TSA JC 01(image via @Mrs_Rob_says)

I’ve recently become involved in our Teaching Schools Alliance’s Evidence Based Teaching group and last week I lead our first TSA journal club (orgainised brilliantly by Nicky Bridges).

A bit swankier than my portakabin at school, we met at the University of Nottingham in a thousand degree heat in the middle of what is essentially a greenhouse. Pictures of us looking mighty studious exist but we’re all a touch pink and frizzy so feel free to look past that. There were about ten of us from all across the TSA – secondary, primary and special schools all represented. Sustenance came in the form of cake (I know this is an important factor to JC followers).

We decided to look at two papers – something I’ve not tried in a journal club before. Aware that we would have people from a variety of settings we went with the loose theme of ‘Assessment’ as we felt it was topical and would be relevant to all of us. The two we picked were:

After a brief introduction into the whats and whys of journal clubs, we started with the Birbili and Tzioga, Greek context paper. Interestingly, quite a few people said they had found this, more typical research paper, easier to read than the second article from an online magazine.  I know the ‘look’ of a journal paper can be intimidating so it bodes well for the future that everyone could get into this.

Unlike my school JCs and the researchED  one back in March, I think we used the papers as a starting point for our conversation more than have a deep analysis of the studies. I suspect as we have more meetings we’ll get into the analysing side a bit more, but as an environment for a group of professionals sharing their experiences, the format worked well as a way of talking round a topic.

I started the session by reading a summary of the first paper and we had a general discussion. The parental observation and assessment outlined in the paper is described as new to the Greek context and certainly as a group we highlighted that the participating teachers had seen the process more as a way to gather information about their pupils than about cooperation with parents. Although the study was conducted in an EYFS setting and there was an element of ‘easy to observe’, we thought the methods could be adapted well to some areas of further education. We thought that parents may feel once their child is in school that there isn’t as much of a role for them and PHSE was suggested as an area where the questionnaires/diary may be useful as a way to involve parents in observing how their child develops.

A lot of our discussion was around the importance of getting parents involved in school and how we could go about it. We talked about how we can level the playing field and empower parents. We recognised that parental engagement is key to narrowing disadvantage but were aware of the barriers that exist for some of our parents. Many of the parents we want to engage with have themselves had poor educational experiences and are reluctant to engage with teachers as a whole, based on this past experience.

We discussed involving parents with SATs set up – even inviting parents to complete a paper. As many parents struggle with academic elements it was suggested that it is important to make use of parental expertise in different areas; one school has recently found out a parent is able to make costumes for instance. A few schools organise events such as family activity days or ‘bring a parent/grandparent to school’ morning. Ideas ranged from stickers and certificates for parents, to teaching parents a skill and then getting them to teach their child.

We felt it is easy to make cultural assumptions based on our own experiences and we need to be mindful of our pupil and parent backgrounds, however, we also thought we should perhaps raise our expectations of parents and not decide something isn’t worth trying on the basis we don’t think parents will take part.

We didn’t spend as much time on the second article, ‘Assessment and the Learning Brain: What the Research Tells Us’ (Hardiman and Whitman, 2014), and our conversation started with the limitations of the text (examples given were in the setting of one of the authors, is it a plug for their ‘Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning’, is creating a collage evidence of a mastery mindset or do students pick it because they like picking out fancy fonts more?).

There were lots of elements that we did like too and we thought it was important that schools are familiar with developments in research about how the brain learns. Of course things like learning styles and Brain Gym (tick your researchED bingo cards) have made people (at least the people who will be trying to keep up to date with developments) wary of new information and this is probably a good thing. We felt there is an element of trying to get the balance right between teaching for the final/external assessment which we know will be presented in a fairly traditional manner, and adapting formative assessment in different ways.

The Hardiman and Whitman article had some interesting points about barriers to how information on how neuroscientific research is used. Often teachers and leaders have little understanding or it is only seen as relevant to struggling learners. This linked in with thinking about parental understanding of assessment and how we should be aware of the need to involve parents at every stage of a child’s education.

I think I’m safe to say that everyone at the journal club found it useful. We might not have ripped apart the readings as thoroughly as some would, but it was interesting to be able to compare different texts and use them as a prompt to discuss our settings. We’re going to hold another meeting next term and sticking with two papers. Topic suggestions are most welcome!