Confessions of a Wondering Horse

Posted on September 7, 2014


More than 24 hours after the conclusion of researchED14 and I have to confess to feeling more than a little guilty. Given that I’m a Catholic (of the non-practising kind once I realised that practise would never make perfect in my case) this is not an unnatural position. But the one element of Catholicism I enjoyed the most (and here another confession) was the confessional. Maybe it was because my first ever confession was at the age of 20 over a cup of tea with the wonderful Father Simison, who always made me want to be a good Catholic, was never averse to a beer or three with me in the student pub across the road from his church and who on many occasions would take a look at my grubby student appearance and slip me a fiver. Or maybe it was because I genuinely felt lifted (or uplifted, if there’s a difference) after each of my confessions – now there’s a thing all you non-Catholics are really missing out on.

Whatever the reasons for my love of confession, I figure that the best way out of my guilt-ridden, post-#rED14 slough of despond (not really) was to write my first confession in nearly twenty years. So, without further ado, forgive me fathers (and whilst I’m at it, forgive me the patriarchal nature of my salutation) for I have sinned…

Confession #1

I attended the ‘Lunch of Champions’ at researchED14 (no, that’s not the confession), ate four slices of Tom Bennett’s pizza (no, that’s not the confession, nor a euphemism either) and I had absolutely no bloody right to be there (that’s the confession).

You see, I’m not a Research Champion. Canons hasn’t (yet?) appointed a Research Champion. But I was very interested in the models being employed by those that have done so, an interest drawn largely from conversations with Jude Enright and Daniel Harvey, and from blogposts written by Alex Quigley and Andy Tharby (to name but four of a burgeoning group of champions).

But I have become the Head of a school with a fabulous recent track record of having contributed significantly to a Masters programme (the number of our staff with MAs or in the process of achieving them now approaches the dozens) and which is a Teaching School founded upon a commitment to invert the typical hierarchy of the Big 6 so that R&D is seen as the lens through which ITT, CPD and Leadership Development are viewed and led.

Confession #2

Having had no real good reason to be at the meeting (other than my professional curiosity, and a desire to learn with and from others further down the path), I think I managed to throw a grenade into the meeting by questioning the very name ‘champions’ for this emergent group of hopefully soon-to-be-vital school leaders.

It certainly wasn’t my intention to challenge the concept of Research Leads (as others in early blogposts seem to have settled upon), but merely to raise fears that have come from two angles within my mind. The first of these is the ‘experiential’ angle: I have seen ‘Literacy Champions’ come and go and, more recently, have seen ‘ICT Champions’ come and go in the same way. In fact I’m pretty certain that in a former life I was a champion of something else, but can’t quite remember of what (which is in itself a cautionary tale). If we are to build research into the work of schools, then as well as remembering the need for validity and reliability, we need to take care to ensure that we look after what I would consider to be a hallmark of effective research, longitudinalism (I have no idea if that is a neologism or not, but you get my point). The rush to be seen as research-informed, or research-rich, or research-savvy is long overdue and very, very welcome, but the fact that it is a rush puts it very much at risk of being a fad and it’s proponents and exponents as being ‘zeitgeist surfers’. Judging by the responses of people in the ‘glass box’ on Saturday lunchtime (a truly amazing metaphor Jude, btw!) this is something we are all equally keen to avoid.

Confession #3

When I was a kid, I used to team up with others to jeer anyone who ever lost at anything by singing Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’. More recently I’ve been the hypocrite adult who tries to stop kids teaming up with others to jeer anyone who ever lost at anything by singing ‘Championes, Championes, Olé, Olé, Olé’.

Which brings me to the second angle of why I find the term ‘Research Champion’ problematic. In essence, it has the potential to blow the dog whistle of divisiveness and imbue upon the recipient of the title a sense of mystical superiority that could alienate colleagues from a research orientation rather than towards it. As is apparent from my previous confession, New Labour were big fans of champions on an individual level, just as they were fans of ‘beacon schools’ and ‘best practice’ at an institutional and systemic level. Again, judging from what I know of the people in the chapel at researchED14 (what better place to inspire this confessional), this isn’t something they would want to achieve nor end up achieving.

Confession #4

I had, in my youth, a predilection for animal-based superheroes. From Skippy to Lassie to Manimal (am I stretching that one a bit thin?), I was intoxicated by the ‘animals are cleverer than humans’ œuvre that seemed to reign supreme on our television sets in the early-80s. But best of all – for me anyhow – was the gloriously-themed ‘Champion, The Wonder Horse’, the black and white chronicles of unquestioned equine equanimity in the face of criminal activity. Champion always won. Always would win.

