Learning and Teaching amount to very complex processes and, anyone who has been a Teacher will probably not disagree with the fact that the pupils are often the biggest variable. I think very much of the fortunate probationary who gets three S1 classes in a row that are at the same stage in their course of study. The same lesson is taught, using the same techniques and strategies and is superb during Period 1, a bit of a train wreck Period 2, and somewhere in between for Period 3. Indeed, this demonstrates my point for them first hand. The reason for this is that education rests upon three core message systems: that of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy and where there are messages, there has also to be interpretation, and this sits at the heart of the complexity. As a multifarious and dynamic social activity, learning essentially involves individuals interpreting messages. It is folly to assume that all of the pupils in front of you understand the ‘messages’ you convey at a given point the same way that you do in your own head (though it would be nice if they did!). Hailed as the so called ‘gold standard’ of research, Clinical Investigators could employ a randomised control trial (RCT) to show that treatment X, will have effect Y for patients with known physiological condition Z. In this scenario the condition is both known and suitably defined, the treatment is absolutely constant (all the pills are equal) and the underlying mechanisms at work do not suddenly decide they would rather chat with their neighbour for a few minutes about the football last night. Surprisingly, RTCs are now being promoted as the way to ‘drive up’ standards of Educational Research (See Department for Education) and, though there may be some instances in which they could be useful, I am unclear as to how you can (or more correctly, if you should) ensure that all of the pills teach the same way. So why is it that Educational Research is perhaps misunderstood?
I would argue, in line with the compelling arguments set forth by Gert Biesta (2007), that all stakeholders in Education need to have clarity about what Educational Research actually does and what our associated expectations are. The fact that teaching and learning are somewhat unpredictable and dynamic social processes means that we cannot simply ‘prescribe’ an off-the-shelf strategy for a pupil who is struggling with an aspect of learning – and administer it. This requires entirely, the judgement of the Professional Teacher. I recall a conversation I had with a more experienced Teacher during my own probation in which he said I would be initially very tired because of the sheer number of judgements and decisions I will have to make in a single day. He was absolutely correct. In a sense, teaching is actually about the art of making successive judgements and decisions that aim to maximise learning for all pupils. This, I would argue, is where good Educational Research enters the picture.
Educational Research is not something that can ever guarantee that as a Teacher, if you do X you will get Y – this is simply impossible. For those involved in Education, it is critical that expectations reflect this fact and do not become misplaced and inappropriate. The true impact of Educational Research is realised when it is fused within the decision-making and reflective processes of Teachers. This, I would suggest, is my ultimate message. Good Educational Research is there to positively shape the judgements and decision-making of Teachers (as is very much the case for me). It can change perspectives, approaches, and professional values, deepen the understanding, provide insight and ultimately enhance the ability to make decisions for those pupils being taught. Perhaps controversially, I would argue that even an exceptional teacher will be better with considered use of Educational Research as part of their practice.
Recet work on this area was jointly undertaken by the British Educational Research Association and the Royal Society of Arts. Details of the large scale inquiry that was undertaken can be accessed here.
Many of the views in this post are described in greater detail by Gert Biesta and I would strongly encourage you to have a read at his paper:
Biesta, G. (2007) ‘Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-Base Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research.’ Educational Theory, 57, 1-22.