Earlier this week I had a piece published in the Guardian entitled “How can schools use research to better inform teaching practice?” Whilst the response was overwhelmingly positive I have still spent a significant amount of time having to defend the idea that teachers should be informed about their own practice. As someone who had a desire to know and understand everything (One of my favourite books is the History of the Potato) I find this baffling. Having unpicked it a little I think it comes down to a few misunderstandings about what people mean when they talk about being “research informed”; or about what I wrote myself. I’ll try and address the main points that arose here.
Research is too complicated for mere teachers. I had this point made to me a few times this week and it is the only one that I actually find offensive. Teachers have degrees in their subject or in education and the vast majority have a further post graduate certificate. Many have Masters qualifications. As part of my undergraduate degree I was expected to be informed about research in my field. I was even expected to carry some out. Almost all teachers will be perfectly capable of understanding the nuances of educational research if only someone thought it important enough to give them some training in it. Instead it has largely been hidden from us and things are presented to us by others as unquestionable facts.
Research is too time consuming for teachers. This is a point I have more sympathy with. Teaching for 4-5 hours a day, attending meetings, dealing with admin, planning, assessing, marking; there is precious little time left for reading research or even books summarising research. Teachers need to be given more time to do this but time costs money. The other solution is to ask teachers to do a lot less. One way I have managed to claw back time is by being more reflective about my own practice and identifying what things I did that were important and had an impact and what things I did that I was doing out of habit. Reading about teaching has helped me to be more reflective and has saved me a lot of time. The other solution I gave in the article was for schools to appoint a research lead or team who have been given the time to read and reflect and then provide training and/or summaries for staff to read in directed time.
Research is all about looking for a silver bullet. If the first criticism offended me, this one just annoyed me. Every conversation I have ever had with anyone who is interested in educational research has been about limitations and weaknesses of research. It has been about what there doesn’t seem to be evidence for, rarely what there does.
This is the central reason why I think it is vitally important for teachers to be informed. Not because it will tell them what to do but because it will highlight things that are just wrong or misguided. It will mean doing less of what doesn’t work so we can concentrate on the basics of teaching. So much nonsense was sold to teachers and much of it has never been officially taken back. After a couple of years of being trained in teaching to different learning styles I was never given training on why it was wrong. The people who introduced it just stopped insisting we use it. For all they know I could be merrily going about my way testing kids and teaching accordingly. The people who told me that “pupils only remember 10% of what they are told but 90% of what they discover” were never made to apologise or even explain their mistake. Their error was just left to fester and shape the culture of teaching.
I am currently reading Fergal Roche’s excellent book “Mining for Gold” in which he explores the lessons we can learn from the great teachers he encountered in his own childhood and then as a teacher himself. One thing that has really stood out for me is that the great teachers were freed of much of the nonsense that was inflicted on us over the last 30 years and that we are only now starting to unpick.
I think there are things that educational research can point to as something that might be useful to pursue but I have found it is much more useful to point to things I want to avoid. Whilst we have a culture of teachers being told how to teach we need to push back with our own culture of being informed. We are a well educated body of professionals who should be able to seize control of our classrooms and our pedagogy but we can’t do it from a position of ignorance.