Strengthening research in teacher education was the focus of a recent OECD workshop commissioned by the Welsh Government. Elaine Sharpling reflects on a productive meeting of minds…

 

I certainly found the recent OECD workshop in Cardiff to be an enlightening experience.

Fellow teacher educators from the international community led a series of workshops which sought to identify a way forward in developing education research in Wales.

The content and outcome of these workshops will have to wait for another blog, as firstly I want to share the lessons learnt from one of the ways of working.

On the second day of three, hosted in the atmospheric grain store deep below Cardiff Castle, we were divided up into groups and given various topics to discuss.

I was fortunate to have my first choice of topic which was ‘Linking Theory to Practice’. Released from the dark grain store into the light of the Dumfries Room, the group were tasked with finding a way that the often disconnected ‘book-ends of theory and practice’ could be brought closer together and even inform each other.

The task started off in a fairly traditional way in that we were divided into pairs and asked to share a few facts about ourselves and the reasons why we had attended the conference.

A typical OECD twist resulted in us having to introduce each other which was a measure of good listening as well as good speaking – this proved to be a bit of a theme which I will return to later.

Then we were given paper, pens and sticky-notes and asked to find reasons why educational theory and practice were not good pals. As the ice had been successfully broken, each pair worked well and was supported by the OECD facilitators.

To keep the creative thinking chugging along, we changed partners, added to others’ notes and discussions, and finally worked in threes. All pretty standard group work stuff.

Then came the quirky and effective change to the way of learning. The annotated sheets of flip-chart paper were taped to the wall and we were asked to consider the ideas noted by the different pairs.

Our instructions were to add more notes, arrows or diagrams across the three pieces of paper. However, this had to be done in silence.

So, following intensive group talk of some 20 minutes or so, we now faced quite an intensive period of reflection. Slowly and purposefully, members of the group took it in turns to add an extra layer of thought to the initial ideas.

Arrows were drawn to connect previously unconnected ideas, extra words were written to augment phrases and underlining was used to signal importance.

During this period of silence, I was struck not only by the quality of thinking but by the social understanding needed for this kind of activity. Turn-taking is often something we teach to young children as our society values the dispositions of generosity, equity and team spirit.

It is a life-skill needed for social success in lots of different environments. How sophisticated was our turn-taking that even in silence every person had the opportunity to contribute and no-one clashed marker pens in a rush to write!

I wonder what other social behaviours have become so embedded that we no longer recognise them as being learnt. Perhaps, it would be interesting for teachers to consider how and why social compliance is feature of school life.

After a considerable period of silence, our OECD expert changed the learning style again and took the pen and the lead. With considerable insight, she grouped the muddle of ideas into three coherent topics which seemed to make perfect sense. Brilliantly done.

The outcome of the group task was that although ‘theory’ was traditionally associated with the domain of the university and ‘practice’ with the domain of the school, bridges needed to be built so that each could inform the other.

An example of this, was the idea of close-to-practice research being ‘grown’ by both areas of expertise.

Needless to say, the group work was enhanced by the presence of Professor Graham Donaldson, who commented about the need for a shared language and vocabulary between the players of theory and practice. In this respect, the new professional standards could be a starting point?

To conclude, a journey of learning which could have been quite ordinary in its execution was made quite extraordinary by careful listening, varied talk and a valuable period of silence.

One to try…

  • Elaine Sharpling is Executive Director of Initial Teacher Education at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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