Educational research has never been more prominent. Social media has brought together practitioners, policymakers and academics in previously unimagined proximity. There has been an explosion of accessible books on the application of educational research.
But what research is – and why it is important – is contested. There are currently competing narratives about research, which it is important to navigate through.
“Research really matters, but practitioner research doesn’t”
The first narrative is quite dominant in policy-making circles. It says that research is about big data and randomised control trials; it focuses on a medical model. It says that “we need to find out what works” and “roll it out” (I always imagine a carpet being rolled out over a messy, uneven floor). It is about robust testing and replication. In this narrative, small-scale research performed by teachers is trivial, whimsical and often invalid. Research is deployed to support policy, though often in a lawyerly rather than a scientific manner. That is to say, the evidence is factually accurate, but is it presented to strengthen a case.
‘Research really matters. But practitioner research, usually not’
As a counterpoint to the above perspective comes a second narrative, sometimes espoused by researchers in universities. It vigorously contests the right of policymakers to select evidence. But it agrees that practitioner research is largely irrelevant.
This view says that although teaching and research are related disciplines, they are different and exclusive. It says, “Let’s not turn teachers into researchers, just direct them to [our] research.”
‘Practitioner research really matters. All this big data stuff is inhumane and the tyranny of science’
The third narrative is one I have heard from a particular kind of educator. It emphasises that learning is a human endeavour, and says that “teaching is a form of resistance” and “truth is constructed and subjective, so big research is irrelevant to me”.
‘Practitioner research matters. And big research matters. But what really matters is the application of research to practice’
This fourth narrative is the one I agree with. Because, in truth, neither practitioner research nor big research, in its own right, makes any difference to learners. The only thing that makes a difference is the interaction between them and their “teacher” (whatever that means in their context). When teachers understand and apply research – big or small – to proven effect, that’s what makes the difference.
Perhaps this seems obvious. But to quote Jonathan Smith in The Learning Game: “When you talk about teaching, it is difficult not to sound as if you are stating the obvious. Because …well, you are. And yet it is obviousness of a tricky kind.”
A surgeon knows human anatomy intimately. But she also needs to be acutely aware of the unique presentation of the body lying open before her. The gardener needs to know the characteristics of hundreds of plants and how they tend to thrive; but he also needs to be skilful and experimental in applying that knowledge in different gardens. In being systematic and controlled in exploring how specific actions result in outcomes – whether in the operating theatre, the garden or the classroom – we enrich our professional practice.
This is why practitioner research matters in FE. It is not in opposition to “big research”; it reinforces it and stretches it.
Individuals taking part in the Education and Training Foundation’s practitioner research programme – which supports practitioners to gain an MA or MPhil – undertake research that addresses particular issues pertinent to their teaching context. Its subsequent application has beneficial organic effects within their own organisations. And through the ETF’s professional exchange networks, applications of research can spread to other providers.
There is a constant pressure to improve learner outcomes. And so there should be. And contrary what to some more cynical commentators say, policymakers do not just mean outcomes shown by exam results. They mean knowledge, skills, behaviours, life chances, job prospects, wellbeing and the ability to cope with life.
Knowledge of big research empowers practitioners. Skilful application of that research brings results. Practitioner research is the professional extension of this, and it creates the contextualised understanding of practice. It is the practice of a master. If FE is to become fully actualised and take its rightful place as the central part of our education system – the part which makes the most difference to social justice and economic productivity – we will need a confident, masterful profession.
- The closing date for applications to take part in the ETF practitioner research programme MPhil and MA short course is 17 September. For more information, visit bit.ly/ETFprog
David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation