Unless you are studying at a university or work at one, it can be very difficult to access academic research. It’s all very well encouraging people to become critical thinkers and take their CPD into their own hands, but if you are relying on the information provided by others it can be restrictive.
Following every ResearchEd there has been a ripple of frustration at the lack of access to published research – there is even an online petition to ask the Secretary of State for Education to make online journals free to access for teachers. Whether or not this is a feasible idea (corporate sponsorship of research and all the reliability pit falls), it shows that we are in need of a solution. This is an incomplete list with just some of the ways to access research. I intend on adding to it as I find anything else that may be useful.
- Free access articles – http://www.educationarena.com/
Taylor and Francis Online/Routledge @educationarena have a selection of articles available to access for free. There are monthly collections available around a certain topic (cyberbullying, autism awareness month, leadership etc), and topic selections available for a longer period of time. This is fantastic but does limit it to what someone else has decided and there isn’t the ability to read around a subject.
- Public library access – http://www.accesstoresearch.org.uk/libraries
In February, thousands of free articles became available in public libraries http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25981183. The major downside with this is that you can’t access anything outside the library and you aren’t allowed save anything. If your local library isn’t currently part of the scheme you can ask them to apply. This is a really good step but it is limited.
Using this hashtag you can ask twitter members to access an article for you and someone will save and send you the article you’re after. Not an option if you are after a large amount of information and not necessarily legal.
‘CORE aims to facilitate free access to content stored across Open Access repositories’. This looks promising but it is tricky to navigate. There is a lot of information available but it might not contain exactly what you’re after due to the limitations of Open Access.
- Email researchers directly.
If there is a specific paper you require it is a good idea to contact the author. Contact details are often available alongside the abstract of a paper. An advantage of contacting the researchers in person is that they may be able to provide further reading and up to date advice in the area you are researching.
A way for academics to share research papers online. It is free to sign up – you don’t have to be a researcher or employed at a university. Users can follow the research or a particular academic or institution. Think of it as social networking for academics.
- Research libraries
Many educational organisations have online collections of research or links to research.
CfBT – Research Library http://www.cfbt.com/en-GB/Research/Research-library
Curee – Links to research http://www.curee.co.uk/category/5/27
- Education Endowment Foundation http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/
The EEF are funding a huge amount of research at the moment. The website has summaries of research findings and descriptions of what is underway. You can download the full reports of completed projects. A good starting point and their Toolkit is a great resource.
This is a small, searchable database which is Ontario based. The focus is on day-to-day practical challenges in schools and there are a limited number of papers. This might be a good source of articles for use in journal clubs and as starting points for further research.
- Self-Published Work
A small search online reveals several easy ways to publish your research online and Open Access. This has the benefit of being low cost and reaching a wide audience but the downside of lacking peer review and regulation. As a starting point, self-published articles can be brilliant to start off a debate or as a journal club article for picking to pieces. That’s not to say what you find won’t be worthwhile, but critical analysis is key.
An example of where self-published work can be valuable to both producers and consumers of research is the Sandringham Learning Journal (http://www.sandagogy.co.uk/learning/?q=upload/sandringham-learning-journal). An annual, anthology of research and reflective practice from Sandringham School. A valuable piece of internal and external CPD.
- Local university library membership.
Universities often offer membership to their libraries to members of the public. Birmingham (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/libraries/membership.aspx) and Nottingham (http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/library/libraries/using/joining.aspx) offer membership for around £50 a year to access their libraries. Again, great, but this includes limited electronic resources and you can’t print or save any of them.
The ‘leading aggregator of online resources’. Familiar if you have used online access at university and with the OU, they’re fairly comprehensive. They have education specific collections for institutions to purchase membership. If you are lucky enough to be registered with The General Teaching Council for Scotland you will have free access to journals through EBSCO (http://www.gtcs.org.uk/research-engagement/education-journals.aspx), but if you aren’t, these are some options.
All figures are from May 2014.
A subscription to Education Research Complete (http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/education-research-complete) would be £995 + VAT.
They provide a smaller version of Education Research Complete called Professional Development Collection which is £250 + VAT. (http://www.ebscohost.com/public/professional-development-collection) This also includes free access to Teacher Reference Centre. (http://www.ebscohost.com/us-high-schools/teacher-reference-center)
You can coordinate with a number of institutions to allow them to also have access to Professional Development Collection or Education Research Complete, then they offer a buying group discount of 3% for two Schools purchasing, 5% for three, 10% for four and 15% for five Schools all purchasing their own version of PDC or ERC.
E.g. Taylor Francis publish a large number of academic journals. Their prices for each journal are available here – http://www.tandfonline.com/page/products
They list for individual and also for institution. For all their educational journals, online only access would probably be around £2million per year which is quite a lot, but you may be willing to subscribe to key publications.
- Societies – BELMAS, SEBDA, Nasen etc.
Societies and associations in more specialist areas of education often have their own academic journals. It may be more cost effective to join an association in order to access a journal than it is to purchase access to the journal directly. There are different levels of membership available for different organisations. Some have special rates for students, TAs, whole schools etc.
BELMAS offer your first year’s membership free and this includes access to journals.
E.g. Nasen produce the journal ‘Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties’ on a quarterly basis. Taylor Francis list this for £79 a year (individual use, hard copy). Membership of Nasen is £55pa (individual member, online access to current and back issues), and of course that comes with other benefits of being a member.
When Ben Goldacre mentioned Journal Clubs in his keynote speech at researchED 2013, my husband Howard, who works for the NHS, became very enthusiastic about the opportunity for me to introduce something like that at my school. Journal Club became part of my pitch to become Research Lead and I’ve had a series of regular meetings that are gaining support.
After Sam Sims’ theory based presentation at the September national researchED conference, I wondered whether a more practical session would have a place. The December Leads Network day confirmed that it might and I realised that if I was going to make the suggestion, I’d better be prepared to do it myself. That is how I ended up running a Journal Club with a bunch of Research Leads and other interested parties at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Most of the session was given to the discussion of a paper as practical experience of taking part in a Journal Club. I used my brief presentation to outline a few basics and how I run my club in school. Along with some additional points that came from talking with people afterwards, that’s what I’ll outline here. If you fancy looking at the presentation, it’s here – researchEd Journal Club
What is a Journal Club?
A journal club is essentially a book club for reading research. Widely used in medical settings, journal clubs form part of professional training and CPD for more senior members of staff. This is an informal and social way to discuss new research that may otherwise sit unread after publication, keeps practitioners up to date and acts as an opportunity to develop critical analysis skills.
Why start a Journal Club?
A significant theme at the December Leads’ Network was about how we can familiarise staff in school with research. I think journal clubs are a great way to start engaging with research, facilitate evidence based practice and get people used to how it all looks in its raw form. It may not be that everyone has the time to hunt down research papers, but having the chance to develop skills that mean they have the choice can be valuable. This is especially the case where staff have studied subjects where research in this format isn’t touched.
