Is research-based classroom practice realistic and is it desirable?

On Thursday myself and several other twitter folk were invited to Optimus HQ to discuss the role of research in education. In preparation for the meeting I wrote a short blog trying to capture some of my current thinking on the subject…


Is research-based classroom practice realistic?

For me there has always been a fundamental problem with the idea of research in education. In the late-90s I got very interested in research and became involved in various projects, some in collaboration with the Centre For Applied Research in Education at the UEA, some independently. I attend BERA conferences and started reading the journals.

This was also a time when the term ‘evidence-based practice’ became widely used, particularly the research that was being done in cognitive-psychology. Off the back of this development there grew a movement of educational consultants who began organising conferences and visiting schools with the intention of repackaging the research in cognitive psychology for classrooms.

I quickly became frustrated, much of what I read and heard had little practical relevance to me and the context I worked in. Much of it seemed contradictory and some of it was plain daft.

I became particularly wary of the terms ‘evidence shows’ and ‘what works’. Both were being used as sticks to beat us with and to tell us what to do in the classroom, whether we found they worked or not.

And this is the great danger of research in education. We have to be far more circumspect about the conclusions we draw and the effectiveness of the methods we use. ‘Evidence shows’ and ‘what works’ are context specific and dependent on a wide range of factors.

Why is this? Because research in the social sciences is different to research in the natural sciences. Ontologically different, meaning they involve fundamentally different phenomena.

Think of it in terms of levels. The first level involves research into phenomena we can measure but don’t understand – gravity, quantum dynamics, etc. Our lack of understanding is frustrating but it doesn’t restrict our methods of application. Gravity and quantum dynamics work in reasonably predictable ways.

The second involves phenomena we can measure and understand – these are the phenomena of the natural world and our own biology. Medical research falls into this category (we don’t understand everything YET, but with more research eventually we will). Research in both these levels is very productive and empirically verifiable.

The third level involves phenomena we can’t measure accurately and don’t understand properly – these are the phenomena of people. People are buggers to research and understand because they think for themselves. They react, they change, and the respond to the action of being researched. It’s like the sun had a mind of its own and kept changing its habits in response to our observations – one day it would rotate clockwise, the next anti-clockwise. Some days it would sulk and not get out of bed.

All this is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t do research in education, just that we need to be far more realistic about what we’re doing and what we hope to achieve.

‘Research says’ and ‘what works’ need to come with a health warning – “educational research is complicated. Really complicated. So consider with extreme caution and apply using a critical mindset.”

Once that’s made clear, the teacher can approach the research in the right – Critically Realistic – frame of mind. They can experiment with the methods proposed in the context of their own classroom and evaluate the results for themselves.

Are teachers qualified to do this? Not necessarily right away. Which brings us to the second part of the question – is it desirable?

I’d say, yes definitely, as a dialogic process of self and professional development. A critical mind, an inquiry disposition, an open and questioning attitude to pedagogy, are exactly the qualities we want to develop in teachers.

To be honest, I’m coming to the conclusion, if you believe in something enough, work hard enough at it, in the right environment, for long enough, it’ll probably work.

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