Five observations on the TouchPaper problems party

Last weekend, Laura McInerney and I hosted a rather experimental TouchPaper problems party. Her blog here tells you what happened on the day and a few party goers have started writing up their own thoughts on the day (here, here and here). Here are five observations from the perspective of a rather-out-of-touch-with-the-classroom academic:

1. I have never done so little preparation for event I have hosted. Laura was in the wrong part of the world; I was busy shelving research projects for my impending maternity leave. So, we could either host a day with close to zero preparation or not at all. I asked the Director of IOE, Chris Husbands, to give us a room, drinks and wifi while Laura wrote a set of blog posts to light the TouchPaper for each group. We outsourced all intellectual preparation to our fantastic group leaders in return for a couple of drinks and dinner. Without their help we would have been sunk. Thank you.

2. Smart, motivated adults don’t need as much event structure as young, easily-distracted children. Giving the groups complete discretion as to how they spent four hours produced an amazing diversity of activities. Some of the approaches reflected the size of the group (consensus is that 3 is too small and 8 is too large). One group spent an hour largely silent writing and reading pink post-it notes:

2014-01-18 11.58.13

And while a couple of party-goers commented that they would have liked more structure in the day, more appeared to value the flexibility afforded to groups to do exactly as they pleased.

3. To answer the TouchPaper problems, group work needs to be complemented by intense individual endeavour. Group work enables sophisticated discussions about the interpretation of the TouchPaper problem and how it can be broken down into necessary sub-questions. It also works well for research design. But somewhere between conceptualisation and research design somebody needs to review relevant literature.

4.  Research summaries that instruct teachers what to do in the classroom are a poor substitute for intense engagement in a research question. Educational research naturally wants to get teachers to use their studies to inform classroom practice (e.g. see current BERA and EEF efforts). Teachers are busy people and it is easy to infer that ‘digested’ research summaries and toolkits are the only practical approaches to achieving this. But these summaries are necessarily reductionist (e.g. you should give your pupils’ feedback on their work) and I wonder whether they alienate teachers who appreciate the complexity of deciding best practice across a variety of settings. Teachers live an incredibly hectic and stressful life during term-time, yet more than one party-goer said that engaging in the TouchPaper problems on a Saturday was exactly what they needed to re-fuel and reaffirm their love of teaching.

5. My dream school would employ these 40-odd party-goers, from the PGCE student through to the headteachers and ex-teaching drifters like this and thisI was blown away by some of the conversations I eavesdropped on (and occasionally baffled by our complexity group):

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Admittedly we made no effort to recruit a representative sample of teachers (see point 1). Our party was made up of a self-selected group of the most engaged of the edu-twitterati and bloggers. Any future TouchPaper problems party might have to be organised differently to reflect diversity of engagement in educational policy-making and research amongst more typical teachers.

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