The teacher turned learner; and appreciating every minute.


Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

Students and tutors (hopefully indistinguishable) in a shared learning experience.

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.

10 thoughts on “The teacher turned learner; and appreciating every minute.

  1. Hi, Richard, Thank you so much for sharing your learning with us. As a former Ph.D student, I am terribly sorry that I was not able to attend it this year. I still remember how my fellow student colleagues and I worked for the first conference and how much we enjoyed it. Even the stagefright I suffered at the conference has become part of my fond memory from Northampton. The comments and remarks from the audience were great encouragement for me which helped to set my first steps back to my home country to work on the promotion of inclusive education. For those who would be completing their studies, the two-day conference must have been the opportunity to express their gratitudes and appreciation to the participants who have been supporting them in various ways in the past years on the journey towards a Ph.D, (‘permanent head damage’, as we used to call it). I am so glad to know that it was another great success. Congratulations to all who have organised it and presented at it. I wish them all the very best. As a member of the learning community of Northampton, I wish to stay in touch so that we can support and work with each other when appropriate. My heartfelt thanks to the organisers, who I assume are frequent readers of Richard’s blogs, for having invited me to the conference. Good luck with your studies.

    • Hi Mary,
      As an esteemed alumni who has contributed so much both to the research environment here in Northampton, and to inclusive education in China since leaving us, your words are greatly appreciated. Like you, there are students here who will take on a leadership role as researchers and campaigners for the rights of children when they finish their studies. I am proud to be associated with all of you. I do hope that in future years you will be able to join the conference and relive your memories of the excitement of this two day event.

  2. Hi Richard. I couldn’t agree more. I felt immensely heartened at how students had used advice and ideas discussed in meetings and run with them to take their research into exciting areas. Watching how students were developing their research networks – at other conferences they have attended as well well as with colleagues from Trinity College at this one. Watching them question the value of their research, interrogate themselves over ethics, and methods – all of this is vital as they become researchers. And watching the respect that they demonstrated towards each other made me think again what a privilege it is to work with such interesting and thoughtful people,

  3. Mary it was sad that you were unable to join us – but even your absence continued to teach us. I was unaware of the bureaucratic process which you have to complete even when asked to speak at an overseas conference. It put any minor hurdles we face here in perspective.
    The other thing for which we have to thank you is the idea of having an alumni speaker who will return to talk about their experiences.
    I hope that in future years I can read about the success of the conference in the same way that you are able to recall being part of the first one.
    It was very heart warming from my perspective to have so many supervisors present during the two days who showed their love of learning and provided insightful comments which I shall certainly incorporate in my work.

    • Hi Carmel,
      In my experience our alumni very quickly outstrip the achievements of their supervisors. Mary is just one such example of this. Amanda Watkins another who comes to mind. It is right that we should keep them involved as they have much that they can teach us.

  4. Hi Richard, From the perspective of someone who has been involved in some way or another with the Conference organisation since its inception, I cannot adequately convey in words the immense pride, as well as humility that I have learnt by participating in this event. The supportive atmosphere that you allude to, is indeed a most pervasive element of the event year after year. As a fledgling researcher my confidence has been boosted on multiple occasions having presented various aspects of my research, firstly at our Conference, and then later at multiple international forums. I wish the future organisers of this event my very best wishes, as being involved with it has most definitely played an integral role in developing not only my organisational proficiencies, but also my academic and research-oriented skills.

    • Hi Saneeya,
      One of the most important factors here is the opportunity to work collaboratively with your peers in developing something for the benefit of others. I am sure that in the future you will be able to utilise the skills you have learned in many other situations.

  5. Hi Richard,
    In my experience, the best thing about this conference as you pointed out is the opportunity for emerging researchers like myself to speak about our research topic and experience without the fear of being assailed by demoralising negative criticisms (or having our feeble enthusiasm unceremoniously smothered by those who choose to completely ignore us or engage in their own discussion/personal work). At the same time we had the opportunity to receive critical yet friendly feedback which we find easier to accept and incorporate not only into our current research but contributed towards our development as researchers. Personally, as Mary said, due to stage fright, even to be able to stand up in front of a group of researchers, let alone talking about research would have been impossible without the initial soft landing provided by our conference and this has made the prospect of engaging in a similar event, although still very daunting less painful. Besides, having our colleagues as presenters taught us to be good audience who think and provide positive feedback rather than being on a fault finding mission.

    I hope this event continues to grow in fame and numbers but while expanding further never fails to have the interests of emerging researchers as priority so that they have a warm and friendly forum to begin their long journey as researchers.

    • Well said Benny. Research students and teachers should never fear standing in front of their peers to share their ideas. It is for the audience to demonstrate respect and appreciate that learning should be a shared experience from which we can all benefit.

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