“Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story . . .” – Hamlet
‘Research’, like any other word, can acquire and shift meanings. In the last few years we have seen a shift in usage from research as quantitative evidence to much more fluid ideas around qualitative and descriptive ‘data’.
Likewise, we used to talk about ‘research-based’, but now we talk about ‘research-informed’ practice. But unless we have criteria for establishing what research is worth being informed by, the phrase is meaningless. Like every other semantic shift in the endless parade of political ideas masquerading as educational practice, placing ‘professional judgement’ and ‘teacher autonomy’ above – or even on a par with – hard evidence is a way of giving ourselves permission to do whatever we like. It only takes a few vacuous blogs, effusive ‘Principal’s Welcome’ pages on school websites, or a glance at school performance appraisal policies to see that very fuzzy ideas abound in education.
At this point the common objection is that hard evidence is impossible to come by in education; that we have to accept that learning is primarily a social interaction, that the relationships in the classroom are the most important thing and that each teacher has make a judgement in their context as to what they will do. While relationships are obviously important, that is true in every human context, and it is an entirely separate issue from whether teachers engage in the most effective practices. The refusal to believe that there are some practices which are more effective than others is a deeply held conviction by many educators, at least many that I have worked with, and many I have encountered on social media.
Can there really be a set of effective practices? What would they look like? How would we know? And even if there were, wouldn’t it be a terrible loss to teacher creativity and classroom spontaneity, which are much more important to student motivation?
In short, yes, there are such practices, and some of them have been validated over decades, replicated through single-subject and group designs. The evidence in favour of certain practices is very strong, but knowledge of this research within teaching communities is scant to say the least. As Professor Graham Nuthall said, teaching is more of a craft than a profession, and we build our practice more on folklore than on evidence. It takes time to get to grips with decades of research literature, and teachers are busy people.
We wouldn’t, of course, accept this approach in, for example, medicine or aeronautics. No one these days would expect to see a doctor who cares more about autonomy than evidence, or to fly in an aircraft designed by an engineer who values creativity above correct procedure. The old chestnut that medicine is a ‘hard’ science and teaching isn’t, is plain wrong – medicine is intensely personal, highly subjective and often requires a great deal of inference. Doctors still get things wrong, but the improvement in medical practice, and its impact on society over the last century, have been nothing short of astounding. This did not happen because the medical profession argued about what research is, or what good practice is. It happened because there was a consensus to learn from evidence, or people would suffer and die, and that wasn’t acceptable. Yes, there are plenty of examples of poor practice, but they stand in contrast to the enormous progress that has been made.
Teachers, too, could take a more robust view of what constitutes evidence, and a much clearer view of what constitutes effective research. Neither busyness nor philosophical arguments should deter us from a fundamental quest to equip our students with the best tools we can, as early as possible. The alternative is to accept the status quo: 20% of students in secondary school struggling to read and write; millions of adults unable to deal with daily reading requirements of the most basic nature – signs, forms, newspapers. The great majority of these students – usually labeled ‘dyslexic’ – need nothing more than effective teaching. If we knew the evidence, we would act differently, and students would have better outcomes.
There is a commendable move afoot to establish research leads in schools, but there is also a risk that the movement will falter and fade because the initiative had too much freedom and not enough rigour. Schools do not need so much to conduct research themselves as ensure that their staff are familiar with the most important literature and that they are required to implement the findings of robust research faithfully. That may reduce some teacher autonomy, but autonomy is less important in education than it was; the more we know as a body, the less room we have to exercise our own preferences in spite of the evidence. Until we are familiar with the literature, and how to sort the wheat from the chaff, we are not in a position to decide what further research needs to be carried out. Through knowledge, we will save ourselves enormous work, and our students will not need to be guinea pigs whose education is sacrificed by our ignorance.
Can we imagine how the profession might be different in two or three decades? Perhaps we might have a truly research-informed profession, where all new teachers require at least two additional years of training to master’s level; where a year of becoming familiar with educational research and how to evaluate it is compulsory; where a year of actually undertaking research and submitting it for academic assessment ensures that teachers have a grasp the practical difficulties. There would be a major shift in the way in which teacher recruitment and training are resourced and organized; the master’s level pathway would be slower, and more costly, but likely result in greater retention and more effective practice. School managers, who currently often have a very good grasp of the latest Ofsted handbook but less so the useful findings of the last fifty years in educational research, would have to be a different breed in order to lead professional debate rather than suppress it.
It cannot happen overnight, but it must happen, because otherwise we are saying that our personal choice is more important than our students’ outcomes. But we are not consumers in a market; we are those in whom a great trust has been placed. A future with more of the same grinding inequality will perpetuate outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society. We have the opportunity to establish a different future, but I sense that the window is closing fast. The democratisation of education through social media and debate may have already seen its heyday; increasingly, the discourse is aggressive, and increasingly, the bureaucrats are gaining back control of the levers of power.
Knowledge of educational research is the best way to challenge political and ideological initiatives that do not serve students, that squander resources and stunt the growth of the profession. All teachers have a responsibility to confront the issues. We do not have to agree – not at first – but we should be working towards a professional consensus based on the best knowledge we have.
I am optimistic, if only because there really isn’t any alternative.
PS: This post by Jon Brunskill resonated with me and articulates some key reasons why primary school education will benefit from greater exposure to the findings of robust research.