encounters also furnish me with further research rabbit-holes to investigate, they also often offer repeat meetings with ideas and research I have met elsewhere. Perhaps research needs to undergo these first, second, third flowerings in order to become something that can be endorsed by school senior leadership teams and aligned more easily with existing school practice?

Both the categories of research encounter I have mentioned are united by having something less than open access. Memberships to subject organisations cost money and school subscriptions to CPD programmes must also be budgeted for. By beginning to sort and classify the kinds of research that are being encountered, the Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project may be supplying the data to build something that I feel we lack: a centralised archive of educational research, a sort of teachers’ library to point people towards the kind of things that may interest and inform them. The ‘hive mind’ of Twitter is a step in this direction, but the shapelessness and infinite nature of its structure puts me off. Bring back our libraries and the guiding hands of their custodians!

I would certainly recommend that others participate in the Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project, whether to examine the themes and messages of the research they are already encountering or indeed to chivvy them into seeking out more encounters. Research encounters with all aspects of teaching are a way to reflect on and adapt my own classroom practice, as well as look critically at practice in my workplace as a whole. They can bring fresh ideas when I’m feeling stale, or reassure me that my classroom habits are worthwhile. I hope the forecast for my academic year ahead is for rain!

Encountering research: glimpses from England

15 August 2022

Gill Adams

bridging | connections | literacy teaching | personal & professional | Primary literacy | Research | research and practice | Teachers

In our last blog, Julia noted how municipalities in Norway worked to bridge research and practice. This got me musing on this notion of bridging across and the separation it suggests, even as it points to possibilities of connections.

As summer holidays are approaching, thinking about bridges took me off in my mind to the Scottish islands. Many were once only accessed by sea, often involving challenging navigation around low lying reefs and rocks that were likely to sink sailors without local knowledge or clear charts. Now some of these islands are connected by bridges and causeways as well as, or instead of, ferries. The ferries remain my favourite way of travelling, giving time to experience the journey, to pause and notice seals basking. That slowing down on the boat crossing acts as a preparation for island life and reminds me of the change in pace I experience between teaching and research in my university life. A different focus, a slowing down, time to play with ideas, to linger. How do teachers in schools manage this shift?

Alternatives to bridges between islands remain but may be less frequented. Walking on Eigg last year I came across a couple using sea kayaks to travel between islands. They had paddled over from Rùm, taking a meandering route dictated by tides and winds. Unhurried, they took time to make the traverse. In this next phase of our project we are exploring possibilities for supporting teachers to engage critically and confidently with literacy research, aiming to mull things over together, to open up spaces to make connections with research.

Connections may initially be forged across new terrain, linking spaces, groups and individuals. These links shift, some falter, others become more passable as they are travelled back and forth. This passage back and forth, making connections and bridging across, takes many forms. The teachers participating in our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project have already provided us with valuable glimpses into the way some of these connections and bridges are formed between literacy teaching and research evidence and how they endure. Connections are multiple and complex. These connections range widely – these few examples from teachers’ encounters with literacy research are selective but valuable in providing brief impressions of the complexity of teachers’ daily lives.

As we’ve talked with teachers, I’ve been struck by the variety of sometimes surprising routes that teachers reported research traveling to them, which suggests something about the inseparability of teachers’ personal and professional lives. Here is an example where one teacher talked about her research log:

‘There’s a link from my mum from The Guardian about how – oh no, it’s not The Guardian, it’s from theconversation.com about how grammar teaching should change’.

Does a personal connection, in this case the teacher’s mum sharing the link, influence engagement?

Another teacher told us how she approached a friend who worked in university teacher education for advice on how to enrich her classroom practice: ‘So she kind of encouraged me to doing things like joining some professional organisations, like the UKLA’. The new connections made subsequently ‘opened up just a set of encounters’ with research.

Time, a challenge mentioned in our May blog, isn’t the only barrier that teachers have mentioned as they share their encounters with research.

One teacher found their route to research thwarted as they struggled to gain access to articles protected by journal’s paywalls:

In terms of encounters, I think the biggest challenge is getting access to the research itself. […] You might find that you want to get access to an article or a journal and it’s like you feel like you’ve got to almost dance around to try and get access to it, whether it’s through – there was one recently that I was looking for and I ended up going through, having to find the researchers’ university web page and get through there to see if it was open access

Despite these difficulties, described by one teacher as ‘dancing around’, the primary teachers we have spoken to so far in the project are encountering research. As they create and navigate routes, they develop connections, using bridges like the Conversation article referred to above, research shared freely. Resources like this allow more direct access to research: a visit to the webpage prompts readers to sign up for newsletters, dropping research directly into their mailboxes; twitter followers are ‘fed’ constant updates. Often when I read this kind of research digest, I start to follow a research trail, perhaps to the original research, other work by the same author, or I might head off in a different direction, pursuing an idea raised in the article. But, like the teacher who received the link from her mum, it might be some time until I read the article, waiting perhaps for a provocation, a reason to return to it.

Of course, it isn’t sufficient simply to have well-signposted, accessible bridges – we need a rationale to make connections.  The teachers we’ve spoken to articulated how they deliberately sought out literacy research, often in response to a need arising from reflection on learning and teaching.

‘I started doing other bits of research, which I really enjoyed, and looking into different things and I think that it is those things where you’re then looking at what doesn’t work in your classroom that then inspires you to then go and research into that’. 

