Who says it's the best?

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
The Scottish Educational Research Association met last weekend in Dundee. Dini Power asks for research that teachers can rely on

I WAS not alone in being impressed by Angus Gray's article, "The tyrant voice of best practice" (TESS, August 7), in which he pleaded for the teaching profession to look at genuine research evidence when planning course design and class organisation. What he proposes may seem so self-evident that it hardly needs saying, but rarely a week goes by without sweeping claims by some new project which throws previous research into doubt and leaves us wondering what to believe.

It happens in every field but in medicine, genetics and molecular physics, for example, dubious work can often be debunked by exposing the vested interests of the funding body. As teachers, we need to be wary of misleading or irrelevant studies but it is difficult to pinpoint whose vested interests are being served. At first sight it seems unlikely that education would yield much "doctored" research but false theses are by no means rare.

If the Government of the day or an education authority has an agenda, research funding will tend to go to those whose proposal sounds likely to come up with the desired information. Should the researcher have the integrity to produce results contrary to the desired outcome, they can easily be ignored or suppressed.

I am not saying such fiddling is the norm, but anyone who works at university-level research will say that it is not as rare as one might hope.

So how can we as teachers sort out the wheat from the chaff? First, if research is conducted openly, and is subject to close scrutiny, there is less opportunity for the results to be skewed, either by accident or design. It is also vital that sources of commissioning and funding are openly acknowledged to provide at least a rough gauge of reliability.

For this we need more responsible reporting of research in the media. A recent report in The TES Scotland claimed new research provided evidence that setting of classes did not work as well as mixed-ability teaching. The tone of the report was unquestioning, yet the research, it appears, had been done on a tiny sample, was subjective and designed round a series of leading questions.

Now, either this was bad reporting or bad research: the article did not give adequate information to decide which. But in this way poor research may be elevated to significance or valuable work reduced to nonsense.

A further problem is that those responsible for compiling the research often omit to approach people who do the actual job under review - for example, classroom teachers with current experience of the issue in question. Primary teachers know about primary teaching, music teachers about music teaching and headteachers about whole-school matters. English and maths teachers are likely to have more to say about mixed-ability teaching because of their subjects.

But simply asking a few teachers in a few schools is not enough. Applying rigorous sampling methods is vital, even though it may initially incur greater cost. Asking too few teachers is worse than asking nobody at all because of the dangers of extrapolating from too small a sample, as any statistician will tell you. So we should be wary of the "small study" that appears to deliver ground-breaking conclusions.

It may seem positive to have the "roving inspectors" mentioned by Angus Gray going round schools gathering examples of "best practice". But good practice is simply anecdote unless analysed and placed in context. Large numbers of practising teachers in a variety of schools need to be consulted and all possible variables need to be taken into account.

Chronic lack of funding exacerbates the problem, but all the more reason to be suspicious when money is made available for research. University departments may still be considered the most reliable source of objective research, but they are being forced to compete ever more aggressively and their success is often measured by the quantity rather than quality of research projects.

With teachers on the receiving end of a stream of piecemeal recommendations, Mr Gray is right in saying that they are being asked to turn into identikit superteachers, altering their methods to suit some notional aggregate of the perfect teacher. We need to ask "who says?" when told to implement yet another change. But I fear we may get our knuckles rapped for cheek.

Dini Power teaches English at Stirling High School.

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