Ignore research at our peril

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Ivor Goodson defends 'trendy theory' as being valuable for defining professionalism.

I want to explore the much-derided role that theoretical knowledge, and more generally, educational research can play in enhancing teacher professionalism. I want to argue that, in fact, theoretical bodies of knowledge and research studies are central to the development of teacher professionalism and also crucial in the public's perception that teaching is a professional activity. A secondary concern is to explore the degree to which theoretical knowledge and educational research is a central plank for any government seriously interested in cost-effectiveness and efficient schooling.

The important relationship to explore is between the pre-service and in-service needs of teachers and the continuing need for the research and study of the educational endeavour. Until recently in Britain, these needs had been held in reasonable harmony. Britain's university schools of education developed after the McNair Report of 1944. McNair advised that universities should be involved to ensure that teacher professionalism rose in public esteem.

The important point to grasp about the relationship between theoretical knowledge and professional practice is that there is no inevitability about whether the relationship is good or bad. .

Histories of the relationship between theory and practice point to wide differentials in the nature of the gap between the two. As we now know, in the period following 1979, "trendy theory" became the monolithic enemy of those seeking to reform teacher education. An inevitable and continuous problem of balance, of how to reinstate and reinscribe a balance between theory and practice in the university schools of education, was reinterpreted as a simple problem of location. As a result , we saw a "back to the schools" movement develop. In the 1980s, this fundamentalist programme advanced. In Britain, I suspect the hasty embrace of the practical may lead to a collapse of the academic and theoretical mission of faculties of education.

Logically, this would seem to lead to the question being raised as to why such facilities without substantial academic and theoretical missions, should any longer be located with the universities. This question may arise forcibly as universities seek to restructure themselves because of financial retrenchment. The sharp pendulum swing away from too much theory towards "practical relevance", means the whole basis of the enterprise could be at risk. In short, in this time of change, we need to strike a new balance between theory, critique and practical matters.

If we cannot strike such a balance, I believe the theoretical enterprise and educational research generally will begin to collapse. Far from this being solely a problem for educational scholars, I see it as a central problem for the teaching profession. For teaching is seen to be a profession because it is based on a set of research expertise and theoretical bodies of knowledge. This incidentally is true of all professions. Their claim to be professional is partially linked to the existence of theoretical bodies of expertise and knowledge. Once that is taken away, teaching can be presented as essentially a task for technicians, and once that is achieved, the capacity to essentially deprofessionalise teaching. So to revive and reinstate the relationship between research knowledge, theoretical knowledge and teachers' professional knowledge, is a crucial part of the task of enhancing teacher professionalism.

One way to test if "trendy theory" is indeed as useless and empty as has often been implied is to look at some of the predictions which curriculum theorists made before the national curriculum exercise was launched. In looking closely at what was said, we will be able to judge whether theorists were really, in any sense, in touch with what was likely to happen. We can see whether their advice would have been effectively wrong-headed and inaccurate for those articulating new policies, or whether it might not have been sensible to spend a little time and even money in funding educational research and theoretical studies before launching a massive new national initiative.

History in fact pointed to the likely response of teachers to a dictated and uniform curriculum. I argued then that the Government was "reinventing the square wheel" and many other curriculum theorists said the same.

Let me quote Simon Jenkins from The Times: "The outgoing chairman of the National Curriculum Council, David Pascall, moans in The Times Educational Supplement that teachers 'seem to be teaching the test'. What did he and Mr Patten expect? If they impose upon teachers a detailed curriculum and testing regime, and tell them they will be paid and their schools judged on the outcome, the schools will teach the test. This is no surprise, it happened when government last tried payment by results in the 19th century. Is history not studied in the education department?" So The Times concludes that the major problem in the whole national curriculum exercise was that the Government refused to listen to research expertise, to historical and theoretical studies and therefore, failed to even consider the lessons of history and theory.

The result of this stigmatization of previous expertise as "trendy theory" has been to cost Pounds 750 million for an exercise which simply proved what the original trendy theorists were so desperately trying to indicate was likely to happen.

The key message Sir Ron Dearing delivered was that professional responsibility is to be handed back to the teachers within a broad framework, so they will decide what goes on in the classroom. This is common sense; it is what we train them for, and pay them to do. Good teachers are driven by their imagination, their knowledge, their love of the subject. We want more individuality and eccentricity in the classroom, not less. But like actors, artists and other creative people, teachers need constant ego massage - it is hard to perform well when subjected to constant abuse.

I would humbly suggest to you that educational researchers suffer from the same fate. clearly the time has come for the pendulum to swing back, and it is time to bring teachers back into the fold, and with them educational researchers and theorists.

Professor Ivor Goodson, Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario.

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