‘Pedagogies, Practitioners and Identities’ – Education Conference at BCU, Birmingham

This Autumn, I’ll be starting (well, continuing) a Masters of Education in Academic Practice in Higher Education) at BCU, the same university where I am currently completing my PhD. Completing a Masters alongside completing a PhD? Why not! I think only wordgirl would do this. All or nothing as standard right? I was offered the opportunity to finish the MEd as I have already completed a couple of the course modules…and as a lot of my world is China and Chinese art including teaching on numerous undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the last academic year, I’ve become interested in the internationalisation of (art) curriculums, and the assimilation of international students to the UK education system, specifically to art school. This will become my thesis topic for the MEd…I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it.

In the months leading up to the start of the course, I am trying to get in the right frame of mind by attending research and conference days to hear current and contemporary perspectives in the field. On Monday, I went to BCU’s Education one-day conference ‘Pedagogies, Practitioners and Identities’ (more info here on  the CSPACE blog…a new platform for the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education, profiling education research and practice from BCU’s education community).

The day began with a keynote address by Dr Matt O’Leary on ‘How educational research gets done: looking through the lens of a study in lesson observation’. He called himself a mixed methods researcher to get a rounded and comprehensive concept of the study (studies). Matt focussed here on the “doing” of educational research and stages of research from instigation to dissemination, situated in the national and international context policy context, research design, insight into some of the findings,  how to make sense of data and the implications for future practice. What is central to educational research and to make it more high-profile is the “impact” – what impact is it going to have on practice in schools, colleges and universities.

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Mind Change Susan Greenfield

Global policy context – a significant rise in improving education systems, a market focus on measuring education performance in global league tables such as PISA (OECD) (only established in 2000 now with global impact)…the desire to rise up the education league table; growing importance of “quality” of teaching, teacher evaluation and teacher effectiveness e.g. MET project in the USA questioning what it means to be an effective teacher. He recommended the book ‘PISA, Power, and Policy: The emergence of global educational governance’ for further information on this. He questioned what does it mean to be an effective teacher is…the qualities and characteristics based on a linear model where context does not matter. National policy context – Observation as a mechanism, currently a hot/contested topic in colleges/schools; single most significant cause of tension, grievances and industrial disputes…its relationship to capabilities and disciplinary procedures; Ofsted policy developments.

He went on to speak of how to create surveys to collate qualitative and qualitative data…and how it can prove an interest for the research. He gave a pyramid visualisation of how he tackled the research: Observation as a formative tool (top of pyramid) – observer issues – observation as a form of assessment – counterproductive effects of observations (bottom of pyramid). The role of researchers is as narrators…we must narrate the research findings. Multi-dimensional model of teacher appraisal…they don’t have a problem with being accountable, they do with the way in which accountability is assessed so simplistically/one-off/episodic then attached to the teacher’s capability. How can we move away from these reductionist models of observation? What Matt calls the “assessment straight jacket” that is a developmental obstacle…the conceptual constrains and use of observation. Focus is on the curriculum rather than focussing on the individual. By switching lenses it enables us to see in a very different way.  We must acknowledge that improving the use of observation is not just about pedagogy, but also about issues of power and trust.

Making better us of observation: some guiding principles:

  • Observation needs a clear purpose;
  • Observees free to choose/negotiate focus;
  • Minimise the paperwork involved;
  • Include a ‘pre-observation’ meeting;
  • Prioritise the feedback and feed forward stages of the observation process;
  • Support rather than sort teachers;
  • Formative rather than summative focus;
  • Use observation more as a means rather than as an end in itself;
  • Exploit it more as a research tool for teachers as a form of assessment.

Matt finished his talk by stating the importance of maximising the impact of the research that you do and appealing to different audiences…the importance of dissemination if we want to make an impact on practice.