Journal clubs are a way for staff to keep up to date, improve morale and network in ways they might not during a normal school day. In addition to this, you don’t need to have a large number of people to start off, so unlike some other routes into research engagement, you can adapt your club to meet the needs of your members and timetable.
Who is Journal Club for?
I’m a firm believer that journal clubs are for staff at all levels and across the whole school. I have members from leadership to TA and everyone contributes to our meetings. I’m lucky enough that our school is small enough that if they wanted, we could probably accommodate everyone if they chose to come, but I realise that this isn’t necessarily practical for everyone. I think there’s the opportunity for clubs in a range of settings – key stage, department, around a particular school focus, within a group of schools (federation/ teaching school alliance etc.), and I also suggested that it might be useful as part of the ‘expert input’ element of Lesson Study.
If you’re more confident in working with research, Dr Gary Jones (@DrGaryJones) has written more information about critical analysis and evidence based practice in a series of blog posts, including introducing journal clubs. To be honest, the way we run journal club is very similar to some INSET activities I’ve taken part in; given some information and asked to evaluate its worth and whether we could apply it in school. Those were attended by all staff, journal club can be too!
How to run a Journal Club
Space and time is something to think about, and not just in a Timelord way. Finding somewhere with room for everyone and not picking a Monday or Friday afternoon is my advice. In my experience, illness, unexpected meetings, detentions, will all get in the way at some point and you just have to keep going. I’ve seen varying advice about how often to hold a meeting. I’m trying to go for one a month at the moment. Some have been closer together than others, but I think if you could only manage one a half term, that would be great. Definitions of a successful journal club being 50% of staff, weekly for more than two years are perhaps a bit ambitious, but go for it if you want!
There are various ways you can find something to read in your club. I’ll write about access in more detail further down, but one of the joys of journal club is that you can go for anything. I have so far gone with a variety of different topics in our’s. We all work across a 7-16 school and work with a primary model (one teacher to a class for most subjects). This means we can look at maths, behaviour, literacy, PE and keep everyone interested. You may want to select a theme to build a knowledge base, or fit a department. It’s completely up to you.
A crucial rule for our journal club meetings is that they are NOT a policy meeting. If we think something we’re looking at is worth trying out, we need a separate meeting for that. This means we keep to the task of analysing the text and don’t get bogged down in the details of how we’ll get it going in school before we’ve even decided if the evidence is strong enough.
You need to have a designated leader or facilitator for your club. Someone to keep up the enthusiasm, send out reminders, provide access to the chosen paper, write a summary of the paper (bit more detail than the abstract), and keep your discussion on track. This is also the person who needs to provide the biscuits. You will learn to appreciate the importance of the biscuits.
- Biscuits (I have actual evidence for this).
- Read out summary of paper to familiarise everyone with key points.
- Discuss and analyse paper – use guide questions to keep on track.
- Pick next paper (I tend to choose two abstracts and print them on different coloured paper for easy reference).
- Disseminate notes (I type up our notes and whack them on the shared drive).
Things that might go wrong
- People think it’ll be too hard
- No one reads the paper
- No one turns up
- Too many people turn up
- No one wants to go home
- You forget the biscuits
The only one I’ve not had is the bit about too many people. The important thing is that it really can be for everyone and keep plugging away. There is always the Co-Op for emergency biscuits.
Access to Research
Types of research
- Academic papers
- Blog posts
- researchEd briefings
- Self published
The joy of journal clubs is that you can use anything you like. If you were conducting a formal literature review then you’d have to worry about things like bias etc. With a journal club, this actually gives you something to discuss. Briefings and blog posts are a great place to start, but a quick warning, they tend to be written in a more balanced way so they might not be as easy to argue for/against.
Where to find it
- Open access – will stay available
- Free access – available as part of a promotion probably, limited time
- Subscription/ Membership – often a cheaper way of subscribing to a single journal
There are lots of ways to find things to read for free (links below). Increasing amounts of research funded by the Research Councils UK is being made available as open access. There is a timetable for this to reach 100% eventually. Education Arena‘s promotions are a wonder for Journal Club so have a look there.
- My list of free and not-quite-free ways to get research – https://impressionthatiget.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/access-to-research/
- researchEd – http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/en-GB/Magazine/2015/2/Accessing_education_research
- SUPER Blog – https://schooluniversitypartnership.wordpress.com/access-to-research/
researchEd Journal Club
Effects of an emotional literacy intervention for students identified with bullying behaviour. (Knowler & Frederickson, 2013)
I picked this as an Open Access paper that people could look at in advance. It covered a topic that was fairly wide-reaching, had a few statistics but was suitable for all levels and was hopefully a relevant place to start.
- Pre-read paper
- Read out summary – rED summary
- Discuss using sheet to guide/ questions on screen – rED record sheet
- Decide on ‘next’ article
Things to think about
- What type of literature?
- What are the hypotheses based on?
- What is being claimed?
- Are the claims supported?
- Contradictions/ Competing hypotheses
- Ethical issues/ bias
- Relevance to own setting
- Further research/ changes
It seemed like the people who attended got something out of the practical experience and had lunch not been on the horizon I think the discussions could’ve carried on for longer. There were some interesting comments around peer-nomination and the ethics of labeling pupils as bullies, and I know there was much more mentioned than this! Perhaps there is room on the researchED forum for something journal clubby? I enjoyed putting myself out of my comfort zone for a bit and would love to do it again, so who knows, maybe I will.
The basic concept of journal clubs is fairly straight forward – read paper; discuss. There is a wealth of research on journal clubs in medical settings and some of the ones I’ve looked at are here. Most importantly, of course, evidence in favour of biscuits.
Alguire, PC (1998) ‘A review of journal clubs in postgraduate medical education.’ Journal of General Internal Medicine 13(5), 347-53
Denehy, J. (2004) ‘Starting a Journal Club’ The Journal of School Nursing 20(4), 187-188
Golde, C. M. (2007) Signature Pedagogies in Doctoral Education: Are They Adaptable for the Preparation of Education Researchers? Educational Researcher 36(6), 344-351
Linzer, M. (1987) ‘The journal club and medical education: over one hundred years of unrecorded history’ Postgraduate Medical Journal 63, 475-478
Mazuryk M, Daeninck P, Neumann CM and Bruera E (2002) ‘Daily journal club: an education tool in palliative care.’ Palliative Medicine 16(1), 57-61
Sidorov, J. (1995) ‘How are internal medicine residency journal clubs organized, and what makes them successful?’ Archives of Internal Medicine. 155(11), 1193-1197
I wrote about the Blind Date With A Book day I organised at school last year, and briefly that we also did the same for staff. Over the past year I have read several books from the staff list – some of which I would have chosen to or were already on my pile waiting to be read, and some that I don’t think I would’ve gone near. No point in telling the kids to broaden their reading horizons if we don’t give it a go ourselves eh?!
The basic set up for this was everyone suggesting a book and everyone picking one blindly. We’ve created a small library in the staffroom and we’ve continued to exchange and read them. I’m not sure how many people take part now, but there’s an obvious coming and going of books so I know it’s not just me.
