Assessment can be dangerous…..

Professor Stephen Ball hung his head in despair at the end of his answer to the final question after his Robert Owen Centre lecture on Tuesday night (23/02/2016). I don’t really think anyone was all that surprised. His talk, which explored lessons from around the world on the use and abuse of assessment as  policy, set an agenda of concerns which had been carefully chosen for his Scottish audience.These concerns related to the question of how far crude data garnered from assessment practice  is accepted as a major policy driver, and whether or not this is a dangerous thing.
Stephen Ball did not make any  claims to be telling us anything new. It seemed that instead he was  confirming Scotland’s place at the neo-liberal education reformers’ table, but no-one was really in the mood for celebrating. He showed us the different ways we’d got there.
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Firstly, we have bought into  what Pasi Sahlberg calls the GERM agenda he shared  different examples of education reforms underpinned  by assessment and showed the commonality across these systems; now in the company of our very own  latest policy offering – the new National Improvement Framework .
Economic performance and competitiveness are at the heart of all these reforms – the neo-liberal agenda –  where educational data are harnessed for international comparison. Again, no secrets here as the NIF was offered as a means of response to  The OECD report on Scottish education (For more analysis of the NIF  see Professor Mark Priestley’s blog).The arguments and research on neo-liberalism and education are plentiful, well documented and well rehearsed – see links on Mark’s blog.
Secondly, in common with other recent education system reforms The NIF exemplifies what Ball identifies as the policy ratchet;  there are no more grand gestures in education reform, just a constant stream of small manoeuvres. We can see this happening here. We have had a number of small reforms relating to assessment ( NIF, New National level tests; new Highers) but also to curriculum ( early years education; 1+2 languages, for example) and to teachers’ professionalism and practices (Teaching Scotland’s Future; professional update); important questions are -how do they all relate to each other over time and whose agenda are they responding to? Small reforms don’t announce themselves as loudly as big reforms, however. And therefore they might not invite so many questions as big reforms.
The NIF is presented to us as a response to closing the attainment gap.  There are implications of causality in this, i.e. claims are made about causal relationships embedded in these reforms; the causal assertion being that lowering the attainment gap will equalise opportunities. Schools, however, as well all know only account for a very small proportion of the improvement effect – 11-15% according to Stephen Ball, the rest  is explained by non school factors, but the elements in this complex relationship cannot be isolated from each other; to do so is to over-simplify the problem.  Conveniently, though,  if attention is  shifted from general inequalities to the role of schools, this  depoliticises the poverty problem, according to Ball, recasting  inequality as more of an educational failure than a political problem. The solutions are presented  as technical,  not social or political and simple, not complex and are identified as the responsibilities of schools. And if it does’t work? Well,  we all know who gets the blame, and further reforms can be justified.
The sharpened focus on schools in this debate  illuminates features of the inexorable but flawed logic of neo-liberalism:
  • management by data through targets and reporting – performance management.
  • Evaluating learning and teaching through  teacher performances – surveillance
  • Rewarding schools/teachers for good performance – exacerbating the problem.
  • Students are now seen as an asset  to be invested in; from whom economic advantages can be garnered
  • reform becomes a profit opportunity, generating commercial commodities (such as assessments) which become essential to the process

Ironically, there is a strong case for negative causality here: with a focus increasingly on positive high achievement,  most of these features serve to widen the attainment gap, not narrow it.

This logic is also providing us with  new reference points for research.  Policy actors such as PISA; McKinsey;  Schiller; Tucker and  OECD are the new voices in research and the policy process,  changing the ways research is understood, changing how policy is done and changing also modes of governance.  Their  data, which command our attention are based on scientific practice offering quasi scientific claims; the Educational Endowment Fund provides a good example of this with its reductivist cost versus effectiveness equations to help teachers and leaders evaluate a range of interventions. Not as helpful as you might think – as Biesta (2007) argues,
‘we need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relation between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves.’
 The example from EEF narrows our thinking about this -data can be dangerous too.
So there was a general sense of despondency at the end, along with a feeling that we need a different agenda for reform. Reasons to be cheerful were in short supply. Professor Louise Hayward, who introduced the event urged us to keep the conversations going  through networks – and make sure they are heard. Maybe that’s all we can do – worth doing all the same. So comments welcome, as ever please:-)
Reference:
Biesta, G. (2007), WHY “WHAT WORKS” WON’T WORK: EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE AND THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH. Educational Theory, 57: 1–22. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x
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Researching Marginalised Groups Symposium

