TEACHING-A RESEARCH BASED PROFESSION ?

Some teachers worry about what the concept means in practice

Move  though against top down prescription

Comment

Evidence based practice we know is firmly on the political agenda, and will still be after the May election. There is cross party consensus on making sure that evidence informs practice and policy.

There have been attempts to synthesize the findings of educational research through the conduct of systematic research reviews (for example, the work of the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre at the Institute of Education in London), and attempts to make the outcomes of research more readily available to different educational constituencies (for example, Evidence-Based Education UK [EBE Network], a network for teachers who want to know ‘‘what works’’ in education. The Education Endowment Foundation is doing its best to point out which interventions work best in the classroom, based on evidence.

Proponents of evidence-based education stress that it is about time that educational research starts to follow the pattern that has created the kind of systematic improvement over time that has characterized successful parts of our economy and society throughout the twentieth century, in fields such as medicine, agriculture,  and so on. They suggest that the most important reason for the extraordinary advances in medicine, agriculture, and other fields is the acceptance by practitioners of evidence as the basis for practice, and particularly the randomized controlled trial  of the kind championed by Ben Goldacre that can establish beyond reasonable doubt the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of treatments intended for applied use.

But we are struggling to make the connection between high quality research that has been identified   as of practical use to a classroom teacher, and their students learning.   Part of the problem is that there is quite a lot of  conflicting research out there  that muddies the water and is, well, contradictory. Distinguishing between good empirical research and not so good is a challenge. Politicians and officials of course  have a long history of cherry picking evidence in support of political agendas which doesn’t help much either . Look at the polarised debate for example on Swedish Free schools. You can easily summon evidence both in support of Free schools and against ,  There is also a practical problem in incentivising the dissemination of research within a fragmented autonomous schools system. Some too have worries   over what they see as the managerial agenda of evidence-based education and its linear, top-down hierarchical approach  to educational improvement.  Research should really come from the bottom up, and top down prescription can, it is claimed, undermine professional  autonomy  and judgement.

Gert Biesta of  the University of Exeter claims that educational professionals need to make judgments about what is educationally desirable. Such judgments are by their very nature  ‘normative judgments’. He writes ‘ I have argued that to suggest that research about ‘‘what works’’ can replace such judgments not only implies an unwarranted leap from ‘‘is’’ to ‘‘ought,’’ but also denies educational practitioners the right not to act according to evidence about ‘‘what works’’ if they judge that such a line of action would be educationally undesirable’. . He continues ‘ there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relation between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves ‘  So the debate should not simply be a   technical one about what works-but one that is broader-  about what is desirable.

Carl Hendriks (Wellington Learning) and Tom Bennett at a recent conference on education research, articulated some of teachers concerns. Hendricks warned that evidence informed practice is a loaded, not neutral term.  It is not,  he said, about mandating a uniform or homogenised view of teaching. (Some teachers see it as a very personal attack on their own practice).  But Hendricks says it is about:

” Empowering teachers to harness the best available knowledge and evidence about teaching and then applying it in their own context using their professional judgement”   He wants  more informed practitioners” in constant dialogue with other teachers  and researchers”  There are two main Problems though -with capacity and implementation. How do you create the time and space for hard pressed teachers to get involved with research? And how do you meet the need to  mobilise high quality evidence,  presenting it to teachers, while  allowing teachers to reflect on it and how it can be  usefully applied in their own personal  context . Clearly though  teachers need to engage with a wider body of knowledge both subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, he said.

Tom Bennett says it shouldn’t be an evidence based profession but an evidence augmented profession-which  is very different. Teachers need from the ground up to engage with evidence. Research cant , for sure, he says, answer every question in education and indeed research is an ideological battleground  with  poor research  at times can hinder good teaching and learning. (Gary Klein the psychologist in his recent book on Insights reminds us that ‘research’ can obstruct in certain contexts  insights)  So, and here is a counter intuitive bombshell, the impact of research can actually be bad.  (Bennett cited the Brain Gym idea which purported to be evidence based but which he says  has been widely de-bunked) . Education is about craft too and teachers take years to develop their craft so its not just about accessing  the latest  evidence. A balanced approach is required to good teaching. There needs to be a research friend in schools, and schools need to nominate a research lead   with  researchers needing  to talk more to schools.. If teachers have a question they need to engage with research and reflect on it. . Research needs to be tamed and to be fully  integrated within the culture of schools, he said.

Clearly we are at the beginning of the debate on a research based profession, how best to apply research based practice in the classroom, and how to advance this agenda without alienating stakeholders. But one thing is for sure its now  firmly on the political  agenda . We need to  identify the best evidence on what works,  we need  also to look at areas where more good research is needed, we need to  make sure that  evidence   is read and understood by teachers , and we need to ensure that it can be applied not only in the classroom, at the chalk face, but is also integral to teachers’  professional development. In short, as the Sutton Trust recently pointed out ‘We need a profession with research, evidence and professional learning at its core’.

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