Category Archives: Research

University can feel like a hostile place to Muslim students

This blog was originally published on The Conversation

British Muslims are among some of the most disadvantaged people living in the UK, and yet this is not a story many are familiar with. This is because despite the poverty, disadvantage and social immobility Muslims face, headlines that link the faith to crime or terrorism, or to forced marriage or honour killings, are much more common.

But the reality, as reported by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, is that the unemployment rate for Muslims in the UK is more than twice that of the general population – and the disadvantage is even greater for Muslim women.

On top of this, the committee also found that many Muslims face discrimination and Islamophobia, along with stereotyping, pressure from traditional families, and insufficient role models.

And a lack of social mobility – the ability of individuals, families or groups to move up or down the social ladder in society – seems to be a particular issue for British Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage.

Poor access to education

One of the main problems, is that young Muslims face disadvantage when they come to apply to higher education. This has been shown in research by the Nuffield Foundation, which revealed that those of Pakistani heritage are less likely to receive higher education offers compared to white British applicants.

For those Muslims students who do access higher education, the odds can be stacked against them. Students from most ethnic minority backgrounds don’t do as well as their white peers – even when they enter higher education with the same or better qualifications. And although data on religion is not routinely collected by universities it is likely that many Muslims students are underperforming.

Even when Muslim students do manage to get good grades, good jobs are not always on the horizon. A recent report showed that young Asian Muslims face a “broken social mobility promise”, with a lack of jobs outlined as a major issue.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women fare particularly badly in this area – which was detailed in the recent Casey Review.

This lack of employment is often made worse by racism, discrimination and the inherent bias faced by those from ethnic minority backgrounds at all stages of their careers. And this includes the move from education to employment.

Hostility on campus

As I reported to the MPs committee, Muslims students’ experiences of higher education are also not always positive. And religion is rarely valued on UK university campuses.

My recent book, Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America – co-authored with Kristin Aune from Coventry University – explains how universities are often self-consciously secular spaces. This can make those from religious backgrounds feel alienated. And university staff can also feel uncomfortable raising or addressing issues around religion.

Where debates around religion do exist, much of the discourse has drawn on a “moral panic” relating to the growth of fundamentalism and global terrorism. It has focused, in particular, on the threat posed by “Muslim young men”. And in response, ever increasing guidance has been provided to universities on how to tackle violent extremism on campus.

It is unsurprising then that universities can feel like hostile places to Muslim students, which, as my previous research shows, can shape their sense of belonging on campus. Muslim students are of course not the only religious group who find the higher education campus to be, at times, a hostile space. Nor is this a solely British phenomenon.

Implementing change

With this in mind, our book makes a series of recommendations. This includes giving university staff religious literacy training so that they feel equipped and empowered to talk about religion.

Students could also be drawn upon to present different viewpoints on religion. And religious perspectives should be included more often in class discussions. This could help to open these discussions up to both scrutiny and challenge, as well as understanding.

Our call for greater recognition of religious perspectives is not to deny that religion gives rise to conflict – it can and it does. But it is clear that engaging with discussions around religion is a key step to achieving greater equality in the UK.

Jacqueline Stevenson is Head of Research at Sheffield Institute of Education

How to get the best from practical work

Practical work is, again, in the science education spotlight, with findings from a recent Wellcome Trust study suggesting that recent changes to assessment at GCSE are leading to more and more pupils missing out on practical work in science.  The fact that science is, as the report states, an inherently practical subject, increases the mystifying decline in practical activity.

The study’s findings show that practical work is highly valued by school students, with over half saying that they wanted to do more. Indeed, practical activities are seen as a key part of learning science by everyone involved in science education. Findings from numerous research studies, including our own, show that practical work plays an important role in student engagement, in classroom management and in improving students’ likelihood to go on to further study of science subjects. Universities and employers alike value the skills of problem solving and group work, as well as the technical skills, that are developed through hands-on practical activities, and schools invest large amounts of money into laboratory equipment and technicians support.

However, the contribution which practical work makes to learning the subject matter of science remains in some doubt. A number of studies, such as those carried out by Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams at the University of York, suggest that it may be largely ineffective in improving learning about scientific concepts or processes. Last year’s PISA results supported this, showing an apparent correlation between a greater frequency of practical-based approaches and lower performance in science. Indeed, all of us who work in science education have observed teachers (and have probably been guilty ourselves of) using practical work as a reward for good behaviour, or – worse – withdrawing it when a class becomes difficult to manage.  This means that practical work’s role in the classroom can be perceived as an optional extra rather than an integral contributor to learning, despite what teachers say about how much they value it.

The Wellcome Trust’s study highlights another problem with practical work: the ease with which it can be reduced to a recipe-following procedure.  Around a fifth of the students surveyed said that they often simply following instructions without understanding the purpose of the work.  Indeed, our work on Improving Practical Work in Science a few years ago showed us how often teachers struggled to explain exactly why they are carrying out a particular practical, instead simply following the scheme of work or recycling the same old activities from year to year.