These are ones I’d already read and I would recommend them all if you fancy giving them a go:
- The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson
- Kill Your Friends by John Niven
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
- Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander
- Faceless Killers: An Inspector Wallander Mystery by Henning Mankell
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
- Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
- Stuart A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
I suggested a couple of the books on the list as some staff couldn’t think of one. I’ve mentioned The Rivers of London series in previous posts. We like those. Foreskin’s Lament is one I read as part of the Jonathan Ross twitter book club years ago, which I enjoyed at the time and have lent to people as something they might not pick up normally and thought it was a good addition to the staff list.
The one that was my first choice suggestion was Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters. This was lent to me by the DT teacher at work about 5 years ago. They weren’t a big reader but they’d seen half of the film by accident on tv and been so taken by the story that they bought the book. He came up to me one day and asked if I’d like to borrow it because he thought I’d like it and he really wasn’t wrong. Please, please give this one a go. Don’t judge it by the cover. The new cover looks like one of those ‘Why did you leave me Mummy’ books that run in swathes down supermarket book aisles, and whilst we’re not in the zone of judging here, I know you will and Stuart really isn’t a book like this. Really. It is a biography. It, as the title would suggest, tells Stuart’s story backwards, starting with his death and working back to his childhood. You could read Wikipedia and get the whole story, but I think it’s worth reading it and letting the story unfold. Whether it’s because Stuart reminds me of quite a few of the boys I work with, or whether it’s because of the way I came across it, I love this book and I want other people to love it too.
Books I have read from the list since 14th February 2014:
- Perfume by Patrick Suskind
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
- Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver*
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
- The Blackhouse by Peter May
- Bitten by Kelley Armstrong*
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- Headhunters by Jo Nesbo
When it came to picking my book I chose ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes. Now this is something I would never pick up to read. I would very much judge by the cover and this one is pink and frilly to sit beautifully in the chic-lit section and be ignored by cover-judging people like me. I read it in 24 hours. Not at all the story I expected. I fell for the characters, I didn’t want it to end, I happily recommend it. Ok. So I still don’t think I would head to the pink frilly section but I’m willing to give a recommendation a shot.
I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of the ones I’ve gone for so far* but the two I’ve really loved have been Perfume and The Blackhouse. Perfume’s been on my to-read list since I read Daniel Pennac’s ‘The Rights of The Reader’. It was great. Read that one if you haven’t. The Blackhouse was recommended by our Deputy Head. Part of a trilogy and set on the Isle of Lewis it starts with a murder and the return of an islander tasked with solving it. The book isn’t so much about solving the crime, but that the crime is the catalyst for a return to the island and reconnecting with the past. It’s brilliant. I’ve read the whole trilogy and other Peter May books since. If you don’t at least fall in love with the landscape then I don’t know what else I could suggest.
*I really tried to give these a good bash but couldn’t for the life of me get into them so I gave up (which of course is my right as a reader).
Blind dating books has turned out to be fun and has introduced me to some books I might not have chosen and hopefully done the same for some other staff too. I’ll keep ploughing through the list as they work their way back to the library and see what I can find. I heartily recommend having a go yourself. Next time you’re in a book shop or supermarket, go to the book charts and pick a book. Use the day of the month, your age, shoe size, whatever you like. Pick something up and give it a go.
I’ve mentioned the Blind Date With A Book event at our school a few times but I’ve put off writing about it until now because I thought if anyone was tempted to have a go themselves, it was silly to be thinking about it too far away from the sort of time you’d want to be organising it. Anyway, it’s about a year since I started planning ours properly so now’s probably the time for other people to start.
Quick background first. We were in the fortunate position that Ofsted told us we’d got too much money left in our budget and needed to get some spent (I appreciate the money aspect might be the sticking point for most people but you can still do it in some ways). Staff were asked to put in bids for specific items and having recently seen some images of Blind Date With A Book events and wondering if we could do something similar at school, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give each of the boys a book to take home. So I typed up a very official looking bid and was told to go for it.
The premise of Blind Date With A Book is that people get to pick a book without knowing what it is and get the chance to read something they might not normally go for (generally speaking I’m a believer in judging a book by its cover but I understand that we’re not supposed to do that). I’ve seen pictures of schools, bookshops and libraries going about it in a variety of ways – plain wrapping, fancy wrapping, brief descriptions on the front, clues to the book, only the scannable barcode revealed, small and big displays – all around Valentine’s Day*. I’d originally thought about just wrapping up some books in the library, but given the sudden injection of a bit of cash I went for buying an awful lot of books instead. *I also saw a Halloween one with a whole ‘Dare To Read’ theme.
I knew that I’d need more books than boys – they’d need something to choose from. I knew I’d need a wide variety of levels of book – we’ve got pupils from 7-16 and within that, reading ages that stretch in every direction. I wasn’t too concerned with excess books as everything left over has gone in the library or classrooms, but other than that I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work out.
I started by being completely indulgent and buying books I thought they might enjoy; books I like and recommendations from colleagues and best-seller lists. Then I moved on to bulk buying and making up the numbers like a loon. I got quite a lot of books from Scholastic. They have a good selection of all sorts – you can filter by price and age quite nicely plus there’s the bonus of earning money to spend on books for school as you’re buying. I managed to get quite a lot this way, including lots of free ones. Quite a few of our pupils are into things like Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series and Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates books. I love these books and I’m perfectly happy that if they’re reading anything, they’re reading and this is a good thing. I did include some of these books in my haul, but I also took the opportunity to introduce things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, some Terry Pratchett and a bit of George Orwell.
This was about getting them to read something new, but also about getting them to actually give it a go. The most difficult books to get were ones for the kids with a much higher chronological age than reading age. They need books pitched at their interests but often they’re completely beyond them reading-wise. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature is good for helping to gauge the words, and I found some books published by Dorling Kindersley that have proved quite successful. The DK Readers books have levels (some more subtly than others) from ‘Beginning to read’ to ‘Reading alone’ and include a variety of non-fiction and brands like Lego, Star Wars and Angry Birds. One of our Year 7s with a reading age of about 5y 6m has really taken to these books now so at least something good has come from it all!
In our Key Stage Two group we have one pupil who is working at very low levels. During our whole-school 10 minutes of reading after lunch, he reads picture books with his TA. I decided that a picture book was the best option for this pupil so I got a handful and fell in love with all of them. These were my favourites:
I have genuinely dragged people into Waterstones to show them how brilliant they are.
So. I had boxes of books suitable for 7-16 year olds with reading ages of ‘not’ to ‘adult’. I had the morning of Valentine’s Day to fill and I needed a logical way for 50+ boys to pick something that was at least pitched at roughly the right level.
I decided the best way to make sure they got a suitable book was to divide both the pupils (within Key Stages) and books into similar level groups and get the pupils to select books from the right group. I needed to do this in a way that wouldn’t embarrass the lower level readers and make them stand out so I decided to stick with the ‘Blind Date’ theme and get the whole school to fill in an online dating questionnaire. I didn’t sign them up to anything dodgy, I created my own simple WordPress questionnaire. I didn’t need to know what the actual results were, I’d already grouped them, but I was able to give each class a list of the pupils’ ‘results’ with which corresponded to the colour of heart I’d stuck to the front of the wrapped books. The kids happily thought their result was down to their choice of car or ice cream and none of them were singled out as low readers.
