Jim Hordern

The neglect of practice

Jim Hordern Bath Spa University Friday 14 December 2018

Many BERA members will be very familiar with terms such as evidence-informed practice, evidence-based practice and research-engaged teaching. The recent BERA close-to-practice research project is the latest in a flurry of work focussing on the relationship between research and educational practice. There is widespread recognition internationally of the need for high-quality educational research that is relevant to practice, and of the importance of teachers’ research literacy.

However, within such debates there has been minimal reflection on how practice itself is being conceptualised. In much of the literature ‘practice’ or ‘practices’ are often read as synonymous with teachers’ activities, or are understood as just what teachers do, with occasionally some discussion of accompanying reflective processes. Practices are often presented as available for remodelling, change and improvement. While some practice may be of good quality, it is usually thought that this quality can only be established through external validation (via the ‘evidence’ produced by high quality research).

‘Many commentators on evidence-informed practice are implicitly working with what Rouse calls a “regularist” conception of practice, which is somewhat limiting and can lead to any habitual or regular activity being labelled as a practice.’

My suggestion is that many commentators on evidence-informed practice are implicitly working with what Rouse (2007) calls a ‘regularist’ conception of practice. This understanding of practice, which has been influential across the social sciences, can lead to the assumption that any habitual or regular activity can be labelled as a practice. Numerous traditions of inquiry in the social sciences have made use of this understanding to provide sophisticated descriptions of people’s activities or their ‘exhibited regularities’ (Rouse, 2007) in various occupational or everyday settings.

However, this understanding of practice is somewhat limiting. Instead, discussions about the relationship between research and practice may fruitfully advance by turning to what Rouse (2007) calls a ‘normative’ conception of practice. The normative conception suggests that not all habitual activities should necessarily be defined as practices. Normative practices have certain characteristics that hold them together over time, such as shared purposes and ‘mutual accountability’ (Rouse, 2007) – to which we might also add criteria of excellence and demonstrable public value (Hager, 2011). In such practices there is a shared understanding that there is ‘something at stake’, but that our strategies in pursuing the practice are ‘always prospective’ (Rouse, 2007), and therefore open to adaptation in the face of new, compelling insights. Practice participants are at the centre of evaluative judgements about their practice, but not to the exclusion of new understandings that may lead them to reframe their thinking and activity. Noddings (2003) provides a convincing argument for why teaching should be considered a practice.

Normative notions of practice have considerable implications for how we think about teachers’ knowledge and expertise. As Winch (2010) has pointed out, expertise is only possible where normative procedures are maintained to evaluate knowledge claims. These can only be maintained by a disciplinary or professional community that takes responsibility for building and sustaining a knowledge base so that new claims can be assessed appropriately and the knowledge base adapted accordingly (Hordern, 2018). As Winch (2010), Hager (2011) and Rouse (2007) all indicate, none of this is possible without a mutually agreed, rather than externally imposed, idea of the purpose of the practice, and internal accountability within the practitioner community for that purpose.

What are the implications of this for evidence-informed practice? I think we need to shift the focus of the debate onto practice itself, and consider the social and organisational implications of the normative conception. We need to continually ask what the purpose of any educational practice is and what it could be. Who should be part of this practice – both teachers and educational researchers? How should they be involved? What could strengthen mutual accountability and professional community, and what is hindering it? Where are the norms and standards for assessing claims to expertise; who is involved in sustaining them, and what might undermine them? Durable models of research-engaged teaching and close-to-practice research may well depend on a strengthened concept of educational practice, and this could have implications for how all those interested in education think and act – including educational researchers.


References

Hager, P. (2011). Refurbishing MacIntyre’s Account of Practice. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45(3), 545–561.

Hordern, J. (2018). Educational knowledge: Traditions of inquiry, specialisation and practice. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 26(4), 577–591.

Noddings, N. (2003). Is teaching a practice? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37(2), 241–251.

Rouse, J. (2007). Social Practices and Normativity. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 37(1), 46–56.

Winch, C. (2010). Dimensions of Expertise. London: Continuum.


Jim Hordern is reader in educational studies at Bath Spa University. His research interests are in educational knowledge and practice, particularly in higher, professional and vocational education. He is currently involved in work on evidence-informed practice, curriculum reform and comparative studies of teacher education.