It’s been a while since my last post – embarrassingly long. Full time work and a hefty commute have eaten up any available time I had to do this, but in trying to sort out my notes from some recent conferences, I took the plunge and got back on the blog-wagon. This might be interesting if you are working with either ethnographic approaches or marginalised/marginalising groups. It was a cracking day for me -organised by Professor Ross Deuchar and very inspiring – lovely people and great discussions.

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This symposium gave me an opportunity to find out more about ethnographic methodologies and about a research project that had take place in the SoE. The following scholars gave accounts of their chapter in a recently co-authored book of the same title.

Marginalised and silenced voices were surfaced. Extremist groups also considered within this definition as they are ones who marginalise and we need to understand what they do and how the operate as well.

Kalwant Bhophal raised pertinent methodological questions: no matter who we are we affect the groups we research (her area of research interest is travellers and Roma communities).

How have we used the respondents?
have we unconsciously exploited them?
How do we affect the communities?
Our subjectivity always affects our research.

Research should always make a difference even if it’s small.

Ethics – compromises are sometimes necessary. Discourse is often nebulous. Needs to be more transparent – we have diverse duties in ethics:  to respondents, university, discipline.

ACCESS- this can be problematic: rapport and trust are key. I co-authored a paper on methodological difficulties  of access and participation with colleague Nighet Nasim Riaz, which is under review.

Openness and recognition of the right time to stop when dealing with students  are essential!

Member checking –  giving transcripts back to respondents to check is an important part of trust building process – before data is analysed or used. This is important especially with marginalised groups.  Reflexivity and positionality – power is dynamic, not static: it will change throughout  the research process.

Gavin Bailey: Research Associate, University of Leicester

Gavin researches extremism in a community context; he is interested in the ones who do the marginalising – the extremist groups within working class communities. His big question was – are hard to reach groups really hard to reach or are the just hard to hear?

What happens if the residents association in a community  happens to be run by BNP ACTIVISTS? Where does that leave the researcher? How might trust be understood by other oppositional participants?

Extremism and how it is conceptualised in research: community as a key analytical object.

Stereotypes are dominant representations of these extremist groups- see Jeremy Paxman interview Nick Griffin: the way demonstrations are represented in media is always as confrontational.

Being on Paxman – this is not being marginalised , this is mainstream media- doing the marginalising. The doer of the marginalising and the subject of the marginalising- needs to be broken down a bit.

GB’s study avoided the public representation of the extremist groups as portrayed in media and focused on what they do in their day jobs; the extremist groups are the unit of analysis . Beware the focus on the spectacular groups- counter terrorists focusing on different groups who actually do violence: are they unreformable? Is that why they are ignored?

Activists have chosen to become activists – lots haven’t, but are still in the dynamic geographies of danger of otherness. In this paradigm the research starts with these places. But often activists drive into performing activism and drive away assumptions that are being recreated – seek and you will find.

Stigmatising communities: some objects become indicators of extremism- we know what it looks like and where to find it – so they think anti fascist or anti racist- what was the question again? Is it part of this older debate of extremes? Where is the concern with white middle class attitudes and actions, exemplified so ably by certain print media? Why is this mainstream and not seen as extremism? You know which papers I mean!!

Try the implicit association test – see link.

Tiago Neves

This I found really challenging. Tiago completely overturned my assumptions about researching people and asked lots of awkward questions like – are these extremist groups really hard to reach? They are easy to reach  compared to bankers, about whom very little research is done!

Ethnographic work – is it non intrusive or the most intrusive?

You study people – that’s ugly! To put them under the microscope , intrude in their lives is disturbing. We go into places we don’t know much about and try to make sense of what they do. Maybe we should make sense of out own lives?! Intrusion can cause deception – the definition of impression management, which we need to do in research is ‘the work of successfully staging a character’ (see Goffman). In ethnography we intentionally create a character in order to pry into people’s lives- that’s the ugly bit of ethnography: it can blur the divide between a social encounter and a sociologically useful encounter.

