Teachers as researchers

Fran Dainty has responded to Dylan William’s recent challenge to the notion that teachers can be researchers. Her post adds another patronising twist to the demands that some under-informed policy makers make when they try to insist that “teachers must also be researchers”.

The reality is that we live in the Donaldson era and that means that teachers, like all would-be professionals [1], need clarity of purpose and a defensible position that is responsive to any situation. For me, this means the confidence of evidence. For that, you need to be able to do some kind of research.

I get a bit fed up with the arrogance of some academics towards people that aren’t them. Of course teachers can research: because we don’t publish it in some self-promoted peer-reviewed journal, it doesn’t make it any less valid or useful. I’ve done a lot of reading in these journals recently and frankly much of what I’ve read is as relevant and useful as phlogiston.

If people are doing good work by researching as part of their teaching job – and a minority of teachers are – then the benefits of this ought to be available to the majority to inform their own practice. I’m delighted to see the beginnings of this in the Pedagoo EnquiryMeet coming in November. It’s interesting to note that they shied away from the originally proposed “ResearchMeet” title for this event.

Robert Winston and other academics have taken a patronising view of teachers and their capabilities. Researchers may drop in to a classroom scenario and publish detailed conclusions based upon what can be only described as a passing acquaintance with the nuanced environment in which our children learn. On this basis, they really ought to allow the professional classroom practitioner, who has insight and experience they do not possess, the courtesy of accepting them as capable of research that is every bit as valid as theirs.

Behind it all is one of the fundamental defects with our Scottish education system – the lack of proper time and opportunity for the already fully committed teacher to step back, assess, enquire and develop our education system from within.
[1] We’re not, never have been, but aspire to be regarded as professionals in the same way that engineers and soldiers are.

Productivity of a new researcher

I’ve spent part of the summer preparing to begin a six-year research project alongside my day job in initial teacher education at the University of Edinburgh. Time is possibly the scarcest resource I have and that preparation has involved assessment and selection of systems that will enable me to be efficient, effective and productive. Here’s what I have in current use.


logo2Keeping a handle on things I have to do, prioritising and postponing according to progress, is essential to getting things done.

rememberthemilk.com provides this functionality through a web interface which includes a calendar feed and the ability to add new tasks by sending an email to a private address. A Chrome extension shows the RTM current list within the Google calendar web view and allows task completion or postponing.


Google Calendar – or rather, several google calendars – allow me to manage the various demands on my time and keep an eye on events of interest that I’m following. Synching the calendars to the Calendar app on my mac and mobile devices means I know where I’m supposed to be at any time, and what gaps exist for new opportunities. New events (such as seminars booked through services like eventbrite) can quickly be added to the calendars by downloading an ics file. The RTM list and timed events appear within the calendar. On the mac, dates within emails can be directly viewed in your calendar and optionally added, allowing fast and selective adding of new opportunities such as seminars.


WikiMy study, reading and research diary needs to be quick, easy and searchable. I have set up a MediaWiki installation on my server at http://cullaloe.net/w and given my supervisors write access to allow public commentary and guidance that is similarly searchable. I like the wiki markup which is just a small step from plain text – it provides very rapid content-focused editing and light touch formatting.

I have used a couple of extensions for in-page references (Cite) and to make it easy to insert citations (Bibtex) to papers and books I am reading, by copying references from Mendeley and pasting directly into the page.

Citation Manager

logo-mendeleyThe tool of choice here is Mendeley, which is a cloud-based bibliography manager with easy import from many formats (including books on Amazon, Google Scholar and the academic libraries). It has a “Save to Mendeley” bookmark for rapid extraction from webpages and a desktop application that synchs automatically to the web database. What I really like about this software is that it allows groups of references to be created which are automatically saved in BibTex files, one per group, which makes compilation against LaTeX seamless.

Paper/thesis creation

200px-LaTeX_logo.svgWhat else? LaTeX – I use the TexShop environment on my mac – produces beautiful documents (output to pdf) in a few keystrokes without any worries about formatting, compatibility or platform, and the almost transparent inclusion and rendering of bibliographies, tables of contents, margin notes, tables, figures and images.


Evernote-logo-e1362251497276The handiest tool I have to quickly grab things I want to refer to later is Evernote. It has the quick post facility within my browser and the ability to forward emails out of my inbox to a less in-your-face place for later review and action. There’s also a nice desktop app to complement the easy web interface. Notebooks can be organised any way to suit you and can be bundled together to manage the important separation between different workflows.


