It's a funny old game

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Researchers need to get out of the commentator's box and on to the pitch if they want teachers to take them seriously, says Antony Luby

id you read the editorial "It's the teachers, stupid"? (TESS, November 4).

Well, attending a recent seminar, I was stunned to hear a professor of education decry that "it was a strange way for a mature adult to behave, to ask the teacher next door about a new initiative".

It seemed to me that the professor was hurt by teachers ignoring the findings of well-documented research and preferring, instead, the views of colleagues. However, the professor of education should not have been surprised or upset as educational research informs us, repeatedly, that teachers often do ignore research. Why?

I can think of at least three reasons. First, in the "game" of pedagogy, teachers look to their team-mates for support. That could be another teacher who is a fellow player, sometimes the team captain (principal teacher) or, indeed, a member of the coaching (senior management) team. The fellow teacher, PT or member of SMT is on the same "pitch", working in the same school with the same pupils.

A researcher, though, is akin to a commentator: "wrong side" of the touchline. The commentator's analysis may be astute and technically sound, but what good is it in the heat of the game? You don't see footballers on the pitch texting Alan Hansen before they pass the ball. Nor does the referee stop the game so that a video link can be established with Andy Gray. Likewise, a teacher's instinct is to turn to a colleague, not to an educational textbook or a television programme like The Unteachables.

Second, although researchers at best can be critical friends and offer informed insights, how often do teachers have the time or the opportunity to sit down and talk with them? I am reminded of David Hay's criticism of those taking an objective approach to the study of religion (New Methods in RE Teaching, Hammond et al 1990) when he argues that "they will be like Victorian anthropologists, perhaps observing with real curiosity the habits, beliefs and artefacts of strange tribes, but separated by an experiential apartheid from genuine understanding". For religion - substitute the word pedagogy.

Third, as Andy Hargreaves outlines in Changing Teachers, Changing Times, there has been a knowledge explosion. Within a school context, this means a change of emphasis from the "scientific certainty" of educational researchers to "situated certainty" - "the certainty that teachers and others can collectively glean from their shared practical knowledge of their immediate context and the problems it presents . . . This school-based search for . . . continuous improvement gives much needed weight to the validity of practitioner knowledge and to the needs and demands of each particular context within which these practitioners work."

But all of this need not be a blow to the research community. Rather, it presents a threefold opportunity. It seems to me that there is a movement within Scottish education which recognises that pedagogy will best be improved by communities of enquiry into practice. Certainly, this belief underpins the activities of the Applied Educational Research Scheme (AERS) and the ambitious Scottish Teachers for a New Era (STNE).

Notably, for such communities to be truly collegiate, it must be enquiry into our practices and not inquiry into their practices. That is to say, all members of the community must teach - even if only for a little while.

This is the threefold opportunity. First, researchers should "lace up their boots," step over the touchline and get on to the playing field. Don't just observe the game of pedagogy but become part of it - and live it.

Second, the reward is potentially great. There would be no more experiential apartheid, but rather research that is rich with understanding and informed by what it is like to be a teacher oneself.

Finally, engage with the birth of communities of enquiry because, if you do, you will not only observe, analyse and comment upon the transformation of Scottish pedagogy; you will become an integral part of it.

Antony Luby teaches religious education in Aberdeen and is an research fellow with the Applied Educational Research Scheme.

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