After Matt’s keynote, I chose the ‘Student-centred approaches’ Session 1E pathway for the rest of the morning run by Sarah Blatchford and Dr. Kerry Gough who focussed on education partnerships, collecting the student voice (inclusion integration, transformation, empowerment), from bored of studying to collaborative development communities. They set up Student Academic Leaders (SAL) piloted across BCU last year,

“Student Academic Leaders (formally course reps) act as a communication link, bridging the gap between students on their programme and Programme staff, through discussing any issues affecting their educational experience; finding solutions to problems and celebrating success.”

It had to be formally part of the university structure yet remain student-led. The design allows for flexibility in creating a model that fits. Finding how this works on a local level.  Formalising informal conversation from and between students that would often be had online through social media. From online to offline.

“Contemporary retention efforts must go beyond the academic focus to address the personal, economic, cultural and career issues students face and must deal or cope with in order to become successful in higher education.” (Maxley et. al., 2001:42)

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To create a clear link between social and academic…student reps interested in becoming involved…went from talking about the student’s problems to being more of a social opportunity…only student-friendly academics were invited. They collectively changed the name from the ‘Student Academic Forum’ to the ‘Student Cake Epidemic Forum’. Overall, it built a shared student community experience, now part of a learning community…a celebration of their student environment. Feedback from students included:

“More student focussed-less of the administration side.”

“Was very comfortable. I felt like the lecturers and tutors wanted to be there and to genuinely hear our feedback.” More often than not the students would come up with solutions quicker than we could. Solution happening on the ground for the students.

“The informal approach – I felt that I could talk to tutors more in-depth about issues. Staff present at the meetings were not as defensive as before”.

“Genuine student participation, rather than certain students moaning about issues, yet not participating to help resolve themselves.” Holistic working relationships within the university bring around change.

“People actually listened and things were changes”.

In order to fit with the Academic Support Charter – provide peer mentoring as a support mechanism; information about academic support provision; personalised approach; access to Independent advice. Good academic benchmarking tool – search for an integrated approach for academic support; consistent application of institutional policies; personalised and academic support for students; collaborative learning and peer support.

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After the presentation it was Q&A time where I asked how student feedback was communicated to the less-friendly academic staff…another colleague asked whether there were staff who had changed their ways of teaching in response to student feedback. Kerry spoke of using audio feedback, or written and audio, to provide feedback to students post-assessment and how hearing a voice can give a more positive response. I also asked how many international students had been involved in the Student Academic Forum meetings, where Kerry cited an example of 30 Taiwanese students who were visiting for a semester, asking for further international language provision skills.

Dr. Kerry Gough continued the session with her colleague Jamie Morris speaking of ‘It’s time to Level Up! Transition Mentoring through Student-designed and delivered university life hacks’. Life hacks are students solutions to life problems. Coming from the HEA ‘What Works’ document, Kerry spoke of the importance of staff capacity building, institutional management and coordination, student capacity building…the importance of supporting students academically and socially, developing relationships…it is about student engagement.

HEA what works

“Engagement and belonging can be nurtured throughout the institution (academic, social and professional services), but the academic sphere is of primary importance to ensure all students.”

It comes down to institutional change with a clear and key focus on student engagement…an institutional priority…trying to weave other areas of the university into courses such as how to bring the Students’ Union into courses…how do you communicate these opportunities to students? Being aware of who your monsters are how to deal with them. It needs to be translatable in the university and the wider world.

“The academic and social sides of university have to be carefully balanced, however the Level Up scheme if it truly wishes to reach as many students as possible must address both aspects of University life.” Jon Bridgewater, 2013

They initiated student-led change initiative through the ‘Level-up’ mentoring initiative communicated through social media, a website and shared online forum platform ‘Zoodles’…the ‘Level-up’ mentors were the key to the process…explorations of the city and welcome party including an awards ceremony for the students. Kerry cited the new BCU book Student Engagement – Identity, Motivation and Community (Learning in Higher Education)’, an anthology on student engagement.


She concluded the session by listing a series of questions as to what you need to consider as part of student induction and engagement…as shown in the slide below. 

