Every year for the past five years the research students working towards the degree of PhD within the Centre for Education and Research, here at the University of Northampton, organise a two day research conference. This provides students with an opportunity to present papers based upon their own research projects and to hear from invited keynote speakers of national and international repute, as well as engaging in lively debate on topics related to designing and managing research.
The conference is planned and managed entirely by the students, who invite speakers, arrange the programme, book the venue and organise the domestic arrangements such as refreshments and registration. This year, as in previous years the conference was a great success with students and established academic staff participating in a shared learning experience and listening to a series of excellent presentations. The invited keynote speakers made a tremendous contribution and provided encouragement and support to the students, and as a tutor responsible for supporting several of these neophyte researchers, I was immensely proud of the way that the whole event progressed.
The topics of their research varied greatly, from inquiries into the impact of glue ear upon learning in children, research into quality assurance in Vietnamese universities and an investigation of the use of movement and games for teaching modern foreign languages, to a study of understanding and teacher awareness of autism spectrum disorders in Nigeria and another investigating raising challenges for able school pupils. As always at events of this nature I found myself listening to presentations on topics where I have a certain amount of expertise, but also to those where I was being brought new to the subject and had a unique opportunity to gain insights and new understanding.
As a tutor and therefore a guest at this student led event, my most important function over the two days was to listen to the presentations made by students, and to provide supportive comments usually prior to and immediately after their papers were given. For those of us who have been making presentations of this nature for some time, it is important to remember that it takes courage to have the confidence to stand before one’s peers and a number of well-established researchers and talk about work that is both personal and usually at a stage of emergence rather than completion. For those who are presenting in English as their second or even third language this is an even more daunting prospect. Yet, as I had expected these bright, enthusiastic young researchers performed with élan and demonstrated their expertise and learning as if they were seasoned academics.
As I listened to the student presentations I looked around the room to observe the audience and their reaction to this situation. I was particularly taken by the respectful manner in which the students listened attentively and without distraction to their colleagues. Nods of affirmation, smiles and generous applause were important in ensuring that each speaker gained in confidence and enjoyed the opportunity to express their ideas and discuss their work. This is no more that I had expected, but is so much different from the behaviour I often witness at conferences where professional researchers present their papers. Here, the distraction of laptops (or more often smart devices) are usually in evidence, along with a demeanour which can be interpreted as a form of points scoring as hard bitten cynical individuals cast a critical eye over the work of their colleagues. Over the past two days the student researchers have afforded each presenter a respectful and supportive hearing that should surely be the norm at all events of this nature.
I found myself wishing that I had video recorded the sessions of the past two days in order that I could remind colleagues of the enthusiasm and freshness of the new researcher. This conference demonstrated all that is good about the process of research and enthusiasm for inquiry and learning. As is invariably the case, those of us placed in the role of teachers can learn so much from our students and should take the time to reflect upon what it is they have to tell us. In years to come many of these new investigators will become leading researchers in their chosen field of education. I have no doubt that their work will become highly regarded and that they will contribute greatly to our understanding of how children learn, how teachers teach and the various influences that either assist or impede this process. As they do so, I hope that they maintain both their enthusiasm and the respectful manner in which they conducted themselves throughout the past two days. I look forward to following their careers and enjoying the product of their labours in the years to come.
Thank you to each student who presented over these days and provided me with such a rich opportunity for learning.