New research proves that research is great: The RSA/Bera report on the future of teaching

18th May 2014 at 18:43



This week saw a report launched by Bera (British Educational Research Association) and the RSA (Royal Society for the Arts) called Research and the Teaching Profession, following on from the interim report The Role of Research In Teaching Education published in January.


Person responsible for thing, likes thing


I'll get the easy possible criticisms out of the way first. The headline for this report could easily be, "Investigation commissioned by educational research body concludes that educational research is jolly important". Furthermore, another headline could read, "Educational researchers working in teacher-training institutions say yes to teacher-training institutions and no to alternatives that don't involve teacher-training institutions". Both those headlines would be true, however unkind. Joe Hallgarten of the RSA wrote on his blog that he found Bera's approach to be refreshingly sincere and neutral. And I'm sure it was. 


The report sought to investigate the impact educational research could have to play in the improvement of schools, teacher practice and student learning. The report claims that the evidence they looked at shows:


  • ?Internationally, enquiry-based (or ‘research-rich’) school and college environments are the hallmark of high performing education systems. ?
  • To be at their most effective, teachers and teacher educators need to engage with research and enquiry – this means keeping up to date with the latest developments in their academic subject or subjects and with developments in the discipline of education. ?
  • Teachers and teacher educators need to be equipped to engage in enquiry- oriented practice. This means having the capacity, motivation, confidence and opportunity to do so. ?
  • A focus on enquiry-based practice needs to be sustained during initial teacher education programmes and throughout teachers’ professional careers, so that disciplined innovation and collaborative enquiry are embedded within the lives of schools or colleges and become the normal way of teaching and learning, rather than the exception.


And it has several recommendations that I can't do anything but endorse. 


In summary, they are:


  1. ?First, the content of teacher education programmes may be informed by research-based knowledge and scholarship, emanating from a range of academic disciplines and epistemological traditions. ?
  2. Second, research can be used to inform the design and structure of teacher education programmes. ?
  3. Third, teachers and teacher educators can be equipped to engage with and be discerning consumers of research. ?
  4. Fourth, teachers and teacher educators may be equipped to conduct their own research, individually and collectively, to investigate the impact of particular interventions or to explore the positive and negative effects of educational practice.


Edu-research Pokemon 


In some ways, these kind of recommendations are omnipopular because, like the proposed RCT, or the CT (or whatever the hell it wants to call itself now), it reflects the ambitions of anyone who conceives of it. This is what I call "Research Pokémon", where interested parties possess a view that they then seek to defend with cherry-picked papers and pet researchers. They then use these as proxies and champions against other, Pokémon-style. It's Edu-research Top Trumps: Vygotsky: Zone of Proximal Development 9 vs Daniel Willingham: Learning Styles 3, etc.


The first two recommendations are, one would have hoped, already the state of play. Sadly, they aren't, and I see many students come through a process of teacher training not with a critically assessed, defensible methodology, but with conditioned responses and learned dogma of their tutors. This is learned helplessness. No student should leave teacher training with the view that, eg, VARK is undisputed and collaborative learning is the preferred default of deep learning, without understanding the disputes that churn beneath them. 


The third recommendation interests me particularly because of my role as founder of researchED, a non-profit conference organisation designed to bring teachers and researchers together, and to help to disseminate the best research into classrooms. We're a small, but, I hope, significant part of a new appetite for such engagement. I don't know if it would even have been possible without the democratising possibilities of new social media, but it is. One of the most liberating experiences of my teaching career has been taking a short sabbatical to study educational research at university. It transformed the way I saw my relationship with research: instead of being helpless and dumb, it made me feel a potency and responsibility that was simultaneously intoxicating and terrifying. God was dead; we killed him. Now, anything was possible. I think this Hydean draught can be as much an elixir for others. At the very least, it can make your appreciation of snake oil more robust. No teacher with a drop of reason and method could take Brain Gym for anything other than a mystical claim based on bull$hit and front. 


The fourth point is also to be recommended: engaging with research oneself. Now, I don't see this as a necessary condition for all teachers, who frankly have a lot of child-shaped plates to keep spinning. Rather, I see this as a career specialism for teachers interested in that path. They could – hopefully should – stay in schools and act as research champions for their colleagues; not incontrovertible authorities, but gatekeepers to a conversation between teachers and research. This is also something I hope we can achieve with researchED, acting almost as a clearing house between organisations already set up to conduct research, and teachers who have both a responsibly and a right to be part of the process rather than consumers or cogs. 


As John Furlong states in his foreword to the report, "We have moved from an emphasis on evidence in the interim report to a focus on action in this document."


The chalk-dust revolution


And that's where we come in, dear teacher comrades. Because I have an action plan of my own in mind that you might like to consider. For as long as I've been a teacher, I've noticed that the only time anyone asks the monkeys – that's us, incidentally – anything is when... Actually, no one ever asks us anything. There isn't any kind of formal, or informal mechanism to express teacher voice in this game. Every other party gets sampled more often than the James Brown: student voice, parent surveys, etc. But teachers don't get a look-in. Even muggers ask their victims more questions. 


Enough. You might as well wait for the Russians to apologise and tip-toe backwards out of the Crimea. There are many games afoot in the Olympian stratocumulus of our educational overlords, from speculative attempts to birth Royal Colleges of Teaching to earthquakes in teacher training in past years. And these are profoundly important.


But I suggest that we don't wait for a Messianic age; I suggest we start getting busy from the ground up. I've long argued for an end to the top-down, linear, prescriptive gauntlet that teachers normally experience as far as research is concerned: given to us like stone tablets in the nativity of our careers, and thereafter only revisited as a cosh and a cudgel when someone decides to justify a pet dogma. Copper coins in arcade penny slot machines have more autonomy. So I suggest we:


Become research literate

  • Familiarise ourselves with research methods, both in the social sciences and the natural sciences
  • Understand for ourselves what the differences are between the methods, and what the strengths and weaknesses are
  • Be responsible for the major theories of educational research in the last few hundred years, and by what methods they have been obtained
  • Be demanding. When someone at school introduces an initiative, ask for the evidence that substantiates it. Of course, there might not be any because many projects of leadership are speculative or value-driven, and so they should be. At least you'll have understood the grounds upon which you're expected to proceed
  • School leaders (of any level): be critical of any project you plan to unleash on your staff. Is it well grounded? Or are you at risk of wasting their time with your own hobby horse?


Those simple steps are part of the process whereby we emerge from our chrysalises as active participants and critical friends of the research leviathan. It was asked yesterday if research-literate teachers could end the top down model of education research, and some Cassandras said no, it couldn't, because the big players in teacher training, Ofsted and Sanctuary Buildings still pull all the strings.


But imagine a world where teachers made it difficult to implement any old rubbish because they didn't buy into it at a molecular level. Imagine a world where those teachers have slain their rivals and won the Iron Thrones of SLT (that's how it still works, right?), and then refused to hire the homeopaths and consultants that promise to charm the rats from your classrooms; where they adopt strategies that either have an empirical grounding, or at least aren't confounded by what data does exist; where they challenged inspectors on the grounds of irrationality and lack of evidence; where they populated governing bodies and LEAs and academy chains. 


Right now, all we can do is imagine it. But nothing is more powerful than an idea. 


More info on researchED here