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The final session of the morning was the debating panel ‘Technologies in Education’ chaired by Dr Jane O’Connor with Prof. Craig Jackson, Dario Faniglione and Dr. Kerry GoughShe opened the discussion with three questions:

  • Question 1: what are some of the positive benefits of using technology in Education? James Gee – learning with video games Cell phones in Classroom: Learning tools for 21st Century
  • Question 2: What are some of the potential drawbacks of using technology in education? Children 7-12 are exposed to 7.5 hours of media a day on average (OFCOM 2013)
  • Question 3: At what age should technology be part of children’s learning?

Education Conference BCU 7

“Digital natives” as a phrase…70% of households have touch-screens in the UK…it is trying to work out what knowledge children have of technology when they start school where schools must keep up with these technologies…however, some parents aware of technology use often don’t want digital teaching.  There needs to be a lot of practitioner research. Craig stated he was not concerned about technology use in teaching…it is about adjustment…he stated it was a little ‘Lord of the Flies’ to let children use it and see what happens. It is also about how teachers use technology and how that is viewed by children and students.

Curriculum developing to give children and students knowledge of technology, where the teachers have a responsibility to know this technology and understand it…using the technologies as a tool. In terms of role…technology, the “how to”, what’s behind it? What are the implications of the media. The role of the teacher has a greater input here. It is the line between teaching and introducing technologies to enhance the learning, parenting, and how teachers use the technology…teachers become reticent to use technologies because they also have to be the voice of reason…the responsibility of mentoring technology. The use of technology to monitor extremism. Question – is it acceptable to not use technology in education?

There are educators and learners…there needs to be knowledge of the power involved there…a knowledge of what technology is and can do…the possibilities. It is very political. Craig sees it pragmatically…when technology was first introduced it was about how can you make money out of it/how can you use it for sexual purposes…and we’ve seen that. More finesse to the issue of access or not to technology…it comes down to content. There is more pressure than before to access material not suitable to their age…banning or allowing…it is finding access to suitable content.

“It is about using technology and having the face-to-face skills…being able to empathise.”

I tweeted a question to the panel asking ‘What is technology’s place in arts education?’…limitation of funding for the arts for technology, is that a camera, video camera…it goes beyond technology such as software…bigger questions in terms of mobile phone use in the classroom….there are bigger deeper rooted questions in arts education put to senior leadership teams. Technology is useful for people with learning difficulties, personalising technology.

“There is an assumption that young people enjoy using technology in class…the reality is often that they prefer “making” rather than using…referring back to a traditional practice.”

We make so many assumptions about learning…there is some humility there…”digital/dancing Dad” through to deeper learning technology reference…how do we “accelerate learning” and how to we access the upper end of technology such as synthesis. This is versus the slow learning route. Craig replied to my question stating, we don’t enable students enough freedom…you are very much tied to university models that are used. The role for technology to support teaching in line with how technology is used in the real world. Music is an example of this…used in innovative ways…creating communities and linking together.

Technology offers some powerful opportunities for creativity and creative approaches…if people are spending 7.5 hours on technologies, they are losing the opportunity to engage in real culture. Let’s not forget that it is a huge tool for centralised data collection…feeding into the prescribed nature of the curriculum. Is it becoming a production line removing the teacher? As Craig stated, university education becomes less about teacher wisdom and more about employability. Also there is a hidden agenda of the marketisation of the technology that we use…such as Facebook…this is the biggest stumbling block.

After your standard BCU conference lunch, it was time for the second keynote speaker Dr Rob Smith with ‘Practice and Research: bringing teachers’ voices and experiences back in’. He began by citing the work of Michael Young, and his work on the sociology of knowledge…a suggestion is that this knowledge has been shut out. He introduced his experience of teaching and learning; of the impact of marketisation on his and others teachers’ work; of building collaborative models of working within marketised environments (and researching them). By putting institutions in competition with each other, you will drive and raise standards. He is interested in the link between performance data and real practice.

“The necessity of Dissent”.