In the Sheffield Institute of Education, we have worked on many projects worldwide which centre on practical work and inquiry in science. This has shown us again and again how professional development for teachers is vital to getting past the idea of practical work as simple hands-on procedures so that it becomes a minds-on, thought-provoking process of learning.

We have found that it takes little prompting for teachers to realise that they can and should treat practical work like any other classroom activity, so that they consider its contribution to student learning and decide how best to assess this. For example, illustrating to primary school teachers how they can use their school grounds for practical work in science enables them to feel the confidence to take their students for a walk outside, drawing on scientific skills of hypothesising, observing and analysing.  And as part of our Chain Reaction project, supporting teachers to design and engage in scientific inquiries enabled them to observe the enjoyment of students from twelve European countries in designing and conducting their own experiments, acting as scientists including even presenting their findings at international conferences.

School leaders and governments often appear to believe that equipping schools with piles of new equipment is a route to high quality practical work.  We know, though, that the best practical work may not be the most sophisticated in terms of practical equipment or complex skills.  Sometimes the most interesting practicals stem from a lack of equipment, such as teachers we’ve worked with in Ghana who, following professional development, rustle up an engaging and meaningful practical for a class of sixty students with some babies’ nappies, scissors and plastic bowls!

By improving teachers’ confidence through professional development, they feel more able to take a few risks. They use a greater range of practical activities, adapting them to student needs and expertise, and move beyond simple recipe-following procedures to truly scientific activities which are both hands-on and minds-on.  It is possible that, following professional development, teachers may end up doing less practical work but it will almost certainly be of a higher quality, so that it contributes not just to behaviour management but also to learning science.

Current changes to the assessment of practical work are once again raising the question of the purpose of practical work.  These changes pose a threat to practical work in potentially limiting the variety of practicals on offer in schools and reducing its contribution to learning to a tick-box exercise.  As yet, though, we are keeping our minds open about the impact of these changes.  We’re just beginning a research study in which we will ask teachers and their students about their experiences of practical work under the current GCSE system.  We hope that our findings will help us to better understand the role of practical work and its value in supporting students to learn science.  If you would like to be involved and to share your experiences, please get in touch and let us know.

Dr Emily Perry is Deputy Head of the Centre for Development and Research in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education

Dr Stuart Bevins is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education

Dialogue, Depth and Doing a Master’s? Working with teachers on research

I’m doing a lot of work at the moment working with schools and teachers on engaging with research evidence with colleagues in the SIOE, and it’s made me think about this issue and in particular the crucial importance of collaboration and dialogue.

If I asked you to imagine teachers engaging with research, you’d probably come up with two things. Firstly, teachers working with research evidence to inform their practice, maybe reading articles or reviews, perhaps getting it from their colleagues. Secondly, teachers doing their own research, classically via action research and more recently in collaborative ways, working with colleagues – perhaps in other schools – in ‘Research and Development’ projects.

And, classically, we think of the role of the researcher in all of this on the one hand as helping the teacher work through how to utilise research and, on the other, supporting them doing their own research work.

What I’ve learned is that this way of thinking isn’t quite right. Doubtless I’ll return to this subject in future blogs because there is a lot to say about it, but for now I want just to pick up on two things that need a bit of care.

Firstly, despite all our efforts, it has a bit of a whiff of ‘we as researchers passing on our pearls of wisdom to the grateful, ignorant teachers’. Of course in reality we know that teachers are skilled professionals who will consider research findings in relation to lots of other evidence, much of which they will place a lot more trust in – evidence from other teachers, from their school’s data and from their practice. The task really is to try to make sure that we can make research fit teachers’ needs better. This isn’t just about speaking the language of teachers, but also often needs real engagement, there in the school, or out there in the social media, or even sometimes here in the university. There is a tightrope to walk here of course – we shouldn’t ignore the fact that teachers often find research quality difficult to judge and can be hoodwinked by the latest flashy fad just like anyone else (Visual Audio Kinaestethic Learning Styles? zero evidence for it, but still in use in some schools). But let’s see this as a dialogue.

Secondly – and this is something I think is crucial but very easy to forget – it isn’t necessarily the case that what teachers get out of research is the findings. Engaging with and in research means thinking differently and critically. This can be uncomfortable – I often think that our Doctoral students on the Ed D programme are going through the equivalent of army basic training, having their certainties stripped away and having to build up their understanding of how education works from the ground up. But in the best cases this new way of thinking – of critically judging evidence; of testing and reflecting, challenging; of analysis and data gathering – can have a profound effect on teachers as professionals irrespective of the findings.

This brings me to my final point. Both of these two areas – working with research evidence, and building research habits of mind and skills – can be developed both through using research and doing research. They are two sides of the same coin. So let’s think about them together, rather than as two separated activities. Oh, and one last thing.  Our research projects show that if we really want schools and teachers to engage with research and get the most from it then there is no getting way from deep, extended involvement. And for that there is no real substitute for a well-designed Master’s in Education, or even a doctorate. Teaching as a Master’s level profession – now where have I heard that one before?

Mike Coldwell2






Mike Coldwell is Head of the Centre for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Sheffield Institute of Education

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