We must beware of geeks bearing gifts

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Researchers need to come into Scotland's classrooms to benefit teachers most, says Antony Luby

The Applied Educational Research Scheme is a five-year, pound;2 million project aiming "to enhance educational research capability in Scottish higher education institutions, and to use that capability to conduct high-quality research which will benefit school education in Scotland".

As a teacher-researcher, this was music to my ears. I was so enthused that, 16 months ago, I joined the AERS, which is funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department and the Scottish Funding Council. But now I am left wondering.

As I attend various meetings and speak in seminars, it is clear the AERS is enabling academics and others to "enhance educational research capability in Scottish HE institutions". Excellent.

And next? Those involved would suggest the next stage is to "conduct high-quality research which will benefit school education in Scotland". But what kind of research? And will it benefit teachers? I wonder.

It seems to me that much educational research is founded on the mistaken belief that from educational theory can be derived general principles that in turn can be applied to educational practice.

But is this what happens in classrooms? Do I go into a lesson thinking that today I will apply the cognitive dissonance theory? Or a constructivist theory? Or a theory of experiential learning? No. Do you? Does anyone?

Unfortunately, the proliferation of articles and books about educational research indicates that many have misunderstood the nature of educational practice. They see the purpose of their discipline as the attainment of knowledge which must be disseminated to others. But do teachers use such "how-to-do" manuals? No.

Researchers may say : "Ah, but we understand that educational practice is a craft and that teachers are no less than artisans." But, again, this is to misunderstand educational practice.

Says who? Well, no less a person than Aristotle. According to him, this "skilled artisan" approach is to view educational practice as poiesis or "making action". This is an improvement on the above theoretical model, as it recognises that teaching is not simply a mechanical implementation of a set of instructions; rather it is dependent upon the idea, image or pattern of what the teacher wants to achieve.

That is to say the teacher has a guiding plan or idea and, while teaching, may make changes within it. Doesn't all of this sound familiar? Aren't teachers supposed to have lesson plans and are they not encouraged to be flexible?

Even better, within this artisan model there is a role for applied educational researchers - they can inform the original "idea, image or pattern" in the teacher's mind; they can advise teachers how they may best achieve the production of this idea, image or pattern; and then they can assist the teachers to evaluate the final production.

Is this not reflective practice? Yes. Is this not a neat model of collaborative practice between the communities of researchers and teachers?

Yes. Is this good educational practice? No.

It is not good educational practice because it is not educational. The artisan model or poiesis is about acting upon, doing to: it is about working with objects. And, of course, pupils and teachers are not objects.

So, if teaching is not theoretical - if it is not poiesis - then what is it?

According to our learned Greek friend, teaching is praxis. Whereas poiesis begins with a plan or design, praxis does not: it begins with a question or situation. Worse still, praxis is always risky, and it requires that a teacher "makes a wise and prudent practical judgment about how to act in this situation," in the words of Carr and Kemmis in Becoming Critical, 1986.

But praxis is the language of teaching. How will I teach this class? What shall I do with this pupil? I have no encompassing theory or theories in my head that will deal with all situations. I see my pupils not as objects but as persons. And because of this, I must have a moral disposition to act truly and rightly. I must be concerned to further their well-being. To do this, I must cultivate understanding of my pupils.

But AERS take note: "The person with understanding does not know and judge as one who stands apart and unaffected; but rather, as one united by a specific bond with the other, he thinks with the other and undergoes the situation with him" (Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 1983).

I began by commending AERS for enhancing educational research capability in Scottish HE, and I conclude with an invitation. If the next stage of AERS is to conduct high-quality research, then it must be rich with understanding - and this can only be achieved by living the life of a teacher.

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

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