Who is Maisie Tubbs, and what's a 'spod'? Tony Parkin on 'knowledge mobilisation'
"What role do school networks play in effective knowledge mobilisation?" was the question. But what on earth is 'knowledge mobilisation', what does it mean for schools, and which networks can help it happen?
At the turn of the millennium everyone became extremely excited about the ability of networks to effect educational change in a way that hierarchical organisations seldom achieved. Education suddenly seemed replete with networks, among which one of the most successful was undoubtedly that associated with the London Challenge. Peer-to-peer networking among families of schools in London resulted in them moving from under-performance to regularly beating the national averages.
London Leadership Strategy a positive legacy from the London Challenge
The London Leadership Strategy, run by heads and school leaders, with an extensive network of school improvement activities across all London boroughs, is a positive legacy from that London Challenge. The London Leadership Strategy recently joined forces with the Coalition for Evidence Based Education (CEBE) and a group of school improvement networks, including Challenge partners, Whole Education and the Teacher Development Trust, with a conference to explore the potential impact of networks on 'knowledge mobilisation' in schools. The overall aim was to help bring about sharing and adoption of good evidence-based practices through continuing professional development. But what types of networks would prove effective, could they take these ideas to scale, and what role could new technology and social media play in helping achieve this?
The use of the term 'mobilisation' transported me back to an earlier continuing professional development initiative, also involving networks. It was the height of a campaign to support the NOF (New Opportunities Fun) CPD programme which aimed to make every teacher a confident user of ICT in the classroom. I found myself making a rallying call to an amphitheatre full of school leaders and teachers preparing to be hub schools in one of the relatively few successful models of CPD that emerged from that programme. One of the queries was whether the equivalent of £400 per teacher would be enough to achieve this. "This is the largest investment in a training initiative since demob!" I said – and lost them in an instant.
It turned out that relatively few teachers in 2000 were familiar with the concept of demob (post-war demobilisation), or of the preceding mobilisation come to that. Well, I suppose the Second World War had been more than half a century earlier, and few of those in the room would have remembered ration books and food coupons, let alone demob or mobilisation. So I know from experience that mobilisation isn't a term encountered in the average staffroom.
Well, this event showed that mobilisation is now back on the agenda, but this time the professional development focus is about mobilising knowledge, rather than troops or technologies. And there is still a battle to be fought, though this time the challenge is how to get the learning emerging from evidence-based education, currently held by relatively few practitioners, into the hearts, minds and practice of the many.
Grassroots interest in evidence-based practice
The event was hosted by the Greater London Authority, which is now supporting a range of activities around school-to-school support and innovation in education. As we arrived we were reassured to see the familiar figure of Estelle Morris chatting to the presenters. Her presence is almost invariably a sign that an event will be worthwhile.
In her welcoming address Caroline Boswell of the GLA pointed out that current activities include the £24m London Schools Excellence Fund and the Gold Club which have been set up by Mayor of London Boris Johnson to raise standards in teaching for all pupils. She also highlighted the £1 million funding from the Education Endowment Foundation to support work of this kind, though observing that the deadline for bids was perilously close – February 28.
Jonathan Sharples, expert in evidence-based policy and practice from York University, pointed out in the first of the panel speeches that there was keen interest in the idea from all major political parties, and funding was becoming available not only from the EEF, but others such as the Wellcome Foundation. But he was particularly excited to see that much of the momentum behind evidence-based practice was coming from the profession, as demonstrated by the success of Tom Bennett's ResearchED conference and the growing grassroots enthusiasm for the proposed Royal College of Teaching.
The rise of TeachMeets (informal CPD sessions organised online by teachers) indicated the power of ad hoc networking, Jonathon suggested, but the major challenge remained taking evidence-based ideas to scale and seeing them widely implemented in classrooms. “Creating an effective evidence system in education requires co-ordinated efforts from a wide range of stakeholders – researchers, practitioners, policy makers and intermediaries – all working in unison. Nevertheless, while collaboration is important, it is imperative that teaching professionals drive these developments. In this respect, school networks are uniquely placed to disseminate research knowledge and support its use in informing professional practice.”