The naturalism of the ethnographer is an artificiality. What is reciprocity ? – an illusion? Who reaps the benefits of our research, or should we base this relationship on something else? Tiago sees this as a relational quandary. There are different motivations to do research: What can we do? – get real – no person is perfect so no researcher is either.

Get real – there will always be betrayal, hands will get dirty.

Get ample – write about all our experiences, keep the  detail as context sensitive accounts of ethical matters as they pose themselves in the field.

Emiliano Grimaldi

Positionality, symbolic violence and critical ethnography.   Foucauldian influences. Experienced uneasiness- chapter draws on critical moments reflecting this in two research projects. Foucault – power and knowledge are mutually constitutive.

Fieldwork has an inherently political nature – symbolic violence is inherent in fieldwork? Every time we engage – esp with marginalised groups – we exercise symbolic violence. See chapter on symbolic violence. This author gave a worrying account of some researchers’ interview data with Roma groups in Italy. Their responses were counter-indicative to the researchers’ expectations, and the manipulation, constant rephrasing, rewording, reiterating on the part of the researchers was blatantly driving at a pre-determined conclusion which the participants were making it very difficult for them to arrive at it. A lesson in interviewing.

Stephen Locke

This was the least helpful presentation for me – it was lacking a bit of coherence, although it was on an interesting question of giving a face to those we study. Should we be protecting identity or giving a voice? What are the barriers to making visible those who are invisible, and how seriously do we take this ethical question – does protecting identity deny voice and agency to some respondents?

Questioning the IRB ethics boards:

Institutional control of knowledge/ legalistic nature of IRB/ conflicting ideas of informed consent: these are represented differently in north south divide between USA and South America. As an illustration of this in reviewing ethics guidelines, the US took 130 pages to explain their guidelines compared to 13 pages for Costa Rica and they were mostly concerned with science.

Am I more or less ethical after this?
This symposium has extended my knowledge and interest in ethnographic approaches, and certainly raised some very probing ethical questions . My area of research interest is teacher professional learning. I’m not sure how easy or relevant ethnographic approaches are to this subject area, but the ethical questions raised here are valid for any methodology involving people.

Follow-up:

Goffman
Gold’s typology of participant observation 1958
Ross Deuchar
Hammersley on ethical absolutism.

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SERA poverty and education network meeting 16th June 2015

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SERA joined forces with the College Development Network and Scotland’s colleges to take part in the Emporium of Dangerous Ideas (#DangerousEd) – an annual ideas-fest full of interesting and creative change-orientated dangerous ideas, conversations and gatherings by and for educators across all sectors and agencies. This event was a sell out and was hosted at Scotland’s Colleges HQ in Stirling – a fine venue with easy parking, nice welcome and great lunch!

The  network is one of several facilitated by SERA and has been on the go since 2014. Today’s event was called Research as if Education Mattered. And Education as if Research Mattered. There was unsurprisingly a heavy bias towards the college sector among participants, and other  representation from CLD, EIS, GTCS, four universities, two local authorities Education Scotland and one youth organisation. The format was quick and snappy – using the Petcha Kucha format. I think this makes people talk very fast and the continuous rolling slideshow can be distracting when it adheres to the 4s per slide limit and gets out of synch with what presenters are saying. I prefer teachmeet format with no powerpoint  and 2 or 7 minute presentations, but it certainly is great for keeping things moving along.

The presentations were varied and each addressed different aspects of the impact of poverty in education. Highlights for me were Alistair Wilson of Strathclyde University talking about his study of mentoring young people in areas of high deprivation to support widening access to universities. Findings suggest young people’s social networks play a big part in improving access for them, and mentors can help to build their social capital to help them develop their social networks. This is maybe obvious but providing the mentoring is the key here and that’s what this project did. If you go to  fee-paying schools you get  advice like this , dedicated tutors to help you with your personal statement alone as well as all the benefits your social and cultural capital will bring you. Little surprise then that without such support there hasn’t been one young person emerge from one named north-east Glasgow secondary school to become a doctor in over 30 years. This school will no doubt be just as teeming with intelligent and capable young people  as many others- what an indictment of inequity in our system and Alistair reckons it will be exactly the same in another 30 years unless we do something to change it.

