Teachers: a suitable case for treatment?

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Evidence-based Practice in Education

Edited by Gary Thomas and Richard Pring

Open University Press pound;17.99

What does Good Education Research Look Like?

By Lyn Yates

Open University Press pound;17.99

In the 1996 Teacher Training Agency annual lecture, Professor David Hargreaves reopened an important debate. Medicine is considered an evidence-based profession (though it may be less firmly anchored in research findings than many people believe), in that general practitioners and hospital consultants base much of their practice on such scientific evidence as exists. But what about teaching? To what extent do teachers craft their classroom practices on what has been discovered by systematic enquiry?

Evidence-based Practice in Education is a collection of 14 essays that explores this fascinating topic. The writers are mainly academics, though some are from departments of government. The book is divided into three parts: what evidence-based practice is thought to be; what happens in fields such as medicine and education; and key questions about the whole issue.

It is not easy for research findings to penetrate educational practice.

Teachers may engage in more than 1,000 interpersonal transactions a day and will often make decisions in a second or less, leaving little time to riffle through a fat research handbook.

Equally important is the nature of evidence in education, a topic that several writers address. In the case of medical experiments, for example, an aspirin is an aspirin is an aspirin. Its size, weight and frequency of administration can be controlled. But a "treatment" in education can be infinitely variable. A teacher may be required to ask certain scripted questions as part of an experiment, but pupils' answers cannot be manipulated so readily, nor is it easy to control teachers' or pupils'

gestures, tone of voice and use of non-verbal cues such as smiles and nods.

The writers are all of good standing. Academics such as John Elliott, Michael Eraut, Martyn Hammersley and Richard Pring have been involved in the field for years, and what they say about educational research can be taken seriously. Judy Sebba and Philip Davies write about the topic from within government, describing large-scale efforts to synthesise research findings for practitioners.

Ed Peile is head of medical education at Warwick University and a former GP, so he is able to explore, with first-hand authority, the parallel issues in medicine. He gives one or two historic examples, such as the experiments by James Lind, an 18th-century surgeon-admiral in the Royal Navy, who split 12 scurvy sufferers into two groups and gave them different diets. Only the ones taking citrus fruits recovered enough to look after the others. On most doctors' desks nowadays is a computer with access to medical evidence 24 hours a day, when libraries are shut.

I would have welcomed more practical examples of teachers using educational research, or finding it helpful. Some of the best curriculum packages over the years have had a research base, especially in subjects such as humanities and geography.

Many of the most admirable teachers have effectively become researchers in their own classroom, despite government prescription acting as a retro-rocket on innovation and experiment. In the end, the real question is the extent to which a particular strategy works for the individual, not whether it scores a slight gain over other approaches in the quite different context of some remote and distant experiment.

When teachers sign up for a research degree, one of the first questions they ask is: "What exactly will I be required to do?" Lyn Yates is an experienced supervisor of higher degree students and has experience in Britain and Australia, so her book describing what good educational research might look like has a ring of credibility about it.

This is not a precise "how to do it" handbook, full of questionnaire templates or interview and observation schedules, but rather a companion book to the many tomes on methodology, a more probing behind-the-scenes glimpse of what research is made of and what might arguably be seen as high quality. The sections on the nature of a thesis, writing for journals, the teacher audience, and others on research grants, the press and research careers, will be of interest to novice and more experienced investigators alike.

The chapters end with a statement on common failings, offering a clear set of warnings for the unwary, as well as a short summary of what is regarded as good quality under each heading. To appeal even more to teacher researchers, I would like to have seen more specific references to actual projects or concrete examples, as newcomers in particular often benefit from seeing what others have done, or the errors they have made, but even without these, the text is readable and comprehensive. Not only the poor beggars who have to write the theses, but also their supervisors, could usefully read it.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor in the school of education, Exeter University

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