Responding to “Secret Origins”

This post is a duplicate of the comment I’ve just left on a post at Vince Ulam’s blog; it’s here because otherwise the time I spent on formatting and adding hotlinks was wasted.

“These useful idiots, grateful for the imagined recognition and eager to seem important in the eyes of their peers, promote the aims and ideas of their recruiters across social media and via ticketed salons.”

It must be really nice to see yourself as immune to all this, too smart to fall for the conspiracy that everyone else has been duped by. Because, whether you intended it or not, that’s how much of the original post comes across. I think this is what put my back up, to be honest. I’ve attended two ResearchED events, one of which I spoke at. I’d like to think I earned that, rather than being recruited as a useful idiot. But then, in your viewpoint, it’s only natural I’d fall for it: I’m not as clever as you. The contrary argument might be that you’re resentful of not having the opportunity or platform for your views, but I’ve no idea if you’ve applied to present at ResearchED or anything similar. So how about we look at the facts, rather than the inferences and assigned motives you write about?

ResearchED in Context

From a local teachmeet up to national events, the idea of ‘grassroots’ activism in teaching is a powerful one. As bloggers, we both believe that practitioners can influence the ideas and work of others. And yes, I agree that appearing practitioner- or public-led, but actually being influenced by specific political parties or organisations, would be appealing to those organisations. It would lend legitimacy to very specific ideas. You only have to look at the funding of patient organisations by pharmaceutical companies, or VoteLeave and allied groups, to see the issues. But there is surely a sliding scale of influence here.

How we assess the independence of such a grassroots organisation could be done in several ways. Do we look at where the money comes from? Do we examine the people involved in organising or leading it? Do we look at the decisions they make, and how they are aligned with other groups? Do we look at who chooses to be involved, and who is encouraged/dissuaded, subtly or otherwise?

In reality we should do all of those. I think my issue with your post is that you seem to be putting ResearchEd in the same category as the New Schools Network among other groups, and (on Twitter) to be adding in the Parents and Teachers for Excellence Campaign too. I see them as very separate cases, and I’m much less hesitant about ResearchEd – partly because the focus is teacher practice and engagement, not campaigning. And you raise Teach First, which I have my own concerns about and am leaving to one side now as it’s not relevant.

The New Schools Network is (mostly) funded by government, and many have written about the rather tangled set of circumstances which led to the funding and positions expressed being so closely tied to a policy from one political party. I must admit, I find myself very dubious about anything that Dominic Cumming has had a hand in! Their advocacy and support for free schools, with so far limited evidence that they provide good value for money, frustrates me.

The PTE Campaign is slightly different. I’ve not spent time on searching for funding information but remember from previous news items – this from Schools Week for example – that it lacks transparency, to say the least. I think the name is misleading and their claim to be about moving power away from ‘the elites in Westminister and Whitehall’ to be disingenuous.

And let’s not even start with Policy Exchange.

From where I sit, if you want to group ResearchED with other education organisations, a much better match would seem to be Northern Rocks. The focus is improving and sharing classroom pedagogy, rather than campaigning. They’re both run on a shoestring. Classroom teachers are keen on attending and praise what they get out of the sessions. I can’t find anything on your blog about Northern Rocks, but that could be simple geography. (The bitter part of me suggests it’s not the first time anything happening past Watford gets ignored…)

Back to ResearchED: Funding and Speakers

“We have to hand it to Tom Bennett for his truly amazing accomplishment of keeping his international ‘grassroots’ enterprise going for four years without producing any apparent profits.”

Maybe it’s me seeing something which isn’t there, but your post seems to imply that there must be some big funding secret that explains why ResearchED is still going. What do you think costs so much money? The speakers are volunteers, as are the conference helpers. I don’t know if Tom gets a salary, but considering how much time it must be taking it would seem reasonable for at least a few people to do so. The catering costs, including staffing, are covered by the ticket price. The venues I remember are schools, so that’s not expensive.

As you’ve raised on Twitter during our discussions, the question of transport for UK-based speakers to overseas venues is an interesting one. I know that when I presented at Oxford (the Maths/Science one), my employer covered my travel costs; I assume that was the same for all speakers, or they were self-funding. If you have other specific funding concerns, I’ve not seen you describe them; you can hardly blame me for focusing on this one if you’d rather make suggestive comments than ask proper questions. I would also like to know if speakers can access funding support and if so, how that is decided. I can’t find that information on the website, and I think it should be there. I disagree with lots of what you say – or I wouldn’t have written all this – but that loses legitimacy if I don’t say where we have common ground.