But now I’m older, I know better. Champion was the very symbol of post-war American hubris. And, perhaps more importantly, Champion was not a single stallion, but a series of horses and a multitude of stunt doubles who conveyed the impression of a unified philosophy that ‘good always triumphs over evil’. If schools are to genuinely move towards becoming effective users, synthesisers and creators of research that improves education for the better, then they need to invest all their capital in the many, not the one and, in doing so, recognise that research in education cannot be boiled down to a single unifying message. Instead of driving or exemplifying or critiquing, the Research Leads in schools need to create capacity for their staff of champions to do all of these things for themselves. Crucially, this must involve challenging leadership teams to open up space within CPD provision, foster experimentation not conformity in lesson observation and welcome contextual-specific, research-informed appraisal systems that start from the question ‘what do you want to improve about your teaching and how can the evidence base be mobilised to help you do so?’

Confession #5

I haven’t a clue what I would call a ‘Research Champion’ at Canons if I were to advertise for one right now. Clearly it wouldn’t be ‘Research Champion’, but then I’m not over-enamoured of the word ‘Lead’ either, given its connotations of ‘…a horse to water’ (gotta let go of the horsey imagery, Bartle!). Even toying with ideas, I come to suggestions such as ‘Research Enabler’ and that’s just too wishy-washy to merit a second thought. Maybe I don’t entirely believe that the role can be contained in a single person of any title. Perhaps it ought to be the job of every senior leader, middle leader, teacher and member of support staff so that every time they look to write a policy, tweak an area of practice or plan a lesson they stop and think ‘what’s already been done in this area, been successful, and works within our context?’ Most likely, that’s exactly what everyone in that room, whatever their title, is trying to achieve. And most certainly that brings me back to where I started this post and why I was there in the first place.

And that was exactly the point of the ‘Lunch of Champions’ at researchED14. Nobody had any answers, but we were all happy to keep looking for them.

And as a final confession, I love Tom Bennett’s sense of humour. The ‘Lunch of Champions’ was never intended to be a fad, or divisive, or a beacon, or a whinnying nag. In its moniker it was a joke, but at its heart it was meant to be the start of something with more than four legs to keep it running. And to that I can only say, yippeekiyay…!!!!

PostScript: The Perils of Being a Serial Confessor

Having said a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers after writing this post, I remembered that confession is so damn good for the soul, that it’s addictive. And so, another confession…

Confession #6

Whenever I get disruptive, it’s usually a sign that there’s an internal wrangle going on that I need to project outwards. I finished the post above saying that I had no idea what I would call a Research Champion in my school, but now I think I have it! And if be grateful for any feedback.

At the Lunch of Champions, I tried (very badly, probably) to suggest that a leader of research within a school should have a bi-directional function. They should hold the leadership team accountable for the numerous things we do that are neither research-informed (inputs) nor research-measured (outputs), evaluating all new policies and practices against high standards that would enable us to claim to be research-healthy. This would include looking at meeting cycles, INSET, performance appraisal and other structural elements in order to identify areas where practice doesn’t help, or actively hinders, a research orientation, and provide guidance on how poor practice can be modified, tweaked or ditched.

They should also work with staff promote a research-literate approach to ongoing CPD and classroom practice that doesn’t try to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, but instead values diversity and individuality. Instead, they should fuel research-enthusiasm by collating and curating past and current research, connecting the isolated ‘Trojan Mouse’ teacher (and support staff member) with others in the school and outside who have explored similar issues through the medium of primary or secondary research.

And my name for this role? Research Advocate.

Hopefully a couple of dictionary definitions will explain for me.

to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; recommend publicly:

a person who puts a case on someone else’s behalf.

a person who upholds or defends a cause; supporter

In brief, the term ‘advocate’ conveys a sense of challenge to authority (and to ingrained poor habits), and of representing and being in service to a higher ideal for the benefit of others, whilst simultaneously conveying a sense of enthusiastic encouragement to an underpinning cause. I like this.

Following my usual MO, I had a look at the etymology of the word ‘advocate’ and found that it has a history within old English that links it to the terms “protector”, “patron” and (would you credit it?) “champion”. To paraphrase the lovely Jude Enright, “a champion by any other name would smell as sweet”. Or, in this case for this blogger, even sweeter.

And so, ‘Research Advocate’ it is for me (not to be confused with ‘Research Advocaat’, a specialist in exploring the properties of that most phlegmish of Flemish drinks). But please do let me know what you think. Give it a sniff, give it a shake to break the meniscus and then roll it around on your tongue for a while. But if you don’t like it, or find it a little hard to swallow, don’t worry: advocate, like advocaat, may just be an acquired taste.

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