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Living with Research

Lisa Pettifer

The English education system is riddled with contradictions and the call for teaching to become more of a research based profession is just one of them. This call raises a number of problems for teachers, many of whom cite contradictions in the notion of educational research itself.

Part of this tension lies in the distance between the abstracted adult academic notion of research as objective overview or investigation and the immediate and unpredictable physical world of childhood. This is more than a split between the worlds of theory and practice: it’s to do with conflicting views of scale, perceptions of relevance and the human essence of individual contexts. And essentially it’s about the mutual suspicion that can exist between any one party and an ‘other’. For most teachers, university days are a distant memory; many of us live in rural, coastal, outlying districts where there are few HEIs with whom to engage and teacher workload is prohibitive in terms of engagement with new initiatives.

Then there are the tensions of policy recommendations which support the credibility of research claims over and above the experience and judgment of teachers in their day to day roles. Teachers know that for every researched claim saying that Practice X works, there will be others saying that it doesn’t. Some professionally researched findings trigger indignation among teachers – when experienced practitioners chorus ‘we could have told you that’ up and down the land, the profession as a whole wonder why their opinions are not trusted allowed to carry the same weight in policy circles.

Some research-backed initiatives will be promoted; others won’t. And it’s not the quality of research, or the needs of teachers, as perceived by teachers themselves, that decides

Calls for a research-based profession reach the point of hypocrisy when authorities appear to ignore recommendations by not supporting research findings that run counter to prevailing policy. Lots of research recently has pointed to the quality of teaching as the key factor in student progress. You’d think then, that developing this would become something of a focus. A recent multi-agency report ‘Developing Great Teaching’ has called for more long-term commitment to and processes in CPDL, continued professional development ‘and learning’, yet time and financial resourcing for staff development are often the first provisions to be cut when budgets are tight. Some research-backed initiatives will be promoted; others won’t. And it’s not the quality of research, or the needs of teachers, as perceived by teachers themselves, that decides.

‘Research-backed’ claims about particular pedagogical practices, as distinct from teacher development, are responsible for the launching into schools reams of new materials, schemes and delivery programmes, and teachers are left to feel like the failures if these initiatives don’t achieve the desired impact. Questioning the validity of the initial claims – especially regarding ‘imported’ and decontextualized pedagogical solutions – seem not to be allowed.

At the other end of the scale, teachers are beginning to undertake more small-scale, context-specific enquiry projects, based on in-house student need. For these to be successful, for them to add value to the learning and lives of teachers and pupils, a degree of expertise is needed and we do need the help of academic mentors for this. In my ideal world of education, it’s crucial that the proposed College of Teaching takes on an intermediary role here. The teaching profession needs a national representative body which, through its reach, provision and influence, can transcend the barriers of time, distance and academic unfamiliarity.

I’m heartened by Jack Whitehead’s recent BERA blog and the case he makes for an appreciation of two different spheres, that of education research and its associated disciplines and the “living” world of educational research, based within and around the practices of teaching professionals. With a recognition of the validity of both of these dimensions, it is possible that a meaningful new knowledge and investigation base for the improvement of teaching, learning and school communities could be developed.