Valentine’s Day was upon us and our very enthusiastic Deputy Head decided that was needed to start the day off was a whole-school assembly, in which we would explain what was happening and also the concept of ‘Blind Date’ the TV show to the pupils. This turned into members of staff acting out a game of Blind Date as book characters and Sherlock Holmes going on a date with Miss Dixon (she turned down the Wicked Queen from Snow White and The Gruffalo). Throughout the morning each class took it in turns to visit the (beautifully decorated) library and each child picked their book. I think most of them were happy with what they’d picked. I had a couple of subtle swaps as children were upset with their choice – I wasn’t going to swap everyone’s but I did want it to be a nice event rather than a miserable one, and they asked nicely. I’m not sure if any of them did get their ‘Dream Date’, but I know at least some of them have been read and now if they’re asked by one of those national surveys if they own any books, at least they can all say yes…
I know something like this isn’t going to be possible for everyone. We’ve got a manageable number of pupils and I had the money to do it. I do think it would be something more schools could introduce to their libraries or for individual classes/ year group to do perhaps. I left it up to class teachers as to whether they followed it up with book reviews or class blogging and gave them some rewiew pro-formas, but as we broke up for half term that day, I think they all left it there. It was a lot of fun to do with the boys, especially as it fell as an end-of-half-term event and we did our own version as a staff team. My reading of 2014 was swamped with those books, but I’ll leave that one for another post.
Part 2: In which I talk about the SUPER Network, some CPD, and what was going to be my thoughts on the next ResearchEd Leads Network but ended up being a brief conclusion due to me waffling on for too long.
One of the things I was interested in looking into at that first ResearchEd in the hazy, drawn out summer of 2013, was the potential for links between school and universities. I had just had my first year for a while without any academic study and I wanted to find out what was out there and where I could start.
During the session with Kay Yeoman from UEA I met, sorry, networked, with the lady next to me who happened to be Bethan Morgan (@morgteach) who works for the SUPER Network. We’ve tweeted about a few things, namely access to research and she recognised me at ResearchEd 2014 as doing a lot of pub quizzes (we run one, Thursdays at the White Horse in Ruddington if you’re in the area) and she was there with the SUPER (School-University Partnership for Educational Research) Network gang on Saturday to present a session and workshop on how Universities and Research Leads can work together.
Based at the University of Cambridge, they have a number of projects with partner schools including Masters programmes, research projects, dissemination of research and seminars. They host inquiry group meetings of their Teacher Research Co-ordinators (their Research Leads) six times a year and provide critical friendship to schools. From the university’s point of view, the programme enables larger scale, collaborative research, a wide reach for their work, and helps to keep the university staff grounded and up to date with the realities of working in schools. The schools involved benefit from an increased research culture and staff are able to maintain a dialogue post-MEd.
We heard from various people involved in the network – both university and school representatives. Every one of them was incredibly enthusiastic about what the network had done for them and their professional status. There was a reading list from Ruth Pineda which I scribbled notes on but thankfully took a photo of too –
and there was a reminder that research and practice should inform each other equally.
The session had a workshop style answering questions in groups part which was great (but lacked tables). The focus was on bridging the gaps between theory and practice, and school/university partnerships. Whilst we aimed to answer the questions, almost every group fed back that they had accidentally answered the questions whilst having a good chat. I have to say, that’s the bit I like most about the day – just chatting about what we’re doing in our roles with other people. I don’t think it mattered if we answered everything well enough, we were there to learn from each other and debate, and that’s what we did. I have made some initial links with one of our local universities and I think I should probably look into it again.
Another thing I think the research lead role could be of benefit for in our school is our CPD. I’m being realistic with this – I don’t plan on hurling academia at everyone and expecting to get my own way, but the way things seem to be going, I think if I make suggestions they’re at least likely to be listened to. I think useful CPD with research flavour is a good way to get it in there as a natural way of working rather than heavy handed.
Daniel Harvey had CPD at the centre of his session. He outlined how he is changing the way his school, John Henry Newman Catholic College, is transforming their CPD by introducing a programme of action research, and the up and down process he has gone through to make it a success. In small groups we were asked to answer several questions about the relationship between evidence and CPD in our own settings, including the use of ‘research partners’. I have to say, I don’t think our school is ready for this, but whether schools scout out their own partners as Daniel Harvey has, or are part of an organisation like the SUPER Network, opportunities for schools and universities to work together are good thing.
As far as using action research goes, I have mixed feelings. I quite like the idea of action research as part of being a reflective practitioner or even for trying things out in a setting in a controlled, evidenced based way, but I understand the reluctance to call it ‘research’ as there’s very little that will be transferable to other settings apart from providing catalysts of ideas. The cycle of trying out, changing, trying out, is better than doing everything at one as far as I’m concerned. I do wonder if introducing something like lesson study might be a more gentle way of getting staff involved in using evidence to change their practice that could lead to more rigorous research projects in due course. It’s easy to get carried away with ideas at a ResearchEd event as everyone there is enthusiastic and opting to spend their free time with the converted but of course not everyone in school will have research as a priority.
Actually, through all the talk of how the whole-school CDP action research programme had developed – the recognition of bad research questions, levels of participation and group dynamics; I rather thought that the most interesting and relevant piece of action research they are doing is in fact their action research. It’ll be good to see how they ingrain it into their school culture.
After all that, what am I taking away from the Leads Network? Well I could probably write another four posts on the day. The whole spirit of ResearchEd is bringing people together to find out what there is to find out and the first Leads Network was a brilliant extension of the more general conferences. I really like the idea of smaller, more focussed groups and even though the groups here ended up quite large, there were opportunities for discussion. I had wondered if having some sessions on more than once, to allow for everyone to attend but in smaller numbers might work? Maybe with tables next time though…
I think I seem to be on the right track with the Research Lead thing. I’m not quite on the scale of Skyping Harvard, but a handful of staff in my little learning pod is all coming from the same point. I might investigate the partnership thing a bit more next year but my main concern is not to rush anything. Professor Rob Coe started the day off by reminding us that there’s no evidence Research Leads work – a reminder to challenge our thinking, but also that we’re the first lot doing this on a wide scale and we’re making it up as we go along. At one point in the day I was told I was being a librarian for hunting down and saving articles for people to use. I’m quite happy for that to be part of my role at the moment. If we get to a point where access to research becomes a budget priority then that would be a wonderful thing. Maybe it will take some time, but whilst we’re getting there I think there are a lot worse things than getting together from time to time and learning from each other.
Part One: In which I doubt my position and get inspired by two blokes off of Twitter.
I’ve blogged about ResearchEd before and Saturday’s Research Leads Network was an equally empowering and exhausting day as all the others. I don’t know if it’s one of those ‘end of term’ things but the further away from ResearchEd 14 we’ve got and the more stuff I’ve taken on, I get an increasing sense of ‘what the hell and I doing’ and I was really looking forward to spending time with lots of people all thinking about the same stuff.
