I quoted workload, marking specifically, as my excuse not to attend the NTEN ResearchED at Huntington School in York yesterday.
Instead, I found myself watching the event unfold via live streaming (@livestream) on and off throughout the day. On another device, I kept an eye on the blue Notification button, responding as the button lit up to many live tweets from various sessions of the day. Not surprisingly, keeping in touch with the education research community became the real “work”.
I managed to tune in for parts of Jonathan Sharples’s “The Learning Brain” session, Alex Quigley’s “The Confident Teacher”, and the session, aporetically entitled “Idiocracy: how did we get so stupid?” asked by Tom Bennett, iterating the need for teachers to take control of their destiny by engaging in and with research.
It is the relationship between teachers and research that preoccupied my mind.
Teachers and research: a love-hate relationship
It is fair to say that the relationship between teachers and research is an uneasy one. It is also no exaggeration to state that many teachers harbour a suspicious, if not outright dismissive, attitude to research. Look around the room in your next CPD when a research paper is cited. This is precisely where some of the ambivalent attitudes originate. The root of such tension lies in “who” and “for what”. More often then not, any research paper used in school inset days is likely to be chosen by the management team for a variety of purposes, ranging from behaviour management to effective learning and teaching styles. Few are selected by staff themselves; even fewer are directly relevant to their subject areas. Eye-rolling in the audience seems inevitable.
Maintaining a top-down power structure may be essential to perpetuate an autocratic hierarchy. Suspicion from the grass-root aside, providing an astute leadership is in place, guidance based on research evidence may not be met with open hostility. However, such is a precarious situation for any organisation. One only needs to think about Manchester United’s sudden change of fortune after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. Perhaps, a bottom-up reversal of CPD approach is an experiment worth trialling. If anything, trust can be a powerful motivator. If we preach the merit of independent learning and encourage our students to do so to build resilience, why can’t we practise what we preach in our own professional development?
Another possible source of staff resistance of research is the result of the perceived gap between the practice of teaching in the classroom and the educational research based at universities (McIntyre, 2005). Four decades after Hoyle (1972) and Stenhouse (1975), “extended professionalism” has moved beyond curriculum design to classroom research, also promulgated by David Hargreaves’s (1998) “creative professionalism”. Recent abolition of National Curriculum Levels in student assessment and other changes in GCSE and A-level seem to have reinvigorated the development of teacher professionalism in curriculum innovation, this time with assessment design as a bolt-on. Tom Bennett is right therefore to highlight that there is no excuse for teachers to be stupefied by particularly research with dubious claims and associations (gamified learning for example); it is time for teachers to take their destinies in their own hands. Engaging in, and interacting with, research is the first step to real teacher empowerment.
What is research? Debunking the myth
What is research? Possibly the most common answer will be along the lines of “systematic investigation”. Possibly the most common response to research is that it belongs to the academia. Both assertions are right, but only in parts. For the notion of a systematic investigation presupposes a methodology that requires some form of specialised knowledge or skills that can only be obtained through formal training. With this knowledge, one can then approach a question with an appropriate system to produce a desirable outcome. Then there is the “investigation”. The word conjures up close scrutiny that is typically associated with negative connotations as if to investigate is to find faults. Together, “systematic investigation” spells formality, intimidation and it seems lofty, just as remote as the dreaming spires of the academe.
The reality is, we conduct “research” in our daily existence. Many of our decisions are results of some tacit knowledge that has been generated by a systematic approach to a question. For example, to find out how to get to one’s new school, one considers how to go about finding out the answer. One may begin by consulting an AA Atlas; one can also look up the interactive Google Maps which suggests a variety of ways and routes with estimated travelling distances and times; finally, one asks one’s friends who are familiar with the journey. Then one makes an “informed” decision. If one wants to, one can always try out the chosen route to see what the road condition or scenery is like. The whole process from identifying a question, forming a system of methods (methodology), producing outcomes and to arriving at (pardon the pun) a conclusion is research. A variety of research methods are employed. Except we either do not describe many of our daily activities as research (that would have sounded absurd) or are unaware of our innate ability to solve problems.
Good research, bad research
The way in which research is referred to in the education community is also problematic. In professional, academic and managerial discourses, the word “research” is usually premodified by “evidence-based”. Evidenced-based research (EBR) was first coined by Archibald Cochrane. It “seeks the conscientious, explicit and judicious identification, evaluation and use of the best evidence currently available” (Chiappelli, et al, 2006) to provide the best possible patient care in clinical practice. Such approach has also been adopted in education and promoted as the a favoured form of research that commands true value in educational discourse. True, evidence is key to persuasion, and many research studies aim to persuade us to agree with their way of viewing the world. However, it does not necessary follow that all evidence-based research is “good research”. First of all, evidence itself can be misleading.
Not all evidence is trustworthy. The generation of evidence, the selection of evidence and the interpretation of evidence are all susceptible to bias and context dependent. Moreover, evidence alone does not necessary lead us to a satisfactory conclusion, however plausible it may sound. “Weather forecasting stone” exposes such vulnerability of “evidence-based research”. Each piece of evidence can lead to a variety of explanations if the meteorological context is removed. For example, “Stone is wet” (evidence) can easily be the result of someone emptying his/her water bottle on it. What the “weather forecasting stone” scenario really illustrates is the danger of a blind belief in pseudo science rather than relying on one’s own ability to recognise common situation. Sometimes, events are so crystal clear to our understanding and knowledge of the world that no further evidence seems to be necessary.
In the world of education, the blind belief in evidence-based research can easily be seized upon and manipulated to exert pedagogical dominance by interest groups. Tom Bennett’s paronomasia “Vak off” and anadiplosis “no brains in brain gym” may sound flippant, there is a more serious message in his playful rhetoric, namely, as teachers, we must learn to trust our own professional knowledge. It is imperative that as teachers we reassert ourselves so that “teacher voice” can be heard in the educational discourses that have been in recent years dominated by the monolithic master narrative outlined by Teachers’ Standards which are prescribed and insisted upon by the administrative agencies and policy makers such as Ofsted and the Department for Education (Furlong et al, 2000).
In the end, it is teacher voice that Tom Bennett wants, really, really wants. To allow teachers’ voice to be heard, Tom Bennett is calling for teachers to engage in, and interact with, research. The solution is manifold. Many schools have already started fostering a culture of research through teacher involvement. It is absolutely crucial that such research culture is carefully cultivated without over privileging one type of research over another. Formal research usually requires human, technical and even material resources that perhaps are best provided by institutions such as universities and other research organisations. Nevertheless, unconventional research methodologies such as self-study and narrative inquiry, auto-ethnographical in character, deserve more attention from teachers who are aspired to extend their professionalism through examining their own practice (Whitehead, 1989).
Ultimately, teacher professional voice and professional knowledge in schools rely on a meritocratic structure that value genuine research over partisan policies or pedagogical dogma driven by ideological imperatives or economic absolutism.