Ask the experts;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
The need for information on how best to teach grows with each new government strategy. David Hargreaves explains why he believes those in the classroom need to be researchers

Just how much is known about effective teaching?

When there's evidence that some ways of teaching are demonstrably better than others, should all teachers adopt them? How much room should be left to teachers to pursue their own ways of working?

These questions arise from the national literacy and numeracy strategies, where there's a tension between central prescription informed by research evidence and the professional autonomy of individual teachers. Too much prescription could reduce teachers to technicians; too much autonomy could sacrifice students to the whims of teachers ignorant of the evidence about what works.

In reality, research evidence on "what works" in classrooms is surprisingly thin. As we enter the knowledge society, schools and classrooms change radically, and research cannot keep up with escalating demands on teachers' professional practice.

Information and communication technologies are a prime example. The Government is spending millions of pounds on ICT developments in the belief that these contribute to better teaching and learning. Fine, but there's little research evidence about what constitutes good practice.

It's time to admit that discovering and disseminating "what works" in classrooms cannot be done through the conventional models of limited amounts of university-based research inefficiently disseminated through books and courses to the teaching profession. This method is now largely discredited.

To make teachers more effective at the rate and on the scale that the Government now expects requires practising teachers to be actively involved in the creation of new professional knowledge and in devising new systems for disseminating it to other schools.

A similar lesson has been learned elsewhere - in high-tech companies. In knowledge-intensive industries, firms can't wait for academics to provide them with the ideas and evidence they need to be innovative and successful. They make use of their own intellectual capital - the knowledge and skills of all their staff, and learn how to engage them in research and development that's closely tied to better products. Researchers work alongside production engineers.

Schools now need to do something similar. At present most don't capitalise on the creative potential of staff. Teachers already "tinker" with new ideas, adapting them to make them work or rejecting them when they don't. Teachers become skilled at trial-and-improve professional learning. But they mostly do this on their own; that's the trouble. In schools that are learning organisations teachers tinker together, sharing ideas and experiences in a constant search for what works better.

This could and should be done more systematically. Many teachers have undertaken diplomas and degrees to provide them with research skills. Some have experience of a Teacher Training Agency research consortium, or a partnership with a university for initial teacher training.

All these provide opportunities for conducting more systematic and collective investigations into the professional knowledge of "what works". We should build on these foundations by taking action to design and support knowledge-creating schools, with some professional researchers working full-time in schools.

Testing and refining "what works" will be demanding. At present we speak casually about "good practice" or even "best practice" which is often no more than somebody's opinion about "what works" - not hard evidence. Like doctors, teachers have to find ways of validating their professional knowledge; fads and fashions are no longer good enough.

Nor is spreading knowledge among some 30,000 schools and nearly half a million teachers an easy task. Developments in technology are providing schools with immense opportunities to network, removing barriers of time and space. This is where the National Grid for Learning and Virtual Teacher Centres become important. The key influences on what teachers do are other teachers, not academics or inspectors, and rightly so. Computers allow teachers to share ideas and problems, insights and successes, with their peers in easier ways.

It is teachers in classrooms who are best placed to identify the areas and topics where the discovery of "what works" is most urgently needed. They have the talent and experience to do this work, especially if they are supported and co-ordinated by researchers from schools of education. But they are short of the time for Ramp;D work. In the past decade we have come to accept that teachers need release from classroom duties for continuing professional development. Much of the research and development that will uncover and disseminate "what works" also has to be school-based, which means money to release staff to do so.

Raising standards through more effective teaching and learning depends on turning schools into knowledge-creating organisations that treat teachers as creative but disciplined professionals. Academic research and inspection will always provide part of the evidence base, but there is no substitute for front-line practitioners with the commitment and space to undertake the core of research and development on which the improvement of teaching hinges.

Here is a vital component to enable teachers to meet the challenge of the Government's recent Green Paper. It might also help to recruit and retain able men and women as classroom practitioners where the action - and the research and development - is.

David Hargreaves is professor of education at the University of Cambridge. His pamphlet on 'Creative Professionalism' is published today by the think-tank Demos

Research Focus, page 23

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