There was a lot said on the day about how all of us in a research lead role (or thinking about it) are in new territory and no one really knows what they should be doing. I know everyone’s making this up as they go along, but I really have bullied my way into doing this. I basically prattled on without taking a breath in my support and supervision last year and was rewarded with a nominal role in the operational handbook. I didn’t particularly know what I was going to do with it, I just didn’t want anyone else to get there first. As it turns out, school (and particularly our deputy head) are being great and letting me do lots of things.
One thing that struck me on Saturday was the emphasis on how this is a leadership role. I’m doing a lot of new things, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m not even a senior TA – let alone a qualified teacher or on the leadership team. I’m not saying everyone’s wrong about this – it’s more that it adds to the feeling that I’m in the wrong place (or at least not being paid enough).
Alex Quigley and Carl Hendrick’s session did a lot to encourage me (even though they didn’t dance. Something about cables and dangerous break dancing). Their summaries of their respective roles included quite a few of the things I’m trying to do – albeit on a greater scale than mine.
I found the structure of Carl Hendrick’s system interesting and I suppose sort of a standard to aspire to. Having said that, I don’t think it would be for everyone but before Saturday I thought anything these guys were doing would be way out of my league and I could at best pinch some tips. Actually, what I found was that I’m already involved in quite a few things:
- Conducting research – We’re taking part in the Closing the Gap: Test and Learn research trials with the National College of Teaching and Leadership. We’ve part of their Research Lesson Study trial and we’ve just had our second training event with Curee. As well as co-ordinating this in school I have taken on the role designed to be filled by a member of SLT which will include disseminating our work to the staff team.
- Journal Club – I’ve started holding a semi-regular journal club at school. All are welcome, at any level and it’s been a really positive experience.
- Links with University – I want to do more on this. I have started by signing us up to have MA students coming into school next year and attended a free event in October so far.
- Critical friend/ Devil’s advocate – Our Deputy Head asked me to be her critical friend in the development of the ECHP transition meetings format.
- Body of knowledge – MEd and ResearchEd for fun count as this surely?
- Translating research – Advising colleagues where they can provide evidence to support initiatives they are running and sourcing information for them. I think there’s a good opportunity to do more of this.
- Consulted by leadership – So far this term I have been consulted on two draft policies for our federation, the EHCP process and asked to complete a couple of follow up question sheets from staff meetings I wasn’t at.
When I write it down like that, it doesn’t seem like too bad a start.
One of my favourite parts of this role is my Journal Club. It’s bit rough and ready at the moment, but I’ve got some regular attendees and it’s them asking me about when we do the next one. It’s nothing as regular as Carl’s fortnightly literature reviews with his staff research fellows; and rather than selecting them through written application, I’m bribing with biscuits. It is my baby and it’s wonderful to see how everyone who has taken part so far has loved it. Realistically it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but everyone is invited and my personal crusade is to persuade those who are interested but think it’ll be too hard for them to give it a go.
I was pleased that neither Carl nor Alex seemed concerned about getting everyone to rush forth and conduct their own research. Facilitating this is certainly part of a Research Lead’s role, but personally, I would much rather get my school involved in large scale research projects coordinated by organisations like the EEF than worry too much about trying to squeeze any sort of reliability out of our 50 pupils. I do want to encourage people to critically evaluate their practice and if they want to do this through some sort of investigation I am happy to help. I just won’t get caught up in trying to have everyone conducting RCTs. As a few of us are venturing into Lesson Study for our CtG research I can see that this is possibly the best way to ease staff into using evidence in their everyday practice so I’m hoping that goes well.
Translation of evidence is something I’ve been very keen on doing – equally I am an annoying devil’s advocate so I think I can manage to play that part too. Hopefully the more people see that I am happy to source evidence for them, the more they’ll ask me to do it. One of the most important things I learnt during my MEd was that it’s OK to realise sometimes research is unreadable and makes no sense. So many people assume that it’ll be beyond them and if I can help by translating and summarising important and relevant information then I think that is a good use of my time.
I’m going to have a bash at the whole Devil’s Advocate thing now…
Every ResearchEd event stirs up the pain of access to research. I love access to research. I love finding interesting studies and following a trail of papers. I really miss having access through the OU – I looked into all sorts of things during my three years. A lot of people want research to be free for teachers, but someone has to pay and whilst free access would be a lovely thing, I don’t know how achievable that is. The cost of access is a big issue in the university sector with the major publishers and providers charging huge amounts of money. So much so that even universities have to be selective in their subscriptions. Even when I was studying I’d get my Dad to access some things for me, or one of the students doing some work at our school. We want to avoid a situation where the free to access research is the bits sponsored by profit making organisations or lacks peer review and I suspect in the long run, the best way to provide access is through membership of a professional body. I’ll let you fight it out about that, but I will add that it shouldn’t just be for teachers. I want access too.
The Quigley-Hendrick experience was a good way to knock me out of doubting what I’m doing. I may be in a small school with a handful of staff and pupils, but we still have to fulfil all the criteria other schools get and I’m quite convinced that what I am trying to achieve is benefitting the school. That should keep me going ‘til March anyway.
I have put together a list of some ways to access to research, free and not free, which I’ll post after this as a light break before Part Two which will feature the SUPER Network, some CPD and my thoughts on the next ResearchEd Leads Network.
I’ve been part of our school’s GCSE Art department* for a couple of years now and this year I’ve got all the Year 10 and 11 groups. Me and Kev (art tutor) have developed a good routine of lessons and marking, the kids get to experiment with a vast amount of techniques and processes – a hell of a lot more than when I was at school in the olden days, and they are producing some amazing work. I know they are producing amazing work because last summer we got our best ever GCSE results. Not only did we get the best results ever in Art (A, B, C, D), we got the school’s best ever results and the school’s first grade A GCSE in anything ever. We were unbelievably proud.
*it’s pretty much just the two of us
My own exposure to art has increased immensely – I’ve always had an interest and we trek round galleries with the best of them, but Kev’s knowledge and passion is infectious and I’m feeling it for the better. Every now and then I’ll dabble in some arty project or other and these are happily dotted round the house. At the moment I’m filling the house with rusty teabags.
There is a definite influence of old, rusty, textured stuff in the art at school. Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and so many more, all work their way into the boys’ projects, and during a research trawl I came across the work of Jennifer Coyne Qudeen. I fell a bit in love with her rusty tea bags and decided to have an experiment. I don’t drink tea but this hasn’t stopped me – we didn’t have any rusty washers either but we do now. Anyway. Having told a few people about my teabags, I thought the easiest way to communicate my endeavours was a quick description.
I started by finding some rusty stuff. We’d got the odd nail and bits of old fence in the garden but for pressing it’s better to have something flat so I bought some washers. After a bit of a mooch online I decided to get zinc plated rather than galvanised ones. The plating is thinner and it’s easier to get the washers to rust. I scuffed the surfaces up a bit and put them in with some other wet, rusty stuff Howard had rescued from burning. It didn’t take too long to get some colour going and the more I’ve used them, the better this has got.
