Pebble Mountains

The last few years, I have worked solely in academia. As I am now spending a fair bit of my time outside of HE, I wanted to share a personal reflection on the role academia can play in an evolving world of practitioner knowledge.

A close colleague and dear friend, Professor Chris James, once shared with me how the building of new knowledge is akin to climbing a mountain of pebbles, of which the purpose is to get to the top and add one more pebble to the mountain. New knowledge i.e. the shaping and crafting of that single pebble, can take years. It requires an awareness of what our pebble of knowledge actually is and what’s come before our own. New knowledge requires an awareness of how to shape the pebble/knowledge – the tools, frameworks and philosophies that underpin how we build models, theories and evidence. Finally, there is knowing the pebbles’ place in the wider network of other pebbles/knowledge: where to place the pebble, and how it compares to other pebbles etc.

You can take different paths up the pebble mountain.

Sometimes, the starting point of new knowledge takes place in the lab or the desk and then tested in the ‘real world’. This deductive approach can tell us whether an idea is now knowledge – a model or attempt to explain and describe ‘reality’.

Other times, it is the accumulation of years of experience and professional practice whereby a practitioner crafts an idea for what could be knowledge. Everyday, school leaders and teachers make hundreds of decisions which, over time, facilitates a new understanding. Upon further reading, they develop this idea further and think about some principles which embody their discovery. This ‘inductive’ approach achieves the same purpose, the attempt to explain or describe what the real world – our classrooms, schools and communities are all about and how they tick.

Other times, it gets all a bit meta. People who accumulate ideas from practice and theory and create a new narrative from their collection. This approach is neither deductive or inductive but involves accumulating and stitching together of different sources to either stress a point or to say something new from their analysis. And it’s not recycled, or reborn or relabelled theories – it’s scholarship and important for knowledge to have impact.

All different ways of climbing the pebble mountain. But all valid.

What is so exciting about Edutwitter, ResearchEd, New Voices, BrewEds, CPD in schools* (*Yes this really does all happen outside of Twitter too!) Teaching School Hubs and more is that practitioners are getting the opportunity to share their attempts to build knowledge through all of these ways in a manner that is accessible, real, robust and impactful.

I have watched people like @ModernCassie and Nick Hart build from their experience and, through robust study of their environment, develop principles for those who need it most. Practitioner’s are building from theoretical narratives such as complexity theory like Matthew Evans and different leadership narratives like Jen Barker, Tom Rees and Liz Robinson and using them to ask deep questions about how we run schools, conceptualisations of school leadership and more. I have seen others like Emma Turner, Peps McCrea, Lekha Sharma, Claire Hill, Kat Howard, and dozens more compile theories and ideas from across practitioners, practice and theory to bring new knowledge on curriculum, behaviour, teaching practice and school leadership. And there are those that work across these areas and ask deep questions and generate knowledge dissemination, like Kathryn Morgan, Emma McCrea, Jon Hutchinson, Hélène Galdin-O’Shea and far more beyond. And they are brilliant. And all of enviable quality.

This approach is not a threat to traditional paths, such as those within the career trajectory of academia. Instead, it’s an incredible opportunity for academia within this social science arena to evolve into a truly civic practice. To facilitate, enable and engage with those generating these pebbles of knowledge in their (practitioners) way and work across platforms to make a difference. The generation of knowledge in an academic space is different and it’s important – peer review, journal articles and the typical formal routes for knowledge generation and dissemination should be valued for what they have to offer.

But I believe that, if we only have one way traffic – were formal knowledge systems are applied to practice without any room for those in practice to create the knowledge from their own experience, reading and analysis, that we are missing out on so much intelligent and worthy thought. The traditional routes are simply not open or accessible to most people. If they were, edutwitter and ResearchEd wouldnt exisit. Such platforms were born because there are large groups of people who wanted to contribute to the endeavour of building knowledge that makes a difference to what we do and how we think. To not just be included on a panel or advisory group, but to shape their own progess and make contributions in of themselves. Practitioner friendly editions of journals or TeachMeets at ‘academic’ conferences, whilst well meaning, are just extensions of a very scary space – it’s not one that practitoners own and, I feel, do not go far enough to enable all practitioners to contribute.

So we in academia need to listen to this evolution. Listen to how practitioners in this movement feel and build with them – not on top, but acknowledge and listen to this explosion of high quality knowledge being born. And start to see just how much of these pebbles are geninue gold that has so much potential. How can those of us that hold academic positions both support this new wave of knowledge generation, respecting the place the genuine value this knowledge should have in shaping practice and a system, whilst also seeing such generation as the pebbles which, with support guidance and challenge, can become mounds and mountains and boulders in of themselves?

I know many will disagree with me. But I believe academics exist to serve society and the individuals within it. What if a part of our role in the system to find these gems and to:

a) Respect that knowledge generation that takes place outside our formal systems is valuable, not just to their own individual classrooms or settings, but as knowledge which should be disseminated and has meaning.

b) Positively Amplify. Ignore those that say academics have no power – we do. Dr, Prof, Lecturer…they are titles of significance and give a formal voice before weve even opened our mouths and those that dont see that need to take a long look in the mirror. We should be using such power to positively amplify those doing good things and trying to make a difference . It is not our role to publicly disparage practitioners because we don’t agree – I have seen behaviour from academics slating individual practitioners from sharing their knowledge or saying “was it peer reviewed” as if our version of peer review in the social sciences is the gold standard (it really isn’t, it’s important but we all know there are flaws in this system). It’s nonsense and comes from fear – and I’m going to return to this point about fear later on. Just because knowledge has been generated outside our systems doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy.

C) To use our knowledge of the wider pebble mountain to support, encourage and to be friends – to pick up the phone and offer sponsorship, counsel and guidance. To facilitate how practitioners could further build these pebbles of knowledge and grow them into new mounds or mountains of their own. To reflect on our work and attempts to theorise and research and treat them as any other attempt to generate knowledge deductively, inductively or ‘meta’ly.

Are we doing all we can to help? This is my only question.

In summary, the boom in practitioner led knowledge dissemination and generation is an added string to our bow. Not a threat. We should be trying to help, not hold back. To facilitate and support, not surpress. To talent scout for the next generation of true academic/practitioner hybrids. To raise a toast to those facilitating the safe spaces where teachers can share their knowledge (which we struggled to create), not criticise them for not using traditional and scary places of knowledge dissemination. To see potential and joy and pride in teachers engaging so proactively in generating new ideas.

We are here to make a difference. Let’s help practitoners, in their way, to make the pebbles that will become the boulders and mountains of the future.