Get that light out from under the bushel

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Marian Brooks urges teachers to stop being so modest and reveal just how much they know

Professional development poses a dilemma for all teachers: limited time and resources mean that attendance at any conference or course needs to be balanced against the costs of being away from school. We therefore approach events with often unreasonably high expectations, looking for the educational equivalent of the Holy Grail - and are all too often disappointed.

While there are many leading educationists who are consistently stimulating and constructive, it is perhaps the value that we place on education per se that leads us to accord academics disproportionately high levels of esteem.

This gap between expectation and expertise becomes even more evident when such speakers are operating in an area where the very teachers being addressed arguably have greater direct experience.

This was brought home to me at a recent event in Durham which attracted a wide range of people interested in "evidence-based" approaches to school development. Carol Fitz-Gibbon of Durham Univiersity can be proud of her outstanding work in the development of objective measures of achievement, and her involvement in the conference meant that many of us attended with fully whetted appetites.

The actual result was more akin to the realisations of the characters in the Wizard of Oz, who followed the Yellow Brick Road only to discover that all along they had the qualities they believed they lacked.

There were some interesting presentations, but these were largely from the practising teachers, who retained links with reality which seemed to elude other contributors.

Teachers are diffident about their professional activities (which is hardly surprising after so much prolonged public criticism), but there are thousands of schools which are engaged in action research into improving the quality of our work.

The number of establishments associated with the Institute of Education School Improvement Network reveals the strong interest in the area, but the network members' reluctance to publicise their activities shows how modest they are.

We seem happy to collaborate with academics who are conducting research in our schools, but reluctant to step into that role in a public way for ourselves.

Earlier this year I attended the American Educational Research Association conference in Chicago and witnessed a fascinating range of presentations dealing with school improvement. My presence there was a novelty, partly because I was a teacher. Here is an entire academic community based around education research conducted by those who often have no teaching background at all.

In this setting, the divide between philosopy and practice has become absolute, while the quality of some of the research presented would have brought shame on A-level social science students.

Our concept of the head as educational leader is unknown in America - school principals are administrators of the system rather than contributing to its creation and development. I, and no doubt many others, would find this relegation to the role of technician unacceptable. Similarly, the gulf in the US between researcher and classroom practitioner diminishes the latter.

If the profession continues to view educational research as something in which we have no stake, we can hardly complain when policies become ideologically directed, since there is little else on which to base them.

We need to evaluate our activities in more objective ways, and academia has a vital role to play in supporting the work of practitioners in a real partnership.

At the Durham conference it was gratifying to hear Philippa Cordingley, chief professional research adviser to the Teacher Training Agency, speak of her agency's commitment to the development of evidence-based teaching, bringing together schools and higher education as learning communities.

Such a vision, properly funded and supported, has rich potential to bring out the best in schools and university education departments, while avoiding the separation which sadly often exists.

Like many teachers, I feel huge frustration at the "quick fix" simplistic solutions currently being offered to the profession under the guise of expert opinion and experience, often justified on the basis of very slim evidence.

We need to be much more confident of the quality of our own efforts, more systematic in their evaluation, and more ready to challenge the easy orthodoxy which springs from the lack of large-scale, school-based development.

A move towards the development of schools as learning, research-based institutions would provide the most significant form of professional development possible and would enrich rather than impoverish schools.

Marian Brooks is headteacher of Cranford Community School in west London

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