For tea bags, I started by using the few we have for visitors and the odd one I took from hotel rooms etc. I discovered that the best ones are Twinings as they don’t have a seam at the bottom and are easy to fold out into a full sheet. I’ve experimented with different flavours including some herbal teas and there are occasional differences in the reaction of tea and rust. If I could only go with one, it’s probably Assam at the moment, but there’s not a huge difference.
The paper I’ve used is Khadi Handmade Paper. I bought it because that’s what Jennifer Coyne Qudeen shows on her blog. I got a book and A5 sheets. I do like it – it soaks the colour well but the moisture doesn’t destroy the structure. It’s nice to rip, but only on one direction, so I may try different papers once I’ve run out.
My method is fairly simple. Once I’ve got a used tea bag, I open it out and layer it on paper with the washers and any other rusty material. With another sheet of paper on top, I weigh it down with whatever I can find. Mostly recipe books, but I’ve used all sorts as long as they’re heavy.
After at least 24 hours I separate the layers and leave it all to dry. The tea bags take a while to dry out, but when they’re ready I open them up and get rid of the tea (I’m sure at some point I’ll try using that too) and lo, I have lovely flat bits of fabric stained with tea and rust.
It’s taken me a while to decide what I’m going to do with all these tea bags and bits of paper. I’ve bought some thread that I think compliments the different shades of tea and the blue-black marks of the rust so I think I’ll try sewing some of them together. I’ve put together some bits into a couple of arrangements but I’m going to keep having a play with them – as long as Howard doesn’t mind the growing pile of tea bags, I can keep coming back to them and trying out new things. I’ll write a part two when I do!
Art isn’t up there with the biggies like English and Maths when it comes to targets, but it has an important place in what I do and in our school culture. Pupils who have never thought of themselves as ‘artists’ are achieving success and it’s really interesting to see how some of them use art as an outlet. In a school where all the pupils are boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, a strong, macho element is ever-present. Art allows our pupils to be creative and explore cultural perspectives previously closed to them, alongside the football and the motor engineering. Our ‘A’ grade promised us before left school that he’d visit Venice one day and send us a postcard. We’re holding out hope.
In the same week that Ofsted reveal 38 days of teaching are lost every year to low-level disruption, I went along to a talk on Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools as part of Nottingham’s Week For Peace.
Last summer when I was given the go-ahead to lead the research agenda at our school, I did a bit of searching to see if I could make some preliminary links with our local universities and came across a name that was familiar. As it turns out, our school was part of a research project some years ago with Dr Edward Sellman (I do remember it happening but I was at a point in my career when I spent my days identifying a spectacular amount of nits and reading all the best voices in ‘The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark’). I reasoned that this might be a good place to start (at the university, not nits or Plop the barn owl) and when I made contact I was offered a free course for two members of staff and a link back with the University’s Student Volunteer Programme.
Our free course was, as I said, part of the Week For Peace. It was due to be a full day event but changed to an evening so schools could avoid the cover issue. I mention this because I think had it been a full day, there would have been more opportunities to discuss the different elements presented and that would have been useful. My comments on the session are more ongoing thoughts than a defined position and I’m skirting over Edward Sellman’s comments rather than deeply analysing them.
The session covered the following areas:
- The characteristics of restorative and punitive approaches to conflict in schools.
- What is meant by ‘restorative approaches’ and what they have to offer.
- What restorative approaches to conflict in schools look like.
There were a series of explanations and examples, a regulation IT hiccup and some group discussion that introduced each of the areas. I have a grounding in behaviourist approaches and appreciated the challenge to my professional practice. There were moments when I thought it sounded ‘brilliant in theory but how was it supposed to work in the ‘real world’. However, so as not to be a hypocrite, I’m not in a position to argue without any evidence to back myself up… I have looked into behaviour systems in the past, but this has been from the angle of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, focusing on token economies without exploring the alternatives. After some admittedly provocative titles such as “Why is there so much punishment in schools?”, my colleague and I were a bit defensive of the system we use, yet both of us have come away thinking about how we can use these ideas in our setting.
Edward Sellman’s research shows that for a restorative approach in schools to be most successful, it needs to be across the school with every member of staff and pupil committed to making it work in an all or nothing approach. I understand how pupils may be confused if an incident is dealt with in a restorative manner in the playground, and a punitive way in the classroom. He didn’t argue that there should be absolutely no punishments or points systems. They have their place, but his research advocates a middle step of negotiation and mediation.
He argued that in the ‘real world’ good behaviour doesn’t always merit reward and bad behaviour doesn’t always get punished, but the real world operates under a behaviourist system, and whilst it will never be perfect, if a restorative approach in schools requires a level of universality to have an impact, might it not also be the case in society? If we teach pupils that their disagreements and incidents will be mediated, once they are out of our care, will they find things equally as confusing?
I have worked alongside pupils with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties for over 11 years now. A behaviourist approach is central to our whole school day. We start the day with a whole-staff briefing, and we de-brief at the end of each day. We have a reward system that feeds into every part of school life and for the most part I think we are successful. It is rare for us to have major incidents, there are good relationships between pupils and staff, and our pupils are achieving both personally and academically. I have to say, I don’t think behaviourism is purely about punishments and rewards; there has to be an element of incentives and motivation as well. A sanction doesn’t need to happen for it to have an effect, pupils can merely be reminded of what might happen if they continue or what they need to do in order to get to the ‘reward’. We have introduced changes to our reward systems over the past couple of years and keep in mind the need for pupils, certainly KS4, to develop intrinsic motivation whilst recognising that many of our pupils struggle to see as far as their next lesson, let alone the impact of exams.
Our school is clearly a different entity to many schools – not that for a second I think the same behaviours don’t occur elsewhere regularly. After the talk I stayed behind for a discussion; Edward is familiar with our school and it was clear that he understands that it’s not often that people want to change a ‘working’ system and introduce the polar opposite, so there is little chance of our school adopting a universally restorative approach. There are areas that I think we can improve and I have discussed these with a few colleagues. Rather than change the systems in place, we need to remind ourselves of the times we do what we do so well.
- We need to use detentions or break bans to get to the bottom of why a potentially vulnerable child is behaving a certain way.
- We need to recognise if a pupil is receiving sanctions for the same thing too often and find out why.
- We need to explore de-escalation techniques and learn from each other as a staff team.
- We need to analyse the reasons for physical interventions – and involve the pupil in this.
We already do all these things – and most of them we wouldn’t even think of as a ‘thing’. As the school expands and staff time gets tight, we need to remember to keep on doing them.
Edward Sellman talked about the importance of pupil self-worth and the voluntary nature of a restorative approach. Without the first, you can’t have the second. Many of our pupils are very low on self-esteem and before we think about using any of the suggestions made, this is something of crucial importance. They will get their self-worth from many places. A lot of them will get it from their academic achievements – boys who entered the school unable to read and leave with a raft of qualifications. Some will accept the emotional support we offer – others are so lost that it will take more work.
