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Five Reasons why I did a MSc at Oxford University

In 2015, I successfully applied to study for a MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford. After expressing an interest in continuing studies following my BA in Primary Education, I was incredibly lucky to have been offered a paid Masters in my first teaching post.

The MLT (Masters in Learning at Teaching) at Oxford was the program I chose to apply for and after a Skype interview with the programme leaders, I was very fortunate to have been offered a place. Completing the masters was a huge journey, and one which I in fact suspended for a couple of years due to changes at school making the part-time study almost impossible. I finally completed my final-year project in 2020, amid the Covid-19 crisis and school closures, but I was very proudly awarded a distinction for my study into teacher expectations and how having a no-hands-up approach to questioning can affect teachers' expectations of pupils' potential achievement.

In trying to get my blog off the ground, I thought I'd share with you five reasons why I chose to do a masters. For each reason, I've also provided a mini-evaluation about whether I think these were the right reasons, just in case you are thinking of applying for post-graduate study yourself.

📚 1. Learning More

After completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Durham, I still felt as if I had so much more to learn about being an effective teacher. I really had enjoyed learning through university study, and I believed that a taught Masters programme would provide the next step of knowledge that I was craving. In my NQT year, I particularly felt as if I knew very little about the implementation of a lot of research recommendations, and I hoped that a Masters would be able to help me along the way. Frankly, I did not feel that I learned an awful lot of useful pedagogy or practices when I first began the MSc, and although I was incredibly interested by the lectures and seminars (which covered a broad range of issues), I did not feel as if I was amassing the increased knowledge that I craved. However, on reflection, I think the key learning for me is how I think about knowledge, particularly about knowledge from research. My MSc has definitely changed the way I interact with ideas and evaluate findings or claims from the large amount of 'evidence' that is out there. Fundamentally, I feel that I reflect far more critically about what I read, which I think is probably far more useful than just amassing 'more' knowledge.

👨🏻‍🏫 2. Becoming a better teacher

Linked to my first reason, I hoped that a MSc would make me a far better teacher. I wanted to be as effective as possible and be 'outstanding'. I craved knowing more about effective teaching and wanted the MSc to 'make me' this better teacher. Whilst I learned things about myself as a practitioner and about children as learners, I never felt entirely that the content of the MSc had instant impact of making me a better teacher. However, what I think now is that the process of study and approaches to reflection and consideration, have changed the way I think about teaching and learning, which ultimately have led to me becoming a better teacher.

To exemplify this I would use one of John Hattie's maxims from Visible Learning. Hattie argues that teachers need to 'know thy impact' which is perfectly good advice; however, after completing a Masters, the next thing I want to know is how my impact relates to other things that are going on, and whether the impact I have in isolation from others is the best impact I can have. The MSc has certainly changed the way I think about effective practice.

🎯 3. Developing expertise

During my undergraduate degree, I specialised in MFL and maths; the latter forming the focus of an additional module in my final year as well as for my dissertation into metacognition and mathematics. I really enjoyed feeling knowledgeable about maths, and at the time, I felt there was so much more to learn due to the newly-revised National Curriculum and the interest surround mastery maths. I remember at the time feeling that there was not a huge amount of knowledge about teaching for understanding, and as someone passionate about empowering all learners to be successful with maths, this was an area about which I wanted to know more and more.

The MLT at Oxford definitely wasn't the right one in terms of 'learning' the content about teaching maths for mastery. To be fair, it was never advertised as such (but I secretly hoped it would give me the expertise I so craved). Rather, the expertise I believe the MSc develops is that about how to understand how research can be used to test the effectiveness of certain mathematical pedagogies, and do so in a way which is separate to the biases and mindsets that exist within schools. What I mean by this is the attitudes and approaches that exist within schools such as the language we use around 'ability': by considering practices in isolation from the many factors which influence the individual criteria which individual teachers hold due to their personal histories and teaching experiences.

🔍 4. Keeping Up-to-Date with Research

During my teacher training, mentioning research felt a little like a dirty word in some schools. I felt eyes roll as soon as I mentioned research to some teachers - particularly those who had been in the game for some years. I can kind of understand why some might have felt like this now, in so much that if they didn't appreciate research then it wouldn't hold much value for them, but at the time, I felt strongly that I would never want to hold such a view and react in such a way to bright-eyed students eager to learn as much as they could.

Frankly, there is too much research to keep up-to-date with unless you have a particular focus. I'm not a member (yet) but I've heard the Chartered College of Teaching led by the wonderful Dame Alison Peacock is a good source of the most relevant research in education. Twitter too is also fabulous for keeping up to do with new and important research and its link with practice, although it can be heavily biased by the curation of your timeline. Again, the best impact of the MSc has been how I engage with research and how I understand the way research is presented. I dreaded the modules about research methods during my undergraduate degree, but now, I find much more relevance in the nature and scopes of studies which are used to substantiate claims, as well as how theoretical frameworks and sample sizes affect the relevance of findings.

One of the best bits, on reflection, is how when I now read educational books (of which I read probably far too many) is how I want to know the evidence for some of the claims that are made, rather than just accepting them at face value. I think this mindset is incredibly useful in my career, when considering the many suggestions that exist out there in the educational biosphere: from government policy to Twitter trends to the advice of colleagues and advisors.

💼 5. Improving Career Prospects

I've always valued things such as exam grades and results etc as the 'proof' I need in order to feel confident when applying for jobs etc; not so much as that they would get me the job over someone else, but rather that they mean I have the necessary qualifications to be able to do the job effectively. I think this is an important distinction because. in my experience, I'm not sure that having the MSc qualification provides a qualification that would seal the deal for future employers. During the time I studied, I was fortunate enough to have been offered two assistant headships and in neither interview did the level I was studying at ever seem to have been of significant interest. I'm not sure if this would be true in the private or international sectors, but I actually don't disagree with it not being a deal-cincher.

I think what's important career-wise from studying at Masters-level is the impact it has on your practice. It's not enough to be able to say you have a MSc but rather it's much more important to be able to articulate how you have used what you have learned and how it has transformed elements of your practice. I must say, though, I would definitely say that the MSc has had a profound impact on my practice and I would thoroughly recommend Masters-level study to anyone who is interested in having a systematic, challenging and inspiring approach to considering their own practice and learning more about relevant aspects of education.

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