Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Research Research Research Practice Practice Practice

There has been plenty in the educational press about progressing research in education at all levels over the last year or two; less about the teachers and other practitioners who manage it. Pasi Sahlberg’s Annual Lecture last summer celebrated 40 years of the British Educational Research Association (BERA). Its title ‘Facts, True Facts and Research’ reflected him arriving from a Washington-type bubble in comparison with the ‘myths, facts and research’ chosen by his roots in Helsinki. His topic was an analysis of a Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) he has identified developing via standardisation, increased testing and accountability mechanisms, as much in-country as via organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This has echoes of the nationalisation and language standardisation of establishing statehood in recent centuries and the frequently contrary influences of locality; perhaps less of a surprise in conceptualising education when considering the role of language in underpinning and developing thought, particularly higher order thought processes (c.f. works of N Mercer, R Wegerif, C McLoughlin). This year’s lecture by Fiona Millar at the end of June appears very different.

Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.6 The lecture is held at the Royal College of Physicians in London, which resonated both with Sahlberg’s international pandemic GERM model which he identified as originating in London in the 80s; and restituting ‘clinical models’ of best practice in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) which have come to the fore recently (Burn and Mutton, 2014) for example in Finland or the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of providers’ London Challenge in the 00s. Sahlberg analysed the mechanisms now being used globally as drivers for improving educational systems, also including competition and choice, and literacy and numeracy performance, which has spread from the UK to the States and Australia and is currently a global phenomena across some fifty countries that he has worked with. He identified corollary features such as a focus on learning, inclusivity, special educational needs and achievement across all learners; while emphasising the differential life and death nature of the GERM phenomena, one of whose impacts is learners taking their own lives. He argues in implicit support for policymakers

“to reappraise the balance between capacity-building activity, on the one hand, and accountability mechanisms, on the other, to ensure that the foundations are in place for a research-rich system at all levels” (Mincu, 2014, p.17),

enabling teachers and educational systems to engage in the lifelong enquiry, evidence and evaluation of their own practice found to be a cornerstone of self-improving educational systems (BERA-RSA, 2014).

Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.7-page-001Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.10-page-001 Unpacking The GERM Symptoms: Sahlberg juxtaposed myth, fact and research on several international ‘drivers’ of quality education. For example, emphasising socio-economic influences, and debating measures of the contention that teacher quality is critical to learner success. His discussions suggest a need for meta-study of impact similarly to J Hattie’s (c.f. R Marzano and G Petty) highly influential meta-study of the impact of different teaching and learning strategies and factors; a research technique more common to medicine than education. BERA-RSA (2014) point out that the significant variation across jurisdictions of the UK provide a fertile ‘natural experiment’ for comparative research on factors and policy impact. In respect of initial and continuing teacher education, however, their unequivocal opinion is that

“the findings are clear: in the UK and elsewhere, teachers’ research literacy and opportunities for engagement in the research process correlate closely with the quality of teaching and, through this, with student outcomes” (BERA-RSA, 2014, p.11)

and they give detailed recommendations for improving policy, leadership and practice across the nations. This necessitates the infrastructure for capacity, motivation and opportunity to use research related skills being developed by leadership across national and local bodies and networks.


Finland accepts the top 750/8500 teachers for six to seven year Masters research-based ITE, with recruits thereby arriving with advanced academic skills, engaging with and in research in a departmental faculty structure where a ‘clinical practice’ approach ensures a structurally underpinned research-rich environment. Scoring top in most international health and happiness and general ‘state success’ measures, Finland was the first country in 1906 to give women the right to vote and to stand, and identifies what happens in the home at the start and end of the day as making the difference to achievement. How social derivatives of such factors might constitute Goldhaber’s 79% of learner success identified above were not unpacked. Sahlberg went on to draw attention to nation-state level income inequality appearing to correlate negatively with national achievement, while family background appears to correlate positively, which in turn would correlate with findings that provider choice is not a positive influence on achievement once socio-economic factors are taken into account, and may indeed only contribute further to social segregation. To what extent do the features hold in adult education? Internationally, it seems we should give ourselves a pat on the back over our Pupil Premium initiatives, if not our ITE.


Diverting further, in the microcosm of Wales, achievement in assessment, Estyn inspection reports, and PISA rankings has been cause for concern in particular, ranking in the lowest percentiles across PISA measures unlike the other nations. Similarly to Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales recently commissioned an analysis of its initial and continuing teacher education (J Furlong, 2015), which sited a 2014 OECD report on schools in Wales arguing for building ‘professional capital and collective responsibility’, and drawing attention to the changing nature of teaching and learning necessitating reconceptualisation of teaching as a complex profession. The OECD report further identified shortages in differentiated teaching and learning strategies, ongoing individual formative assessment and developmental feedback (c.f. Petty’s meta-study output of Assessment for Learning); applied basic skills development and subject specialism in teaching particularly in numeracy and mathematics. Broadly, these may be summarised as interwoven disciplinary and pedagogical specialisms. Educational research capacity has diminished significantly over the last decade in Wales.


The notion of ‘professional capital’ as opposed to ‘human’ or ‘social’ (P Bourdieu) has been refered to by Sahlberg, Furlong and OECD analysis recently in respect of improving educational systems without its meaning being delineated. Sai Loo (2014) gives a detailed academic analysis of generic theoretical frameworks of knowledge in Further Education and their interpretation in teacher training guidance, where he finds a noticeable absence of reference to their own research base of theoretical frameworks and content of knowledge, discipline specific or otherwise. His analysis identifies critical grey areas of professional pedagogical knowledge which currently fall outside established theoretical frameworks and in turn teacher education standards and policy documents. These he describes as ‘tacit’ and falling within the pedagogical expertise of enabling learners to appropriately recontextualise disciplinary knowledge old and new across situated applications. Loo’s own research on types of knowledge and the discussion of video-recordings of trainees’ teaching found that this structured peer review and reflection space was

“a crucial platform to integrating disciplinary and pedagogic knowledge from a teaching practice perspective” (Loo, 2014, p.348)

and externalising a 360 degree appreciation of practice. Further opportunity to investigate this with Sai Loo at Vocationalism?: Past, Present And Future in London in July.


Returning to Sahlberg’s core message, and mirroring OECD values, is the systemic enabling of equity and quality focus on individual learners and schools. From arguments about not being able to equate countries with one international yardstick such as the PISA studies, to pointing out that on the international competitive field, Finland had never sought to ‘be the best’, rather priortising collaboration, trust-based responsibility, ‘professional’ capital, individual talent and equity, Sahlberg acknowledged the role of quality international studies in driving the identification and dissemination of best practice, and of the United States in applying the necessary pressures for faster turnaround of data interpretation.


Celebrating 30 years, RaPAL encourage the presentation, discussion and dissemination of small-scale practitioner research and practice in adult literacies at our Regional Colloquia 2015 on the 19th June: further details to follow…


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