Behaviour management advice is usually to have clear levels of intervention, consistency across school and for every member of staff to be involved in upholding the school’s policy. I think this is possible with both a behaviourist and restorative approach. As long as everyone understands the ethos of the school and works together in the best interests of the pupils, the system has a good chance of working. As far as our school is concerned, I think we need to take a step back sometimes and recognise that we already have a lot of features of a restorative approach in place and remember that they are valuable tools for us to use.
So in a garbled, tacked-on-to-the-start-of-the-staff-meeting speech, I’ve managed to introduce my new role as Research Champion (name change pending) to most of the staff at our school. I thought it might be useful to set out in writing how I see my role and how I hope it will develop following all the ResearchEd conferences, but particularly Saturday’s national conference.
The role of ‘research champion’ in schools is fairly new – certainly on any sort of scale. So new in fact that the title is still under discussion, as it turns out most of us think ‘Champion’ sounds a bit silly. When I muscled my way into the role last summer I asked to be Research Champion because that was the term I had seen bandied about online and at the ResearchEd events. I have a few projects on the go in school and my hope is that having an official title (and mention in the operational handbook) will give what I have to say a bit of clout.
Over the past six months there have been more and more people taking on in-school research roles and everyone is at different stages and doing different things. A suggestion was made on Twitter that it might be useful to form a network and to use the ResearchEd 2014 national conference to meet and discuss our roles over lunch. A fine idea; I said I was in. It turned out to be a rather surreal affair – suspended in a glass box above all the other conference attendees, with the great and good of education and me. Others have blogged about the lunch and to be honest, in the whirlwind of it all I don’t think I can remember it all too well, so I’ll brush over it. I did however choose my programme on Saturday with championing research in mind.
Having read several articles and blog posts recently, I have decided what I want my role to be about and not about. This is for both my own clarity of position and that of my colleagues who I really don’t want to scare off. This is what I came up with:
It is about: quality/ evaluation/ empowering/ expertise/ networking/ scepticism/ familiarity of research methods/ engagement/ consuming and producing research.
It is not about: scrutiny/ accountability/ politics/ ‘tainted ideology’/ everyone doing research.
I see my key role as facilitating access to research, encouraging an environment of critical evaluation and reflective practice, creating links between the school and researchers, and helping to provide ways that our school can be part of research. So this is my plan so far:
Closing The Gap: Test and Learn
My enthusiastic leaps following the first ResearchEd gig prompted our Executive Head to put me forward to lead on this. CtG is a scheme from the National College of Teaching and Leadership providing grants to schools within a teaching school alliance to take part in a series of RCTs. These have to focus on ‘Closing the Gap’ in literacy and numeracy. I won’t go into vast amounts of detail, but our school was allocated Lesson Study. This was piloted last year and at some point in the near future I hope to find out what will be expected of me.
In June I attended an event at Swiss Cottage Development and Research Centre focusing on developing research in special schools and nurseries. This was organised by CfBT and we worked through the possibilities of starting our own research and were provided with practical advice to having a small cohort, accessibility of post/pre-tests etc. Hopefully this will prove to be a continuing network and as I scribbled in my notes for the day, they have some money to spend and non-CtG schools are welcome to join in if interested.
One of the things I have been keen to do is create links with our local universities. I started by looking through the biographies on the University of Nottingham’s website and found someone I thought might be both valuable to us and us to them. The name was familiar and it turns out he was a governor a while back, so I emailed him. I now have a contact, a free course on restorative approaches for two staff, and we have re-engaged with their student volunteer programme. Sometimes a brazen emails work wonders.
Howard, my husband, works for the NHS and whilst his job isn’t clinical, his office is opposite the room where they hold their monthly journal club. He has always encouraged me to start one at school and I’m hoping this can become a reality soon. The hospital journal clubs are held every 4-6 weeks but in between this they hold patient case reviews in which they apply the knowledge covered in journal club to individual cases. I’m planning that this could be a feature of the way we use journal clubs in schools eventually.
After announcing it as a proposal in the staff meeting I have had a couple of people express their interest, including one person who was unsure as they might not be ‘academic enough’. I really hope this isn’t too common a feeling and I can open this up to everyone as I see that as the main reason for the whole job.
Introduce EEF and ResearchEd Websites
My first moves are going to be introducing the EEF and ResearchEd websites. I mentioned them briefly in my hasty introduction to staff but I will make a point of going round and showing people individually. As a taste of what this is all about, they are clear and undaunting sources that will get people interested. I haven’t settled on an article for our first journal club yet, but I am contemplating using some of the EEF reports to kick us off before delving into something more intensive.
I’m also hoping to be able to contribute some things to the ResearchEd website. I’ve sent emails anyway.
I won’t go into much analysis of my day at the conference but I should mention the sessions I attended.
- Session 1: Prateek Buch – Evidence Matters – getting the public and the teaching profession to stand up for evidence in the classroom.
- Session 2: John David Blake – What’s class got to do with it? Education research in the UK is obsessed with class.
- Session 3: Michael Cladingbowl and Sean Harford interviewed by Andrew Old.
- Session 4: Martin Robinson – The teacher and researcher: the time has come to talk of many things…
- Lunch of Champions
- Session 5: Toby Greany and Chris Brown – Schools, universities, evidence and partnerships: Getting it all to work.
- Session 6: Wayne Holmes – The lure of the next miracle cure. Thinking about the evidence base for educational technology.
- Session 7: Rebecca Allen (and the House of Cards man whose name I didn’t write down) – Can teacher journal clubs improve classroom practice?
- Pub session: Several pints of real ale and a few lovely chats with some lovely people before winding our way home.
There were clashes with almost everything I fancied seeing so I’ll be an avid viewer of the filmed sessions.
Some things I learnt:
- If you are reporting about impact of social class, have a good definition of social class. Also, one of the best differences between ResearchEd and a normal INSET is the chance of witnessing academics having a scrap.
- Scientific rhetoric is everywhere and we need to be careful about how we present the research agenda in schools.
- School-university parnerships need a bit of work.
- Journal clubs are proven to work in medicine for a number of reasons so let’s give ‘em a go in education.
- Everyone loves a flashy pen.
Some things for next time:
- A journal club focus with smaller, seminar style sessions would be great.
- Larger print on name badges.
- A couple of blank pages in the programme for notes.
- More drinks (not necessarily real ale).
There are exciting times ahead for ResearchEd and I think they’ll be some exciting times for me too. I’m looking forward to seeing where all this takes us.
I’ve read rather more books than usual this year thanks to the Blind Date With A Book project at school. It’s only now that I have realised how many I’ve churned through so perhaps I should review those too, separately. Needless to say, I have read quite a few books I would never have thought to pick up and that is pretty much how I chose the books I took on holiday. Like last year’s reviews, I’ll try to give my opinion without giving anything away. One of the things I’ve enjoyed with all these books (and the Blind Date ones) is coming to them completely cold and hopefully the feeling of finding something great.