John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School, York, gave a head's perspective on the challenges of "knowledge mobilisation" when it came to sharing research-led practice. John himself has a rich tapestry of networks of which he is a member, from the HeadTeachers RoundTable (HTRT) to the Ebor Teaching Schools Alliance, of which he is chair. (Coincidentally he was also leading Huntington School's contribution in the NOF school networking initiative from SSAT that I mentioned earlier, in his pre-headship days).
'spods' – people who are profoundly interested in online networking, in this case research-based practice. But he used a tale of two apocryphal teachers, actually real teachers at his school but suitably anonymised by renaming, to highlight the challenge. "Maisie Tubbs", a busy teacher and overworked mum, was interested in changing her practice, but only if the ideas could be distilled down to a side of A4. John pointed up the lack of suitable vehicles to organise and summarise research findings in a form to which a Maisie Tubbs could relate (of which more later).John declared himself to be one of Ben Goldacre's
In a challenging section of his presentation he also highlighted some of the "research-led school" work that came out of the London Challenge, and its woeful lack of impact only a few years later when it had apparently disappeared without trace in some schools. (He even named names... but I won't.)
Looking around the country he saw too many action-based research projects which were poorly designed with weak methodologies, and little or no impact. He did not spare himself and his school from criticism however, and challenged some of his own work with the Teaching School Alliance, and some of the unproductive meetings that, when evaluated, turned out to have achieved little or no impact.
Similarly, evaluating the impact of the grading of lessons in his teaching observation programme had taught him after a while that the grading itself achieved little, and a much more positive outcome was achieved when grading was abandoned. As he realised, there was no loss of evidence or less information available simply by dropping the grade, but a far more productive and reflective debate and review process followed. Those who worry about processes and audit trails have queried this approach, however.
Research projects 'robust, well-designed, with a clear focus on evaluating impact'
On an even more positive note, working on research-design with Jonathan Sharples from the university had enabled John and his colleagues at Huntington to draw up research projects that were robust, well-designed, and with a clear focus on evaluating their impact. He cited the number of headteachers and leaders around the country that were also enthusiastically leading on this work, such as David Carter, Ani McGill and Tom Sherrington. He also highlighted how important technology and social media were in helping their collaboration and communication of ideas, via blogs and Twitter. He saw the use of ICT as crucial to the successful development and sharing of evidence-based education.
John finished with a suggestion that, alongside addressing the needs of Maisie Tubbs, we need to focus on people like his second teacher, Jen Lovegate. Jen is assistant head of English, and another spod with a passion for evidence-based practice and "knowing what works". She would be one of those who would drive the development from the grassroots, and needs to be given space and time to grow in this area. But there was no short-cut to the achievement of research-led schools, and there needed to be an honest recognition that this was something of a long haul.
Cathy Howe, holder of an NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Fellowship gave us some useful parallels and insights learned from the health sector, and Anne Kerwin-Nye, in her role as third sector CEO at LLS, emphasised the need for strong messaging and communications if the ideas of networking and knowledge mobilisation were to be effectively shared and adopted. She also observed that the present government's major cuts to all messaging and communications channels were not likely to be helpful in achieving this!
The remainder of the conference saw the assembled researchers, school leaders and headteachers, and classroom practitioners exploring a series of questions such as what are the characteristics of school networks that successfully spread research knowledge, and what researchers need to do to support school networks? They were useful discussions that largely served to underline John Tomsett's points about the potential for these developments certainly being there, but that it would indeed be a long haul.
A role for technology? And MESH?
John Tomsett had stressed the role that technology had to play in communicating and sharing practice. He was not alone in looking to technology to help find solutions to the challenge. During one of the breaks Professor Marilyn Leask, from the University of Bedfordshire, highlighted to me the broad collaboration of universities and other organisations behind the development of MESH, an online portal with the aims of connecting practitioners and educators with practical summaries and sources of educational research.
This MESH system is still in its infancy, and there is inevitably a shortage of funds, but hopefully it could blossom into a tool that could be populated with links to evidence-based practice and research findings. Evidence probably produced by the likes of Jen Lovegate and other spods, though in a form that would meet the needs of Maisie Tubbs. Whatever happens, we are sure to hear more of knowledge mobilisation, and the potential of technology to help it happen.