English UK's management conference: the last afternoon
10 March 2014

So why was George Pickering dressed in a panda onesie to deliver his plenary at the English UK management conference? The correct answer might be that Mr P has got form for dressing up and has been known to present in a full gorilla suit -- but he wanted to make the point that manager-researchers in ELT are an endangered species. And his argument is that they shouldn't be.

Managers often blamed a lack of time, of resources, that there was a focus on teachers doing research. It wasn't "sexy or managementy." But, he said, if you wanted to get teachers to do their own research, surely it was best to lead from the front? ("If someone nodded that would be good -- there's not a lot of peripheral vision in this,") said the panda.

The audience nodded.

He warmed to his theme. "There has never been a greater need for management research. We all live in the prison of our own ideas. All managers have a sense of isolation. We need to start doing research."

Practitioner research, he said, had two conceptually distinct processes: taking action for understanding and taking action for change. It was seeking to understand and improve your own practice: not rocket science. "Most of us do anyway; I'm suggesting bit more application and rigour in future."

He wanted research by managers about either their own practice or management in general, and said the benefits would help people do better what they were already doing, help them develop themselves, set an excellent example, aid decision-making, inform and guide institutional and group data collection and analysis.

Our "inner chimp," said Pickering, means people are prone to make fast decisions, jumping in before analysing all the options. "I'm in favour of creating a community of practice where people discuss research as well as a new contract for the photocopier."

As well as creating conditions for managers to do research, Pickering whizzed through possible ways of disseminating it, including writing blogs, giving a short talk at the management conference, or writing a newsletter article.

Pickering is looking at how to take his campaign forward, and wants people to volunteer to join a working party which will both encourage managers to take this on and also create some kind of accessible directory for existing research to be collected and published.

The afternoon's options included Mark Rendell of St Giles in central London on using data as a tool to improve your centre and (unsurprisingly) a much-tweeted session by Alastair Horne on using social media.

One of the interesting points made by Rendell is that the new BC inspection structure with its points of excellence means "some meaningful league tables are forming... they could become an important factor with agents and with customers when they become aware of this."

Last year's inspections had shown up some "supercentres" with 14 strengths and he thought centres would be striving to do better, and that it was useful to use in-house data for improvement. "What your customers think about you is intrinsic," he said, going on to show how his centre has used student feedback on areas including the registration team, internet access, the social programme and staff and had bar charts and spider web diagrams to monitor the changes.

"This is factual information from potentially well over a thousand students: it does mean something," he said.

The afternooon break found Helen Clayton from St Brelade's College in Jersey musing over the conference, the first she's been able to attend since 2009. "I've wanted to come every year up until now but we run a Tesol course in March and it makes it quite difficult. It's been too long.

"I'm really enjoying it here. Being in Jersey makes it even more difficult to get together with other Directors of Studies -- we're very isolated. It's really difficult for use because we can't become part of a DOSA or get trainers into our school. It makes it incredibly difficult to keep up. But one result of this conference is that Alastair Horne's session has persuaded me to start using Twitter and keep up with things through that."

The final plenary session came from the powerhouse that is Bell's Silvana Richardson. She wanted to tell us about her research into resistance to learning among teachers, which arose after "years and years of frustration, banging my head against the wall trying to understand why so many teachers rejected what was being taught and rejected change."

She added: "This is very small scale exploratory research study, with no claims about universability. No truth universally acknowledged. Take it or leave it."

I'm going to enormously simplify what she said, as it included both a literature review and her own findings, but the gist was as follows: Resistance for learning is a phenomenon which can be triggered by something as simple as filling in the form at the start of a course, and can affect students who have volunteered for the class as much as or more than those who were sent on it.

It is an emotional experience, but can affect people's ability to follow arguments or remember.

It's caused by a perception of being under threat, which makes people resist and cling to what they have. The reason for the threat is a "loss for a competent adult -- such as an experienced teacher -- in changing their ways."

The problem comes with learning that doesn't add to what teachers already do, but supplants it, and Richardson says the resistance comes in two forms, either visible and loud, which is threatening for the trainer, and invisible and quiet.

"The definition is that it's a predominantly unconscious defensive response," said Richardson.

Symptoms among her subjects included confusion ("I'm not getting it," "I've taken 7 or 8 hours to try and figure this out") and strong feelings, verbal objections ("it won't work") and rejections, knowing "with certainty", and arrogance. This protected the teachers from having to engage with the supplantive learning.

This kind of learning put teachers out of their comfort zone, demanding unlearning some things, and potentially losing power, authority and expert status.

In addition, said Richardson, there could be a co-construct:

"This is that the data shouted back to me... the tutor's failure to listen and empathise, defensive or ill-timed interventions, relationship problems with trainers were almost typically in response to teacher learner resistance. The tutors were challenging resistant behaviour or trying to stop it... then their behaviour made the resistant behaviour worse. Reading this I had sometimes to go down and make a cup of tea, it was very painful."

Her recommendations? Get the administration, course and context right so that the teacher learners didn't have "an excuse to whinge," look at the fitness for purpose of Insett in your organisation and ensure it addresses the needs of all teachers; and watch out for signs of professional dissatisfaction which might motivate teachers to accept new ideas or prompt to change.

She said it was important to listen, emphathise, support and listen to waht was being half said or unsaid, create a safe learning environment, and "provide support, assure them it's natural to feel the way they do, help them understand what they are going through and the nature of the loss."

Wish you'd been in Bristol with us? We're already planning next year's Management Conference -- but the only clue given so far by Deputy Chief Executive Huan Japes in his closing remarks is that it will "probably be further north in 2015." Watch this space.


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