A plus for the sum of knowledge

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Anthea Millett laments the negative response to the Teacher Training Agency's research grants.

Most teachers and researchers would agree that teaching can and should be informed by high-quality research. So why is there still so much disagreement about the role teachers can play in carrying out such research? Why, in fact, do some members of the traditional research community behave as though there is an automatic distinction between teachers and researchers, a line dividing them that neither can cross?

These questions were thrown into relief for me by recent articles in The TES about our teacher research grant scheme. Under this scheme 33 teachers have succeeded in winning a share of Pounds 60,000 from the Teacher Training Agency in order to carry out classroom-based research. We are very proud of the scheme, which is supporting some promising projects. But we are only too aware that it is on a relatively small scale compared to the projects costing Pounds 35 million undertaken by traditional higher education researchers.

How unfortunate, then, that Michael Bassey felt obliged to strike a defensive note (TES, September 13) in pointing out that "educational research is, of course, much bigger than research into classroom practice"? Has the TTA ever suggested otherwise? And what a shame that Margaret Madden felt moved to claim that the TTA wishes to "get its hands" on the educational research funding held by the Higher Education Funding Council for England? In fact, we have no such ambition.

The TTA is a small organisation with a modest budget for research. Its role in developing teaching as a research-based profession must be that of a catalyst rather than a controller. None the less, we do have ambitions and it is interesting that these are beginning to ruffle some research feathers. Our ambitions are to encourage:

* improvements in the accessibility of the existing stock of knowledge - traditional vehicles for reporting findings are not geared sufficiently to the needs of practitioners;

* higher quality and more relevant research - too much research stops short of working out the meaning of research findings for day-to-day practice; and

* a more active role for teachers in conceiving, implementing, evaluating and disseminating research - too few research projects focus on classroom teaching or involve classroom teachers actively in the research process.

There is nothing here to send traditional researchers into a spin. Rather than dismiss our teacher research projects, they should feel able to welcome them for what they are - a down-to-earth approach to researching the practical classroom issues that are of interest and concern to practising teachers up and down the country. It is a pity, therefore, that Michael Bassey paints such an impoverished picture of teachers' contribution to research. He wrongly implies that both the teacher-researchers and the TTA are incapable of identifying the dangers of applying research findings from one school context to another. He is also wrong to suggest that teachers can't or won't identify on their own the need for help from expert researchers in resolving methodical problems. Puzzlingly, he also asserts that the projects are not case studies of the sort he advocates. His evidence base? The project titles as summarised in a newspaper article!

Let me set the record straight. The teachers were required to meet tough, clear and published criteria, which allowed scope for the case study approach favoured by Michael Bassey. They were also required to look from the outset at how their work would be shared with others.

All of them have plans for exploring the implications of their work within their own school, in at least one other school and with their local education authority or university, and how to make their research relevant to other teachers. Some are doing this by comparing their own practice with models developed and tested through other research. Some are comparing their own work and that of other teachers in their own or other schools.

All are developing clear and consistent links between their research questions, data collection, analysis and interpretation. Our teacher-researchers, including those working on case studies, are proud of focusing their efforts on understanding not only on their own practice but also on that of their colleagues on the basis of the disciplines of research.

Michael Bassey does go on to raise one vital issue, which leads our list of ambitions above. It is the need to get good, practical research off the library shelves and into a form which teachers can access. But his suggestion that we abandon the teacher research grant scheme, and use the Pounds 60,000 to disseminate existing projects, misses the target. Why are the researchers who spend Pounds 35 million annually not doing this already?

Good teachers relish the opportunity to draw upon the most up-to-date knowledge. They continually challenge their own practice in order to do their best for their pupils.

They do not want to spend time away from the classroom to undertake research for its own sake. But they do value the opportunity to examine what they do in the classroom in the light of important new knowledge, scientific investigation and evaluation, disciplined enquiry and rigorous comparison of practice in this country and in others. The traditional research community can do a great deal to assist teachers in this respect.

Our work in enhancing research aims to give teachers, as practitioners, a stronger voice and a higher profile. In doing so, we would welcome future joint work with traditional researchers. In fact, a number of higher education institutions have already responded enthusiastically to our leaflet, Teaching as a Research-Based Profession.

Many others will, I hope, do the same.

Anthea Millett is chief executive of the Teaching Training Agency.

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