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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Tell me what to think! Reflections of an early career researcher on my first conference at BERA 2023

Ruth Graham, Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham

Two years after leaving classroom teaching and moving into the academic world of higher education, I was filled with optimism for my first ever conference. I was ready to be surrounded by some great minds in educational research and armed with my notebook and pen, I was going to take it all in.

I arrived in Birmingham just in time, after a cancelled train and a taxi ride that had meant to be a walk. I frantically scribbled through Day 1. At the end of the day, a colleague advised missing the odd session to let things sink in, which got me worried – what would my mind have room for when my notepad was already nearly full? The problem was, I didn’t want to miss anything. With around 27 parallel choices, attending each session was never possible, but I at least wanted to experience everything relevant.

My focus was twofold. I had my first ever publication pending, a coauthored book discussing teachers’ experiences during the pandemic. Meanwhile, I had just secured funding to investigate the commitment of early career teachers in England, as part of a doctoral training partnership (DTP) with the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC). So, anything about 1) Teaching during the pandemic, and 2) Teacher retention, were high on my Can’t Miss That list.

Too eager to learn to be ignoring the advice of colleagues, I saw an opening on Day 2 to skip the first session, so I took it. Despite the nagging feeling I was skiving off, I arrived slightly later – although I must confess that I spent the extra time adding people I’d met on LinkedIn, which I don’t think was what my colleague had in mind with her advice.

I ploughed on through the Day 2 sessions, gathering as much information as I could. I was particularly eager to hear about the ESRC-funded projects focused on bridging boundaries between research, policy and practice. Teacher recruitment, retention and development are a key theme of the nine research projects associated with the session and I was keen to better understand the ocean of research that my PhD project would hopefully provide a drop into. In addition, the team was building on research during the pandemic; two birds, one stone. The session also promised to tackle a, perhaps unresolvable, conundrum of mine – why was I going to research teacher commitment if I couldn’t interest policymakers in what I found? This was important stuff. So, my much depleted paper and pen were ready again in Session 7.20. Gemma Moss convincingly smashed through the mythical ‘moral panic’ of ‘lost learning’ that the government and press bombarded teachers with during the partial school closures. With evidence of the impact on pupils’ wellbeing flooding in, which reflected teachers’ priorities at the time, frustrations around why policymakers had been so clueless to this filled the room.

This was a strong argument, and one I had seen firsthand through teacher interview data over the pandemic. But the previous day’s Session 3.12 about the impact of Covid-19 on schools had told a very different story. The most compelling evidence of lost learning I’ve come across was presented by Tiago Bartholo and Mariane Koslini. They were incredibly well placed to track the impact of missed kindergarten on the development of five-year-olds in Brazil and showed a stark gap in the achievement of Covid’s cohorts, particularly for the economically vulnerable (see Bartholo, 2022).

This is where confusion struck. Here I was at the BERA conference, ready to soak up the findings from a whole range of very clever people, but I hadn’t factored in contradictions. What was I meant to think? Had learning been lost during the pandemic or not? Time had eroded the ‘it’s too early to tell’ line, so what was the answer and why was it a different one between the two sessions?

It took a little rant about this over a pint in the pub at the end of Day 2 for the penny to drop. No one was there to tell me what to think. It was all food for thought, not thoughts to think. I am, most of all, a teacher, so I should know that education and understanding don’t flourish when knowledge is simply imparted by the experts. Many made that very point over those three days, so I was in good company for realising the value of critical thinking.

‘No one was there to tell me what to think. It was all food for thought, not thoughts to think.’

Reflecting on the presentations, unravelling the nuances of the contexts and complexities of the circumstances within the research was hard work. But this is the work of learning. Much of Day 3 was spent chatting in a coffee shop and sitting outside mulling over things. I have taken away a fuller appreciation of the varied and context-specific responses and experiences that the pandemic created, and a broader understanding of teacher shortages. I haven’t looked back at my notes yet though.


Bartholo, T. L., Koslinski, M. C., Tymms, P., & Castro, D. L. (2022). Learning loss and learning inequality during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ensaio: Avaliação e Políticas Públicas em Educação, 31, e0223776.