Other interesting data were shared by the the EIS on detailed aspects of poverty manifestations in schools; the CELCIS team on the difficulties and vulnerabilities of looked after children and approaches to helping their attainment by participative approaches; Stuart Hall (Robert Owen Centre at Glasgow University) from his Families First in Renfrewshire project and  Stephen McKinney (Glasgow University) spoke about global issues concerning poverty and education – forcibly displaced children; the fine lines between children’s work, child labour and slavery and the invisible spectre of human trafficking.

All of this demonstrated the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in education and that we actually have a wealth of data on this issue. Collaborative working across agencies and different sectors via networks such as this one will provide a way to make sense of this data and communicate some approaches towards tackling it – but  I’m left pondering as usual that it’s not just up to schools, teachers and other educators to solve this problem, and are more studies the answer?

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Novice researcher encounters journal ranking: how does it work?

Flickr Photo: JoelMontes – CC BY-SA

Last week I took part in a seminar with colleagues in the School of Social Sciences where we discussed the PhD experience; getting published; post-doc employment and what we should be doing while we’re also doing our PhDs to support our applications for when we finish. (I posted about that in our Google+ online community so sorry if you’ve already heard about this). The discussion on getting published was interesting. The expectations on achieving this seem to vary a bit between the two schools but there does seem to be a common acceptance that it’s a really good thing to do, in fact it’s looking more and more like it’s an essential thing to do. That’s fine but to the novice researcher some important questions about it can induce a rush of panic, notably what to publish and where to publish.

Dealing with “what” first – that’s the easy bit. I’ve revisited my M.Ed data with my previous supervisor and we have one co-authored paper in press, another one submitted and a third one in the pipeline. This is obviously one approach. There’s lots of ways to go about identifying what to publish. You might have a methodological innovation that could form the basis of a paper, or perhaps some aspect of your literature review that might be able to stand alone as a paper with some re-working. And this is before you get to your data. Again, picking out just one aspect or feature of your data might allow you to open up a new set of questions which you can work into a paper. This is what we did with my data from a very small study – there was more mileage in it that you’d first imagine.

So how do you decide where you’re going to try to get it published? That’s perhaps a more difficult question and we spent a bit of time discussing this last week but not enough. Because journals are ranked by their “impact factor” there is an order of preference for where you might want to get published. Schools and departments are looking for publications in the four star high-ranking international journals with good “impact ratings” and citation indices. This gives good Research Excellence ratings. You clearly don’t want to get published in open access journals. Or ones that invite you to submit your work to a dubious sounding spammy email address. That seems obvious, but how do we know which are the high ranking ones? How exactly is the ranking calculated? How are any biases in the process accounted for? Would it be more realistic for PhD students to aim for “mid-range” journals rather than the high ranking ones to get their publication rates off the starting blocks? If so, how do we know which journals are “mid-range” and would they be happy about being identified as such? All of this has to be navigated before we even start dealing with feedback, rejection and if you’re lucky, extensive pinging back and forth whilst amendments are made.

At the session last week one of the speakers mentioned an online way of checking journal rankings. I didn’t have much luck trying to search under the terms he gave but I have come across a few interesting links while searching in various combinations of the terms “Education research journal rankings/ratings.” One of the sites this search offered was Science watch – it seems to be an index of educational research journals, but there also seems to be a science orientation here. That’s fine but not exactly what I was looking for and I still don’t really know how the impact factor is calculated or what it means. I felt I might be getting a bit closer with the Australian Teacher Education Association but it ranks the Asian-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education second – is this because it really is excellent or is it because the list concerns itself mostly with southern hemisphere publications? I feel I could do with a bit of help and guidance here so if there are any publications-savvy experienced colleagues reading this please comment. Meanwhile I’m just trying to make progress with my study and feeling lucky about getting papers published in journals that I’ve read, that accept my work and there are authors names I recognise. For an early-stage researcher I don’t think that’s too bad, four star or no star, but I still can’t find out how this particular journal is rated if indeed it is at all.

post script: a few helpful colleagues have shared some  useful links on this with me.

