Journal clubs…with biscuits

Educators engaging with education research

Illustration

Research in education…that is research on how students learn and how best to teach…is out there. How that research gets into the hands of educators and how it ever informs their practice is a challenge facing all of us involved in education.

Beth Greville-Giddings, a teaching assistant at Westbury Academy in Nottingham, England, thinks she has a solution: journal clubs. It’s a relatively simple idea and it has already proven effective in another field. As she explains, “Journal clubs are essentially book clubs for reading research, and anyone can take part in them. They were originally used in medicine for doctors in training then as continual professional development as they are working to keep up to date with research that is out there.”

Ben Goldacre, author of The Guardian’s weekly column “Bad Science” and the book by the same name, inspired Greville-Giddings when he talked about the use of journal clubs as part of his keynote speech at a 2013 researchED conference. “While their roots were in training medical students, now they are more so used to develop critical analysis skills and they are increasingly being used in education,” says Greville-Giddings, although she is quick to add, “I am not the first to have started a journal club.”

And while she may not be the first person in the field of education to start a journal club at a school, she is certainly one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the practice. She has presented on journal clubs at many researchED conferences and has been responsible for inspiring many schools to begin their own. But like everyone, she started out small.

“I began one at my school with a few people and anyone could join. Teachers, teaching assistants, and even people in the office showed some interest. We would select an article in advance around a particular topic. Often it would be quite specific. One person would act as a facilitator and lead the meeting and give a summary of the article, and then everyone discussed their understanding of it. We would discuss the features of the article, and whether or not we agreed or disagreed with its premise. We would also discuss whether we see any biases in the research. We would also talk about how the article could inform our current practices and how it related to the work we were doing with our students.”

Greville-Giddings is quite open about how difficult it can be to initially attract participants to a journal club, and she attributes this to educators’ lack of experience with research papers, “Research literature can be quite intimidating for people who are not familiar with it. In the past I have used research summaries, blog posts and things like that, but people seem to like to use the actual article itself.”

As the facilitator of the journal club at her school, Greville-Giddings tries to make the club as welcoming as possible, “I don’t think a journal club is the place to categorically decide whether a policy needs to be abolished or whether a practice needs to be changed. Instead, if you see an idea that you think is good and you think it has potential, a journal club is a place where it can be explored further. The atmosphere is quite relaxed and it’s a social way of engaging with research. It’s enjoyable and professionally rewarding.” She also adds, “I’m not above bribing people with biscuits either.”

So what does a journal club look like? According to Greville-Giddings, it’s at least three or four (hopefully more) people sitting around a table, papers in hand, having a chat and scribbling some notes. She recommends that every group have a facilitator—it doesn’t have to be the same person every time—who has read the article and is prepared to keep the conversation going with questions and prompts. Apparently not everyone that shows up for journal club has necessarily read the selected research article, but they are always welcomed and provided with a copy of the article.

Greville-Giddings manages a website (www.edujournalclub.com) that includes resources to help run a journal club. She also offers the following advice on how to manage a journal club:

  • keep going with it; initially you might not have much interest, but you will find like minds
  • find some dedicated space and time to hold your journal club and promote it
  • start with general topics and listen to participants’ interests to find new ones
  • take notes, share them and produce a record that can be accessed
  • get your administration on board to support the initiative

When it comes to finding suitable articles, she suggests:

  • Google Scholars offers many articles in easy to use PDF format
  • Free access articles are often available for a short time after publication
  • Individual journals will often have some free articles available online
  • Subscribe to journals or join organizations that produce journals that you are interested in
  • Many school libraries have subscriptions to journals that contain articles on research in education

Greville-Giddings is adamant that even though journal clubs examine serious research, the discussion doesn’t need to be overly serious. She quotes an article by an expert in knowledge mobilization who writes that sometimes research is ready to be shared, but it’s not actually ready to be implemented. “You can’t directly measure the impact that a journal club or the research they discuss has on one’s students,” she admits, “but as part of the bigger picture of research engagement, having a journal club gives educators the opportunity to become more research literate.”

Greville-Giddings also warns that “there is a risk in education that research engagement becomes elitist. There is a real risk of educators feeling excluded from it.” Journal clubs makes education research accessible to everyone.

“The hope is that journal club discussions will make educators more aware of the research that is out there. It won’t necessarily completely develop people’s critical analysis skills in a formal way, but hopefully it will entice them to think more critically about an idea when it is presented to them.”

About Randy Banderob
Randy Banderob is an Executive Assistant working in the Educational Services Department at Provincial Office.

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