‘At our school, we have done disciplined inquiry in the past, so we have all come up with a question linked to our pupils and […] our kids are just rubbish at spelling, they just find it really hard, so I wanted to look at the memory and recall of the common exception words in KS2 and that was something that we did as a research project and the plan was, until COVID came, that we were going to present this and so I think that quite a lot of small scale research happens without us really knowing that we’re doing small scale research’

In these extracts, research is becoming part of teachers’ practice. They have decided the focus of their research together.

Participants have raised questions about planning, co-constructing and strengthening connections or bridges between research and practice. These questions, and the subsequent conversations, will help us explore how teachers’ critical engagement with research can flourish, a focus of our project.

If you are a primary teacher and are interested in getting involved in the project, do get in touch. We are holding more teacher focus groups in the autumn term and would love to hear from you. Please contact us at remple@shu.ac.uk or register through our website.

Teachers don’t have the time to do research?

Working with teachers to understand research mobilities in primary literacy education in turbulent times

May 31 2022

Petra Vackova

COVID-19 | Primary literacy | Research | Teachers

When we launched our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education research project we knew that listening to and thinking together with teachers must be at its core. In the current turbulent educational climate, in which teachers are dealing with the effects of a COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to come together, to talk, and to learn from teachers about what we can do to support and build a strong, equitable, and forward-looking education system for all. Reading worrisome newspaper and magazine headlines that teachers are “overwhelmed and exhausted” and teachers are “buckling up under strain,” or hearing directly from teachers that their workloads have tripled as colleagues are off-sick or quitting due to rising pressures, we knew that getting teachers to commit to yet another project, adding another to-do-item to their already long list, would not be easy. Nevertheless, more than 30 teachers at different career stages and with different roles have already signed up to take part in our project. Some of these have been teaching for many years while others are newly qualified. Some are Literacy leads, others are headteachers or have other roles. Many share a passion for English and literacy. Attending our workshops in between meetings, after work, and taking time away from family, these teachers have engaged with us in future-looking discussions about the intersection of research and literacy education, demonstrating the considerable enthusiasm and commitment that teachers dedicate to their roles and to education even at the most difficult of times.

And so we are here, in the midst of the exciting first phase of our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project in which we are talking with teachers about their experiences of accessing, exchanging and conducting research, while still recruiting more. The challenges facing teachers today are plentiful and real, yet they are finding the time and energy to share their experiences with other teachers, researchers and stakeholders to reinvigorate current debates about the relationship between primary literacy research and practice.

The teachers taking part in our project are collectively discussing and carefully logging how, when and where they encounter research in primary literacy and/or English. The goal is to produce a rich dataset on the complexities of teacher’s experiences of research that illuminates the scope, nature, and mediation of teacher’s encounters with research within formal and informal contexts. The aim of this first phase is to explore how literacy research moves to and between teachers, which research gains traction and which does not, and the role played by different brokers (e.g., charities, influencers, algorithms) in helping research to travel through complex and intersecting networks within the field of primary literacy.

In this research we are discussing various aspects of research mobilities in focus groups and interviews. We are also asking teachers to collect examples of ‘encounters’ with research, using a method inspired by the lifelogging methods of Alberto Frigo (2017). We wanted an approach that would take as little time as possible, that would fit easily alongside teachers’ many other commitments and that teachers could adapt to suit their personal preferences. We have therefore asked them to log any times in which they feel they are engaging with/in, accessing or drawing on research. They are doing this in whatever way suits them. Some are taking photos, others are simply making lists, and others are using apps such as Jamboard and Notability. One participant has taken up a one-second everyday video diary. Teachers are then meeting up with other teachers to share and reflect on their encounters and their relationship with primary literacy research.

As is clear from what teachers have told us so far, the relationship between primary literacy research and practice is complex and research is mediated in a multitude of ways. Schools or MATs, for example, might use resources or interventions underpinned by research or implement policies based on EEF’s guidelines for primary literacy. Sometimes the relationship is minimal or indirect.  One teacher noted “I think in primary schools a lot of research tends to be watered and filtered down through a different scheme that somebody else has taken and interpreted that research, or a different curriculum programme that somebody else has taken that research and watered down and filtered in.” At other times, teachers access research that’s directly linked to their professional interests or needs. They might be concerned for example that some children are not motivated as readers or about how to accommodate the different languages that children speak. This might lead them to refer to books or to social media or to organisations such as  the Chartered College of Teaching, United Kingdom Literacy Association or Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. They may consult teachers or consultants across the country and beyond using social media. They may also be engaged in research or enquiry themselves or belong to a teacher research group.

There certainly isn’t one single conduit for research. What is certain is that despite being stretched in ways that no one could have imagined a couple of years ago, these teachers are going above and beyond to access, exchange, and share research to inform their classroom practice. This is not always easy but can be key to supporting children in classrooms. As one teacher told us: “I suppose, it is ‘challenging’, sometimes research is very challenging to understand.  And the pressures of time, to be able to sit there and go through it thoroughly and there’s so much of it.  But so useful when you do find something that can impact on your practice.”

We’re still in the early stages of the project and are currently looking for teachers who might like to participate in the Autumn term. We’re keen to gather a wide range of experience through this work and to learn from a wide range of teachers. If you think you would like to be involved, please contact us at remple@shu.ac.uk or register through our website.