The Troubled Waters of Research & Classroom Practice, by @Lisa7Pettifer

The many pieces to the educational research puzzle

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Lisa Pettifer and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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[pullquote]Research should be optional for teachers; improving practice should be a requirement[/pullquote]

Heraclitus is often paraphrased, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” And like the river, the classes we teach will never be the same again, for having been taught, they are changed, and has changed, they require new teaching.

These are complex processes, interwoven with social and emotional erosion and deposition, with the transportation of other factors such as time of day, week, term or year, curriculum innovation, ability grouping, school ethos. Is the equipment of educational hydrometry sophisticated enough to gauge how well our efforts as teachers are causing our charges to discharge through the school system?

I am very much in favour of research, both as a tool for school improvement and a means of staff development. My school has previously operated the Teacher Learning Academy (introduced by the GTCE, later overseen by the College of Teachers) scheme and I was an accredited assessor; I’m fairly researching literate, having started the University of Cumbria’s MA in Education with their Systematic Enquiry unit, essentially a fairly rigorous introduction into the methodologies of educational research. And I’m not afraid of the maths – through studying Psychology at university before switching back into English, I’d grasped enough statistics to run chi-square, Wilcoxon and t- tests, to understand the statistical significance and standard deviations.

And yet…

There are so many pieces to the puzzle of educational research – and I wonder, with the many claims currently being made for schools to be more �?research – informed’, whether enough is known by teachers about what counts as research, who should be conducting it, for whose benefit, and where, and why and of course how. Assuming that the calls for more research in schools are backed by research evidence into the wisdom of this (and leaving aside the OECD point about how many new �?initiatives’ are introduced and never evaluated..), should schools be engaging with the smoother, deeper, broader, less turbulent channels of the rivers of university research, or with the steeper, rockier, narrower streams of our own contexts?

Many teachers in schools have some difficulty accessing university research, particularly if staff are not engaged on Masters level programmes. Some papers are available online as free PDFs, though these often have to be sought out and finds are more often serendipitous than systematic. I have to confess that I love this stuff, I read these papers wherever, whenever I can – out of interest, though, rather than any sense or measurement of their utility. Many teachers are aware of the recent petition calling for access to journals though this also makes me wonder how meaningfully schools could engage with this material, given the enormous volume of it. With whose findings would we engage? Why? How do we know these findings are generalizable to our own contexts? I read recently that few studies are replicated in educational research, and that of those that are, the ones that tend to come up with similar findings are where the same researchers work again on the same topic. Hmmm.

It has been said that pseudo-evidence, ideology (or just plain hokum) masquerading as research, has been responsible for the introduction of poor educational thinking into schools – Brain Gym, �?learning styles’ and the like – but many teachers were not aware of where this �?evidence’ came from in the first place…Many swallowed these ideas along with the rest and just as we are subject to conflicting pieces of dietary evidence in the media – “Eggs good”, “Eggs bad”, “Wine good”, “Wine bad” – so we are similarly, regularly, force-fed indigestible initiatives relating to what works in education and how we should be teaching.

Earlier this year, Education Week ran an article entitled “Differentiation Doesn’t Work” – it was greeted with some cheers and “I told you so”s. Barely a fortnight later, this article followed, “Differentiation Does, in fact, Work”!
And so these debates start to take on pantomime proportions. “Flipped learning is great.”

“Oh no it isn’t.”

“Oh yes it is”

“SOLO is brilliant.’

“Oh no…” and on we go.

Where does this leave the teacher keen to find the best way of teaching 10Eng Set Z?

So the puzzle becomes more complicated, as we are told by governments who introduce politically- rather than educationally-motivated policies, which haven’t been trialled and won’t be evaluated, that we should be more research-informed and evidence-driven. There is little professional voice en-masse in education and teachers are, not for the first or last time, frustrated when changes are brought in to our working practices which we believe will not work, will not bring about the desired improvements. Implementing all these changes eat into the time teachers could be spent learning how to construct and conduct appropriate classroom-based research.

I am reassured that I am not the only one to struggle to square the circle of the research issue. @wellylearning shared this – Dr Simon P Walker outlines, in �?Taming the Wild West of Educational Research’, a number of areas where the square peg and the round hole are still being expected to accommodate one another:

“Beware the heavy boot of higher education. In the perceived academic hierarchy of the British mind, universities look down on secondary schools, which look down on primary schools. For their own reasons (to do with funding amongst other things) universities are piling into school research right now. Their presence is welcomed, their expertise in research design and analysis is vital. However, they generally have slightly less interest in actually improving school education as opposed to measuring things designed to improve it. Teachers want to improve things; this is a noble and arguably more important goal and we need to ensure the �?doers of teaching’ retain control over the �?measurers of education’ ”

And I am significantly heartened by Andy Tharby’s Reflecting English post. Starting from a similar point to myself “about how and whether our education system would benefit from becoming better research-informed”, Andy outlines the gradual implementation of “a range of forms of research” at his school. A number of effective plans are explained, highlighting a number of important themes- the new system needs to be made to complement existing/previous CPD priorities, needs to offer different routes for different staff and needs to meet the school’s own priorities. Read his �?Hearts and Minds’ section a couple of times and tell me you don’t wish him well in his project.

I’m also feeling more confident about the �?how to’ part of my anxiety, having built up a collection now of superb posts from @DrGaryJones – Gary’s productivity in January has been amazing… There’s so much in this series that will be so useful to many teachers and schools.

My thanks also go to @c_hendrick for this and to this. It’s good to hear from Carl, and to see through @wellylearning, how research projects are actually working at the classroom level. The Wellington approach seems to be energetic – teacher learning and student learning seem to go hand in hand.

Given the key findings of the Sutton Trust report – it surely is time for teachers and schools to be decided, in relation their own contexts, which aspects of professional and subject knowledge development constitute “great teaching” and providing these for the benefit of pupils – aspects of research may be part of this process, but I don’t think it should be seen as a panacea, any more than differentiation, PLTS, interactive whiteboards or card-sort activities. Not yet, anyway.

As Dylan William reminded, “Research should be optional for teachers; improving practice should be a requirement”

There are many routes to improvement. The rivers keep on running.

Lisa7PettiferLisa Pettifer is based in Cumbria (UK), and describes herself as a CPD leader, English Teacher, Education junkie, ‘UK teacher’ facebook page, usually drowning in marking. Blog ‘Over the Rainbow‘. You can follow Lisa on Twitter via @Lisa7Pettifer.

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