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Blog post Practitioner research and commentary in a networked society

Academic or practitioner? Border-crossings and close-to-practice research

John Leach, Leeds Trinity University

My professional career started in the mid-1980s. It has involved a journey from school teaching into higher education: I have worked as a research fellow, lecturer, professor and university senior manager. For most of that time I’ve felt that society views what I do with benign disinterest – people are vaguely pleased that somebody ‘does that stuff’, but that’s about as far as it goes. However, on a few occasions the tide has turned and I’ve found myself having to defend what I do because it is under attack. Those of us who were educational researchers in the mid-1990s were tarred by the Hillage report with the brush of addressing questions that were irrelevant to the concerns of teachers, spending money to generate statements of the obvious, and using the disguise of research to pursue (usually left-leaning) ideology (Hillage, Pearson, Anderson, & Tamkin, 1998).

I was young and idealistic in those days, and this critique really stung. I still identified with the teaching profession – I had only just been awarded my part-time PhD, and did not see myself as an ivory-towered academic. I kept a foot on either side of the research-practice border, and was incensed by the false dichotomy between ‘researcher’ and ‘practitioner’ that was being suggested. Most of us who work in educational research are also ‘practitioners’ of various kinds. Some of us used to be school teachers. Many of us teach students in higher education, or conduct continuing professional development (CPD) for professionals, or provide input about policy and practice to government and others with an interest. How very dare they?

My field is science education, and my work involved collaboration with teachers to find out more about how young people think about the phenomena that we introduce in science lessons, and to draw upon those insights to design teaching that was more comprehensible to the young people who had to experience it. This played to the zeitgeist of the time: improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning to make the economy more competitive, getting more young people to keep studying science, and so on.

And yet, in my darker moments I felt that there was just a grain of truth behind the critique. We had a new researcher join our group who came straight from a school teaching job. I vividly remember my excitement at accompanying him to his first conference, but he was incredulous that the conclusions of papers about his area of practice (school science teaching) went way beyond the evidence, and that some papers’ conclusions were ‘just obvious’ – and that Professor X was incapable of ‘proving’ through research anything that (s)he didn’t think before starting. It took a pair of ‘fresh practitioner eyes’ to open mine.

The problem was not with educational research in general, but with specific cases of research about practice. Close-to-practice research is the term that BERA is using to describe research focussing on issues defined by practitioners as relevant to their practice, and that involves collaboration between people whose main expertise is research, practice, or both. The education sub-panel from the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), in its report at the end of the exercise, noted the varied quality of close-to-practice research. While the best was world-leading, much was of more modest quality. In response, BERA produced a statement on high quality close-to-practice research (BERA, 2018). Rather than researcher- (or teacher-) bashing, the statement attempts to provide practical guidance on quality.

Quality does not depend on where the researcher works. However, the quality of close-to-practice research will be undermined if practitioners are not closely involved in the research process at all stages. Because close-to-practice research is conducted in specific locations, theory must be drawn upon to explain findings and consider factors in extending conclusions beyond the research location. Methodology and design must be presented and justified to underpin the validity of knowledge claims.

‘Close-to-practice research moves beyond reflective practice to justify and warrant knowledge claims with transparent methodology, design and theorisation.’

Reflection on practice is clearly ‘a good thing’ that should be encouraged and developed through CPD. However, close-to-practice research moves beyond reflective practice to justify and warrant knowledge claims with transparent methodology, design and theorisation. Practitioners can be, are and have long been researchers as well. Researchers can investigate sites of others’ practice, working with them, with each participant bringing distinct skills, insight and expertise to the research process. And – critically – it is acceptable for different parties to have different perspectives on the same locus of practice.

Nobody can say whether the BERA statement (2018) will make a positive impact on the quality of research into classroom teaching that is being conducted. However, I would like to think that it will at least put the right questions into people’s minds about the nature of high-quality close-to-practice research.

References

British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2018). Close-to-Practice Educational Research: A BERA Statement. London. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/bera-statement-on-close-to-practice-research

Hillage, J., Pearson, R., Anderson, A., & Tamkin, P. (1998). Hillage Report: Excellence in research on schools. Institute for Employment Studies, DfEE Research Report RR74.  London: Department for Employment and Education.