Answers from my Tumbleweed Connection

I have been remiss. And a little bit rude. I asked you a question and then ignored the answer. Worse, I used the answer for our in-house magazine and then didn’t talk to you about it! So here’s the gist of what you said, and the gist what I then thought…


As many of you know, I am a late but thoroughly enthusiastic convert to Twitter. Most of my tweets though get a very muted response, if any. Tumbleweed occasionally strays across my timeline. And that’s about it. Until a few weeks ago when, at half past 8 on a Sunday morning, I fired a question off into the ether.

My daughter had just finished her nursing degree by writing a dissertation on how she would apply evidence-based practice in her new career. The question I asked was “Who is researching the evidence that we can apply to our teaching and learning in colleges? We know that ‘What works is what’s Good’ in Ofsted terms, but for us in the Learning and Skills sector, who is researching what works?

I popped down to the corner shop to get the Sunday paper, and by the time I was back home again there had been 60 reactions to that tweet. Sixty! On a Sunday morning. At half past 8? The following Thursday evening I hosted a lively discussion on the same subject as part of the weekly #UKFEchat on Twitter.

The gist of this discussion was that teachers thought research was important because it can help us stay at the forefront of our profession, allow us to explore and share good practice, and confront our own prejudices about teaching, in an informed way. For colleges in particular, there was a feeling that while there are transferrable lessons to be learnt from other educational sectors, we work in a very particular, if multi-faceted, environment that would benefit from more FE-specific research.

There was an overwhelming view that teachers aren’t particularly interested in research for its own sake, but in research that can inform and develop good practice. Not all teachers can or want to be researchers, but all teachers ought to be ‘curious enquirers’, it was said, in charge of refining their own craft, and the owners of improvement in their own classrooms.

We discussed barriers to research, not least the time pressures that constrain all FE teaching staff. I sensed some lack of awareness as to what research has been done and where it is available, and there was a criticism that research is not always written in accessible language. Also, some research feels that it just can’t be right either. It needs challenge.

There was a clear view though on the importance of ideas. Small projects can produce unexpected answers that then lead to new ways of thinking. Reflecting on and sharing the things that do work can have a positive impact on practice. Someone quoted that “studies produce data… stories produce motivation”. With research findings, apparently, it’s the way you tell ’em.

So what does all this mean for teaching and learning now in our colleges? Well firstly, many colleges have already developed vehicles through which we can try out and test new ideas, new ways of teaching. We call them variously Learning Communities, Teaching Squares, Teaching and Learning Sets… And if you’re lucky and work for a college that has recently navigated its way successfully through a full Ofsted inspection, then you have some space now where you can afford to take a few risks, to try things that don’t always come off.

Secondly, we need things to try. Now many of those ideas will come from the talented teachers we already have in every one of our teams. But we also need to be able to seed ideas from other places, and from current research. So the Advanced Practitioners, Teacher Ed teams, and our own local Twitterati need to be on the lookout constantly for who is at the cutting edge of our profession, and what they are using to slice through barriers to learning.

And thirdly, since we must all be curious enquirers, reflective practitioners, we don’t just need the time and space to reflect, we also need the mirror to reflect in. So we need to use the Communities, Squares, or Sets we meet in, to observe and sound out each other on our own practice, but maybe also frame our reflection in terms of research methods that test out the impact of what we are doing and enable us to share it with a wider audience. There are now a number of funding pots available to FE practitioners for research. We should publicise them more widely, and use them more fully.

So, thanks to everyone who responded and everyone who took part in the chat. Sorry that I haven’t attributed the wise things you all said, but they are forever embedded in the ether on FE’s most thoughtful hashtag!  Over to you again now, and hey, if it gets exciting, send me a tweet. You don’t know how boring it can be when you’ve just got a Tumbleweed Connection!


About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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