Here is a list of predatory open access publishers and journals to avoid

This business school journals index give rankings for lots of journals in management, economics, business and social sciences

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What do professional learning policies say about the purposes of teacher education?

Aileen Kennedy (2014): What do professional learning policies say about the purposes of teacher education?  Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, DOI:10/1080.1359866x.2014.9940279

I’m preparing a 7 minute research paper for our next “teachmeet” tomorrow (we need a better name – researchmeet sounds a bit worthy though). The paper I’ve chosen for this week’s theme of professional learning is by Aileen Kennedy and has just recently been published in the Asian-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education. I’ve always liked how Aileen writes and the subjects she tackles are very close to my own research interests, so I hope she won’t mind if I share my humble thoughts about it here. It’s a highly relevant paper for my study and asks some searching questions about the purposes and rationale behind some taken for granted assumptions about key aspects of professional  learning dominating the Scottish agenda. I use this critical writing frame a lot for summarising  notes on readings. It comes from Dan Soule, @grammatologer whose writing courses I’ve attended here at Stirling. Here is my summary of Aileen’s paper

Slide1

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Approaches to educational research

Busy day today but thankfully it didn’t involve 8am pre-exam piano lessons for my son, a lost schoolbag, piano exams, bashed cars, builders de-constructing my kitchen, emergency visits to the optician and meetings with students about laggy attendance. Like yesterday did –  before lunchtime. It did involve a supervision meeting and a research seminar. My supervision meeting with both supervisors provided the right amount of inspiration, affirmation and questions about possibilities: it was really quite significant in that the discussion around the field work I’ve done so far points towards a possible re-framing of my project into more of an action/participatory research orientated one rather than a case study. I’ve assembled some methodological reading on this and am really quite excited about it as it’s turned up a whole new dimension to my project. However this research project turns out I really want it to make a useful and maybe even usable contribution to what we already know about teacher professional learning. That, I feel is the very least I can do to justify the time and effort it will take me and everyone else who invests in me by indulging my pursuit of something I’m interested in.
There is no baseline indicator of the usefulness of educational research. There are checks and balances which serve as quality indicators like the Vitae framework which elaborates SCQF level 12; review processes; the involvement of external examiners; peer review etc but usefulness or impact of a piece of work is not always the same as its quality. To be fair, the impact agenda in research is now a massive concern of funding bodies like the ESRC and of universities for formal research excellence assessment processes and maybe that’s the same thing, I’m not sure. I see impact as a changing effect that happens as a reaction to or interaction with something.
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The impact debate in academia is heated and polemic and I don’t want to open it up here, but I would like to ponder for a moment the usefulness of educational research. If research isn’t useful and useable (to paraphrase Margaret Archer talking about social theory) does it amount to anything other than self-indulgence? I listened to a talk today about a study  from a post-human perspective in the HE context and I found myself asking this question more than once. Foucault, Barad, Deleuze and Guitarri, Lather, Neitsche, Lyotard, Haraway, Bennett, Heidegger and Kant among others were all referenced but I still didn’t really understand what this study actually found out and what its contribution was. I might be wrong, but I’d be surprised if anyone did because the presenter didn’t actually tell us. I didn’t really grasp what questions the study was asking. I’ve listened to talks about educational research projects like this before, where theoretical work eclipses the empirical to such a degree that the participants who took part in the study are barely acknowledged and their voices so feebly represented that they really might as well not be there at all. For me there is an ethical issue here about using people’s time as well as the usefulness question. I fully accept that some studies make a theoretical contribution and not an empirical one, but again I would refer to Margaret Archer’s axiom I paraphrased earlier- a social theory should be useful and useable. If this isn’t the case, there are questions remaining as to purpose and also for me the question of when in academia does usefulness stop and self-indulgence begin? I will make it my pledge to try to always stay on the right side of that line – if it exists.