Dropbox-LogoDropbox is one of the services I use for cloud storage. All source files and working documents are kept here. I’ve been using Dropbox long enough to have earned additional storage free of charge but most of that is taken up in the backup of files for my teachers’ site at sptr.net.

In addition to DropBox, I also make use of I also make use of copy.com which works in a similar way. Significantly, I do not use Google’s GDrive because I dislike how it works, as much as I dislike Google docs. Having been stung by Google’s sudden removal of services I’ve relied on in the past, such as bookmarks, I am reluctant to rely too heavily on them.


All of these tools, services and software are free. There are paid services but I am a light enough user not to incur the need to pay the subscription for any of the services mentioned here. That’s not to say I’m not willing to pay for these services because they are worth it, but the price points are disproportionate for most of them so I don’t volunteer cash I don’t have to spend. Service providers, take note: less is more. Cut your fees and more will pay. I do have a Premium Evernote account but only because it’s on promotion with O2 at the moment. You will not find Microsoft products on any technology I own.


I always take pens and good-quality plain paper notebooks with me wherever I go. Email is ever present on a mobile device or laptop, as is my calendar, dropbox and browser. Also mobile but less central to hour-by-hour workflow are Evernote and Mendeley. I manage RTM only via a browser, and editing the workspace wiki is easily done there also. Chrome is my browser of choice on all of my devices – all the bookmarks synch automatically. It is likely that I will try other tools from time to time but I do not have the luxury of time to trial alternatives: my focus has to be on being effective if I am to meet current aspirations and obligations.

I hope this entry has been of interest – please get in touch if you have a suggestion to make, especially one that might make my life easier.

Efficient, searchable logging

I’ve been trying to find out what is the best way – for me – to keep a record of readings, meetings, seminars and the other stuff of studying to become a researcher. I begin a part time PhD in September and as I will have severe demands on my time for the day job, need to be sure that I work smart.

I thought about all kinds of tools for this. The first thing to realise is that I will probably be making use of pen and paper as the ultimate portable and immediate way to organise my thinking. I’ve done this since 1976 and have a wall full of diaries and notes back to that time. Despite being a technophile, I have tried and failed to like any of the web or tablet based services like Evernote. I want to capture images, probably like this photo of hand-written notes. I want what I record to be searchable.

So, what am I going to try? A combination of email and blogging. I already have the blog you’re reading and this post is made using the JetPack “post by email” feature. I wonder if it will work?

Acts of Defiance in the Back Channel

Continuing an act of defiance by taking time out of my work schedule this week, I attended a second lecture by George Veletsianos at Edinburgh University, entitled “MOOCs, automation, artificial intelligence, and pedagogical agents”. This seminar was a special event put on by DICE – the Digital Cultures in Education research group.

The lecture and subsequent discussion was rich and well-informed, as there was a good range of expertise and engagement in the room and from the online participants accessing via the streaming feed. George’s lecture was stimulating and provocative: without overdoing the detail, he managed to tackle MOOCs as a socio-cultural phenomenon. He described the usual rationale for MOOCs of costs and the perceptions that drive their explosion onto the educational landscape but he also gave us new (to me) truths about their origin and the assumptions underpinning their popularity.

Moving on to the automation of teaching, George treated us to a quick history, again, touching the nerves of the implementation of human-computer interaction in education. There was much discussion of this with the final topic of pedagogical agents: perhaps misnamed “bots” in the debate that ensued in the question session and on the twitter back channel.


I can’t do justice to the scope of the issues raised and picked over in today’s two-hour session, not least because of the richness of them. Also, perhaps, for fear of misrepresenting the nuances. I resorted to my comfort zone of scurrilous tweeting, suggesting first that rather than choosing a gender or cultural stereotype for my preferred pedagogical agent, I would choose Brian, the Family Guy dog. This got me followed by Peter Griffin. When I started another cartoon (above), Marshall Dozier outed me with a tweet.

Please help: Nursery/early years teachers survey

A colleague at Edinburgh University is conducting research into science and mathematics in the nursery and early years (ages 3-8) across Europe as part of a wider project to enhance creativity. It would help us greatly if there were more respondents from Scotland in the next few days.

If you are a nursery or early years practitioner please consider taking a few minutes to complete this survey:


There is an opportunity to be more involved in this project but for now, a few minutes of your time will enrich the findings by adding to the Scottish response. Thank you for your help.

Interview: games-based learning

I received an audioboo message over the weekend from Jon Gill asking me if I’d contribute to his research on games-based learning by taking part in an interview. That interview took place this evening. Jon’s reason for wanting to talk to me was to try and get the balancing perspective on games-based learning, following my review of the week boo last November in which I expressed my inability to “get” games-based learning.