We booked our holiday six days before we were due to leave and I suddenly realised I hadn’t thought about books to take. I can’t quite remember my process, but I basically chose four books on Amazon that had good reviews and I thought Howard might be interested in (might as well double up if you can help it). Last year I unintentionally read books with a vague ‘crime’ link. This year I seem to have gone with a sort of (mental) health theme – albeit quite loosely. There’s only one of the six I ended up reading that I wouldn’t really recommend, but I’ll get to that in a bit. So. The books.
Book 1: The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer
This was actually one of the staff Blind Date books. I’d thrown it into the mix because we hadn’t had enough staff nominations and it had just won the Costa Book of the Year award so I figured it wasn’t going to be completely rubbish. It hadn’t made it back to the shelf in the staff room so I thought I’d pop it in the basket and give it a go.
The book is written from the point of view of Matt and pretty much starts with the death of his brother. The book follows how this has affected Matt into adulthood and because it is being written by him, it allows the story to be told with a depth and honesty that portrays mental health as a very human experience. Different typefaces are used to indicate where Matt is at a particular time and this is done well, without being a distraction. The author, Nathan Filer, is a registered mental health nurse and it is clear that he knows the subject matter and genuinely understands not only the processes a character like Matt might go through in these situations, but how this impacts on a family and the wider circles of a community. There were moments of humour and moments of raw honesty, and I was completely absorbed by this book.
Book 2: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This is the one I wasn’t so keen on. There are lots of recommendations splashed on the cover and it’s a bit of a whodunnit so I was looking forward to it.
The book starts with a wife who goes missing on the morning of their wedding anniversary and a husband who is in the frame. It’s not a conventional thriller and the author twists and turns the story so you are never quite sure who is telling the truth and who is lying as it switches from the husband’s real-time account and entries from the wife’s diary. If I’m honest, I found the first half of the book a bit of a slog and quite irritating and only stuck with it due to the emergence of a good twist. Obviously I’m being cagey about it, I’m not going to spoil anything, but from the book picking up pace I was then left disappointed with the end.
It was an interesting format and I’ve not read anything like it before. I don’t regret reading it but I don’t know if I’ll rush back to the author. I think it’s one to borrow or buy second hand rather than fork out for and if you don’t think you’ll ever read it but I’ve piqued your interest, I’m happy to tell you what happens.
Book 3: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I loved this. Howard found me very irritating as a was laughing constantly at this beautiful journey through life with Don Tillman; the man with Asperger’s who doesn’t realise he has Asperger’s, and sets out to find a wife in a perfectly logical manner using a sixteen-double-sided-page questionnaire. This of course isn’t something that can be done in a logical manner and makes for a wonderful story that is more than a joy to read. It’s not a book about Asperger’s – I don’t want that aspect to put any one off reading it. It’s just the reason for the scientific, logical personality of Don which then contrasts with Rosie, the inevitable female lead. The balance is perfect and the story does follow a sort of quirky rom-com path. The fact that we, as readers, can see what is happening for most of the time doesn’t matter because Don is always completely oblivious.
I really loved this book and I recommend it whole-heartedly. I know there’s a follow up coming soon and I’m sure some film studio’s bought the rights, but I would love people to read the book because it’s thoroughly absorbing and to be honest I still miss Don a bit.
Book 4: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (it’s a pen name dontcha know)
Howard read this first. It was his Blind Date book from me – I just chose the one that was at number 4 in Asda’s book chart. We’ve obviously read the Harry Potter books but neither of us have read ‘The Causal Vacancy’ so it was our first foray into JK Rowling’s adult writing.
This is a proper crime novel, and with the promise that it’s the first in a series of books following private detective Cormoran Strike, this book serves as an excellent introduction to what I hope will become the main set of characters throughout the series. The story is one of a supermodel suicide. The brother doesn’t believe she killed herself and gets Strike in to investigate. In some ways, the plot didn’t matter too much for me a I felt I was getting to know the main characters and how they interact with each other. There are moments where the characters appear to fall into the stereotype – the smoking, failed relationship, ex-army detective (with added quirks of a lost leg and a rock star dad), but I didn’t let it bother me as the story flowed and turned into an easily read novel.
It’s a definite adult book and there a few c-bombs here and there – nothing gratuitous though and in fitting with the characters, I actually think it’d be quite nice if the whole JK thing had been kept secret for a bit longer. It’s a good book with a clever storyline and I’m looking forward to getting back in with Strike and reading the next one.
Book 5: The Psychopath Test – A journey through the madness industry by Jon Ronson
I got this for either Christmas or my birthday so I’ve had it for a while. I actually started it just before the summer but I didn’t want to take it on holiday because I’d have finished it fairly quickly and why waste luggage allowance on half a book when you can take a whole un-read one. I enjoyed The Men Who Stare At Goats and I like the sort of journalistic-storytelling style with which he writes. That was probably offensive – I didn’t mean it to be.
The Psychopath Test is an interesting book that tracks Ronson’s investigation into the world psychopathy – including talking to people who diagnose, people who have been in prison and people who deny that any of it exists. I am aware that this is a book that has been criticised by various sources and I at no point took what was written here as a definitive ‘guide to the psychopath’. I did however enjoy the book. I think it is more an investigative journey that Ronson has taken – as he comes up against a question he hs attempted to answer it. He’s spoken to people from different backgrounds and the book is written in an entertaining manner. There is no glorification of any of the medical conditions talked about, but it does ask some interesting questions that I would hope anyone who reads the book might want to answer by taking up their own exploration of the subject.
Book 6: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
This was brilliant. This was my couldn’t-put-it-down book. I got cramp in my knees from sitting cross legged on the sofa reading this and as it’s a hearty 900-pager I got aching wrists from the sheer weight of it. This is definitely not the sort of book I would ever choose to read if someone described it to me. I’ve been rubbish at describing it to people so far so ignore my description and read it anyway. I believe the film rights have been bought for this one too but I think I can picture the trailer and it’s really not a film I’d be bothered about seeing.
It enters the world of super intelligence where people don’t exist and the things they do never happened. The central character was the head of such a force and has now retired. The book starts with a murder in a hotel room and goes on to take us round the world as we find out about Pilgrim’s past and how he deals with the future. Alongside Pilgrim’s story is one of another man set on a very different journey. That really tells you nothing, but I don’t want to tell you. Like I said, I’ve not been able to describe it successfully so far – I don’t want to spoil the plot and as I never read stuff like this I can’t even say what else it’s like without risking giving the wrong impression.
The book is current and when taken with the news headlines, it’s quite disturbing at times. In with that are characters you can understand and follow the motives of. It’s graphic and human. A fast paced thriller that it is easy to skim over the elements of the story that may or may not be entirely plausible. Also, the chapters are nice and short (which is a joy when you need to go for a wee and have to put it down, but a curse when you decide, just one more chapter…) so the length isn’t really an issue – don’t use it as an excuse not to give this one a go.
Links to books are The Guardian Bookshop again because of tax and monopolies etc. (even though I did get some of this year’s from the big A).