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#AGENCYCHAT

Last month a few of us held a workshop to discuss agency in a way that was relevant to our work. Discussion time is invaluable, and we’re gradually widening our research post-graduate network to include colleagues in other disciplines so this all adds value to our sessions. I circulated an open invitation to our school and our online community and in the end three education research students (myself, Anna and Beth) and Avril from the NMAHP Research Unit signed up. Small is still beautiful! We each brought a paper on agency to explain and share with the group. We used the tried and tested democractic teachmeet format and stuck rigorously to our seven minute presentations. However we did without the sponsorship and round tables etc. as there were only the four of us! A quick pause after the presentations for coffee and then onto an enlightening discussion.born1945_-_A-

The papers we chose were all very different. Beth was first up with a funny, quirky and very interesting Actor Network Theory view of a very everyday phenomenon – a door-closer. Door closers can of course be human or automated (non-human), but either way, they each cause a number of effects, therefore each has agency, and the paper explores social relations, effects and the ways in which agency can be demonstrated by a non-human object. I really enjoyed this paper and I’ve only just realised it was actually written by Bruno Latour!

Avril was up next and she, like me is taking a critical –realist view of agency for her study on interventions in speech and language therapists’ practice. This paper was by Sam Porter and was taking a swipe at Pawson’s realist-evaluation interpretation of critical realism. In this paper, Porter suggests a notion of agency that is based on an understanding of causation and is more consistent with the original philosophy of Roy Bhaskar. In Bhaskar’s thinking, structure (any form of organisation made up of components) and agency (the capacity to make a difference to outcomes) are mutually constitutive through causation (or generative mechanisms), but are analytically distinct, unlike in realist evaluation where they are conflated (as far as I can work out, in realist evaluation resources and reactions in combination are understood to constitute agency).

We next heard from Anna who had chosen a theoretical paper by Kathryn Hayles discussing the use of metaphor in the work of Richard Dawkins and Deleuze / Guattari. All three have “displaced” the notion of agency from the human domain; Dawkins suggests genes, not humans have agency and Deleuze and Guattari talk about desire, not agency. This paper, I think suggests a theoretical framework using the language of the extended metaphors these authors espouse but recognises that constraints are needed if the work is to be useful empirically and give us a way of understanding agency (this was the most challenging paper for me and I haven’t read it all).

My paper was the most empirical and returned to a critical realist view of agency. The paper will be a chapter in a forthcoming book by my supervisor, Mark Priestley and others and is about the role of teacher beliefs in agency. Drawing on a wide range of theorists and authors on agency and teacher beliefs (Archer; Biesta and Tedder; Emirbayer and Mische; Priestley; Nespor; Meirenk), it adopted an ecological perspective on agency, whereby agency results from the interplay of many factors, including resources, environment, structural arrangements and individual efforts. The paper aims to find out how teachers achieve agency in the context of the new curriculum and what might promote or inhibit agency in this context. Findings are interesting and expose varying degrees of tension and contradictions in teacher beliefs relating to how they view young people; how they see their own roles; what their understandings of the purposes of education are and the apparent inadequacy of the available discourse to express these purposes. There was a very useful theoretical framework outlining the conceptualisation of agency used. It combined ideas of agency as a result of interactions and structural/cultural elaborations and Emirbayer & Mische’s iterational, practical-evaluative and projectional view of agency. I’d have liked to learn more on how agency in the teacher-participants in this study was actually determined using this model.

So this was our first edu-research meet. We have another one planned for the 24th March and the theme this time is professional learning. We enjoyed the session and the format worked really well so we’re going to use it again. Details have been posted on our google+ community and an open invitation is extended to anyone interested. Please get in touch if you’d like to come along – remember your 7 minute presentation on a paper of your choice!

Refs: (sorry about the mess)
Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer
Jim Johnson Social Problems Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-310

Desiring Agency: Limiting Metaphors and Enabling Constraints in Dawkins and Deleuze/Guattari Katherine Hayles, 2001 SubStance 30 (1&2)

The uncritical realism of realist evaluation. Sam Porter (2015) Evaluation, 21(1), 65-82.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M. & Robinson, S. (2015, in press). The Role of Beliefs in Teacher Agency.Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice

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