  • Educational institutions = competitive and self-interested knowledge producers;
  • A widening gap between data and reality fuelled by marketisation;
  • A collective fantasy: the Managerialist Real at war with the Social Real;
  • Learning cultures ignored in favour of ‘leadership’;
  • Policy is founded on this (performative) data to the exclusion of local practitioner voices (socially situated knowledge – Young 2008)


  • What impact is emphasis on performative data having on (real) educational standards?
  • How can government and policymakers formulate effective policy?

Teaching is a bit like a train that doesn’t stop….force-feeding for assessment…spoon-feeding towards assessment…bums on seats. Here the learner is not autonomous, the knowledge transmission is like a knowledge dump, the student it passivised…?It is those within the markets and economies that need to identify the purposes.

“Education for education’s sake”.

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This reflective practice thing is a powerful thing,..isolate the reflection and bring it into the classroom…(Critical) reflective practice = reflective practice that looks beyond the walls of the classroom to explore the forces that are shaping the curriculum = sociable and social. Rob concluded by saying the starting points are your experience, reflecting on it, your values, your practice, your perception of tensions. Reflect, communicate, work with others, start to lay your track. We had to find new collectives…like-minded people to share ideas with.

“Work together, with an eye on the recipe, to make your own dishes.”

“Education is…a living struggle, a replica on a small-scale of the conflicting purposes and tendencies which rage in society at large.” – Karl Mannheim, 1936

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After Rob’s keynote, I went to ‘Hot topics’ Session 2B, ‘Methodology for research in education’ by Dr Amanda French. She began by asking the room what do we mean by a methodology? Responses included: to make research ethical, to make sure you relate research methods to the purpose of the research, to measure what’s out there, to see the broad range of information out there, to see the wide-ranging views. The methodology you chose will affect what you do and how you see it. You become part of the phenomenon of your research and also a measurer of your research area. Education is lots of different people, interacting in lots of different ways. No methodology is innocent or objective, pure neutral or transparent because every way of collecting data is open to influences. It says a lot about you and your choices. People can manipulate what you look at for their own purposes. The issue of ethics and responsibility…the research as a variable in the methodology…are hot topics. In education, we have been a lot slower in identifying these tensions. There is a methodology in PISA, Ofsted, fund criteria…what is wrong? We might argue Ofsted is quite floored as it is not a conversation…it is done to them, rather than with them. You can have a methodology that looks transparent, yet it could fall down ethically and methodology on the lack of participation. It separates out the story from the data…you decontextualise the data. They judge on the researchers gaze…if you shift the gaze to look at what’s missing…the process of methodological critique.

“Is there a more successful methodological approach suitable for education in comparison to other disciplines?”

The participatory approach is the ideal, in practice is very difficult…research with people rather than on people…co-designing a methodology puts the subject in a difficult position. The simpler the methodology the more reductionist it will be, the more participatory, the more messy it will become. At the moment, it’s about “best fit”, data driven…not fit for purpose. We are disempowered within the cycle of assessment subject to assessment so dissent is problematic. Is there an advantage of being on the outside, as you a freer from the constraints…?

“There is no outside.” (Foucault).

Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the final session of the day (and it seems I missed a treat of a presentation in song…I’m hoping that it will be profiled on the CSPACE blog).

In the evening, I went to manaXi’s Mother’s house for dinner, where over dinner we chatted about perspectives from my day, specifically the use of digital devices by children and it’s influence on learning music as she is a music teacher. She remembered a book that she’d recently been given so went to retrieve it from the book shelf in her lounge, handing it to me saying would this be of interest? Um, yes it would…‘Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains’ (2014) by Susan Greenfield…definite food for thought for the ‘TELT (Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching)’ module I am taking in the Autumn. And so it begins…although I think it did many years ago…I learn to teach and teach to learn…



  1. Great reflections on the conference, it’s nice to hear! I think I might have a look at Susan Greenfield’s book – my PhD is on young children using touchscreen technologies. As we had all three keynote talks recorded, we will be (hopefully) documenting these on the CSPACE blog. Watch this space…

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