Datafication of education and professional organisation at heart of researchers’ discussions

The role of unions in helping teachers negotiate professional issues and the impact of data on education were standout topics during Education International’s Research Network.

The way data leads to a “simplistic” and “naïve” vision of education systems and the need for unions to meet teachers’ demands for support were raised by leading researchers in education at Education International’s Research Network (ResNet), held from 31 May-1 June in Brussels, Belgium.

Union and teachers’ professional identity

Organising teachers and developing the power of the profession was the highlight of the conference. The report was commissioned by the Education International Research Institute. Howard Stevenson from the University of Nottingham, UK, highlighted how teachers’ work lives and workload have intensified. Education is seen as the key to enhancing competitiveness in the economic market, so parents have become more demanding for the sake of their children’s future, he said.

The biggest threats are around professional issues, Stevenson highlighted, with the slow erosion of teachers’ influence on bargaining policies and on professional policies.

He also deplored the trend where teachers are being recast as a deprofessionalised, individualised profession, drowned in data to justify the work teachers must do, with teaching becoming increasingly competitive.

He explained that the deficit in teacher unions’ resources represents an obstacle to real action and to facing challenges such as work intensification, deprofessionalisation, privatisation, attacks on democracy and workers’ rights, and long-term changes in (teacher) union and civil society engagement.

The imperative now is to close the gap between rising member demand for teacher union support, and the resources available to meet this demand, Stevenson said. This can be done by finding new ways to develop capacity within teacher unions by drawing on the collective strength of unions’ grassroots members, he said.

Stevenson further underlined the concept of “unionateness”, i.e. the union being central to teachers’ professional identity: “A teacher needs to say, ‘I cannot be the teacher I want to be unless I am in a union’”.

If the teaching profession is to meet current challenges, it has to develop its members in ways which encourage them to lead, Stevenson insisted. Ideally, a teacher should be saying to himself or herself: “I engage, I participate in my union, and I lead within my union.”

Whist regretful that teachers are being infantilised in the way they approach their profession, Stevenson was adamant that the way the narrative is framed determines policy solutions, so teachers and their unions, which are democratic collective organisations, need to frame the narrative on education issues, and create alliances, especially with employers.

Datafication of education

Phil McRae, Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Adjunct Professor within the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, also created a lot of interest as he explored how the growing investment and activity to digitally measure, assess and report on student learning is impacting the work of teaching and learning in Canada and, increasingly, around the world.

He also shared research on teachers and school leaders’ perceived value and impact as it relates to digital reporting, assessment and the measurement of wellbeing. And he identified global trends related to educational technology, datafication of learning, and the emergence of new markets for commercialisation of public education systems.

Deploring a “mechanistic” vision of education systems, which he also qualified as “simplistic” and “naïve”, McRae insisted that education unions need to educate and inform members and parents about the implications of all this collected data in schools and among students. Research is needed on this issue, and unions need to commission it, he said.

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