We spent well over the planned 30 minutes talking around many aspects of gbl: engagement as opposed to cognitive development being one of the main points of my perspective. He seemed interested in my description of a games-based approach sans technology being used by a local primary school teacher to provide an engaging and rich context for teaching mathematics, but dragging in literacy, health and well-being, produce, enterprise along the way. This is a game loosely based upon the Facebook Farmville application, named “Parkville”, which has been very successful in primary 4 to 6.

an hour of interesting dialogue, looking forward to further developments.

SSAC Science Education Workshop

I attended a Scottish Science Advisory Council workshop led by Professor Jim Hough at Glasgow University on Tuesday evening. I arrived a few minutes late and missed the opening remarks from Professor Anne Glover, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. The scene was set by presentations from Professor Nigel Brown for the Universities, Dr. Allan Colquhoun for Industry, Ronna Montgomery for Schools and Dr. Elsa Ekevall for STEM-ED Scotland. Each presented a prompt using a common structure including what barriers and challenges exist from each of these perspectives around the theme of the workshop: how to enhance science education links between schools, universities and business to support the delivery of the curriculum for excellence. It was interesting to compare and contrast the different perspectives of these stakeholders through these presentations:

  • Universities
    • consider how they meet the needs of industry
    • see compartmentalisation of education (into discrete subjects) as a barrier
    • identify the need to enhance and deploy mathematical skills and competence
    • identify the need to overcome the idea (in the public perception) that science is fixed
  • Industry
    • is driven by shareholder value
    • is reliant on skills of people (“apart from the people, there’s only furniture here”)
    • adds value through skills
    • observes that innovation in schools is inversely proportional to age
    • in self-interest, is keen to have more people studying physics and mathematics
    • is supportive of education through e.g. “Rampaging Chariots” (Science Festival) and EngD/MEng
    • sees that there are too many initiatives
    • is concerned that CfE cross-curricular emphasis is a risk, from topics being absorbed into the mainstream (might they lose their inspirational flavour?)
    • identifies the demographic dip in the population of 20-year olds until 2020 as a challenge
    • is concerned about gender balance
  • Schools
    • the IoP invests around a thousand pounds per year for every physics teacher in the UK
    • Barriers: …gender imbalance (barriers to improving this being school management and guidance staff)
    • …compartmentalisation
    • …pupils are sent to university too early
    • … mathematics is a tool – skills are not transferred
    • … guidance teachers (in general) are desperately ignorant
    • … university drop-out rates
    • suggest that there is (dead) time at the end of the exams until Jun for S6 to gain work experience
    • prompt the government to “watch the curriculum” – a coherent approach is needed across the country; choices should not be too soon; curricular models should not disadvantage pupils transferring between schools
    • suggest that STEM careers are not popular
    • pupils are deterred by stereotypical images (the wacky-hair Einstein image, for example)
    • numeracy and literacy skills need significant funding and time
    • point out successes with the Baccalaureate, Glow

The thing that struck a chord with me is the common emphasis on skills. Skills are key to the success of the education system in delivering research, development, but most particularly people. Skills – or rather the lack of their development – also seem to be behind the recent “prelim disaster” across our S4 cohort and is the focus of my remediation efforts for them.

Time was against us so the planned breakout groups were consolidated into a single group discussion, led by Dr. Martin Hendry of the University of Glasgow. The discussion was charged with considering three questions: (1) what 3 things should Scotland do to enhance links between schools, universities and business to support the delivery of CfE; (2) what needs to be put in place to do this, and (3) what can Scotland learn from elsewhere?

The discussion was lively and interesting; there exist several different perspectives on where we are with CfE, which I was happy to share a perspective on. The significant key theme in the answers to these questions was the importance of skills;  also the development of teachers – CPD is not enough – the phrase professional learning was used to illustrate the need for teachers to be aware of where science and engineering is right now, and to keep that awareness up to date. Stakeholders were considered to extend the concept of “business” to include public service and the military.

There was time after the event to mingle and continue the discussion informally. I had the pleasure of discussion with a number of delegates, including Professor Andrew Long, Chair of the IoP in Scotland and Fred Young, CEO of SSERC.

The workshop was concluded with a few remarks by Professor Glover, who reminded us of Scotland’s Culture of Engineering as still being relevant and part of the positive public attitude towards scientists and engineers. Dr. Hendry summarised the responses the workshop had collectively produced to the questions put and suggested that the forum might meet again to carry forward support for policy.

3 hours of first-class development