I was surprised to find out how many ResearchED conferences there had been; I was vaguely thinking of seven or eight, which is why I was surprised by your suggestion that David Didau had presented at least six times. I stand corrected, on both counts. Having looked at the site, I’m also surprised that there’s no clear record of all the events in one place. A bigger ask – and one I have addressed to one of the volunteers who I know relatively well – would be for a searchable spreadsheet of speaker info covering all the conferences.

That would be fascinating, wouldn’t it? It would let us see how many repeat speakers there are, and how concentrated the group is. My gut feeling is that most speakers, like me, have presented only once or twice. Researchers would probably have more to say. I’d love to see the gender balance, which subject specialisms are better represented, primary vs secondary numbers, the contrast between state and independent sector teachers, researcher vs teacher ratios…

I’m such a geek sometimes.

You tweeted a suggestion I should ignore my personal experience to focus on the points in your post. The thing is that my personal experience of – admittedly only two – ResearchED conferences is that any political discussion tends to happen over coffee and sandwiches, and there’s relatively little of that. Maybe there’s more at the ‘strategic’ sessions aimed at HTs and policy-makers, rather than the classroom and department methods that interest me. If there’s animosity, it’s more likely to be between practitioners and politicians, rather than along party lines. I suspect I have more in common, to be honest, with a teacher who votes Tory than a left-leaning MP without chalkface experience. It’s my personal experience that contradicts the suggestions in your post about ResearchED being part of a shadowy conspiracy to influence education policy debate.

To return to Ben Goldacre, featured in your post as a victim of the puppet-masters who wanted a good brand to hide their dastardly plans behind: his own words suggest that in the interests of improving the evidence-base of policy, he’s content to work with politicians. Many strong views have been expressed at ResearchED. With such a wide variety of speakers, with different political and pedagogical viewpoints, I’m sure you can find some presentations and quotes that politicians would jump on with glee. And I’m equally sure that there are plenty they ignore, politely or otherwise. But I don’t believe the speakers are pre-screened for a particular message – beyond “looking at evidence in some way is useful for better education.” To be honest, I’m in favour of that – aren’t you? If there’s other bias in speaker selection, it was too subtle for me to notice.

But then, I’m not as clever as you.

Variations on a Theme

It turns out that I’m really bad at following up conference presentations.

Back in early June, I offered a session on teachers engaging – or otherwise – with educational research. It all grew out of an argument I had on Twitter with @adchempages, who has since blocked me after I asked if the AP Chem scores he’s so proud of count as data. He believes, it seems, that you cannot ever collect any data from educational settings, and that he has never improved his classroom practice by using any form of educational research.

But during the discussions I got the chance to think through my arguments more clearly. There are now three related versions of my opinion, quite possibly contradictory, and I wanted to link to all three.

Version the first: Learning From Mistakes, blogged by me in January.

Streamlined version written for the BERA blog: Learning From Experience. I wrote this a while back but it wasn’t published by them until last week.

Presentation version embedded below (and available from if you’re interested).

I’d be interested in any and all comments, as ever. Please let me know if I’ve missed any particular comments from the time – this is the problem with being inefficient. (Or, to be honest, really busy.) The last two slides include all the links in my version of a proper references section.

Thoughts from the presentation

Slide 8: it’s ironic that science teachers, who know all about using models which are useful even though they are by necessity simplified, struggle with the idea that educational research uses large numbers of participants to see overall patterns. No, humans aren’t electrons – but we can still observe general trends using data.

Slide 13: it’s been pointed out to me that several of the organisations mentioned offer cheaper memberships/access. These are, however, mainly institutional memberships (eg £50/yr for the IOP) which raises all kinds of arguments about who pays and why.

Slide 14: a member of the audience argued with this point, saying that even if articles weren’t open-access any author would be happy to share electronic copies with interested teachers. I’m sure he was sincere, and probably right. But as I tried to explain, this assumes that (1)the teacher knows what to ask for, which means they’ll miss all kinds of interesting stuff they never heard about and that (2)the author is happy to respond to potentially dozens of individual requests. Anyone other than the author or journal hosting or sharing a PDF is technically breaking the rules.

Slide 16: Ironically, the same week as I gave the presentation there was an article in SSR on electricity analogies which barely mentioned the rope model. Which was awkward as it’s one of the best around, explored and endorsed by the IOP among many others.

Slide 20: Building evidence-based approaches into textbooks isn’t a new idea (for example, I went to Andy’s great session on the philosophy behind the Activate KS3 scheme) but several tweeters and colleagues liked the possibility of explicit links being available for interested teachers.