In 1801, at the age of 38, Thomas Young was appointed a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. Over the next two years, he delivered 91 lectures, in which he covered… everything. Not just everything in physics, his particular area of research for most of his career, but pretty much the entire span of scientific knowledge at the time. Andrew Robinson’s book ‘The Last Man who Knew Everything’, not only tells the story of a fascinating life, but also invites the consideration of the philosophical consequences of the world since this seminal moment, a world where the only sensible response to the ever rising tides of information seems to be greater and greater specialisation. The polymath is dead; long live the compressed genius and the authority in their field.
The last teacher who knew everything, of course, came much later; in fact I’ve worked with a number of them who are still going strong. Increasingly, however, another expectation is creeping onto the already polymathic to-do list of the modern teacher. Led by the EEF and organisations such as ResearchED, ‘research literacy’ has become a somewhat unlikely edu buzz-concept. In doing so they have given me a nagging dilemma which remains unresolved despite three years of having my limited cognitive resources thrown at it: ‘just what should the average teacher’s relationship be with educational research?’
Here, as I see them, are the main points in support of both sides of this argument:
Position A – Teachers should be engaging personally with research
- Professional pride. Firstly, it could be argued that being acquainted with the empirically tested findings into the best way to do your job is an absolutely essential part of being a self-respecting professional. It would be mandatory in many jobs, so it’s ridiculous that doing so in teaching it is not only optional but a bit niche. This seems to be the position of some school leaders (see this article by @headguruteacher, for example). I have a lot of sympathy for this view, but see the ‘workload’ and ‘research literacy vs research authority’ sections below for counter-arguments
- If not teachers, then who? If teachers are not going to be responsible for the empirical appraisal of the material and techniques that they use in lessons, then this creates a vacancy for pedlars of quack cures and silver bullets. Even if this gap is filled by well-meaning organisations disseminating evidence-based suggestions to teachers such as the EEF or the EBTN, we still have a ‘who guards the guards?’ situation.
- As teachers we need to practice what we preach. We all want to develop ‘critical thinkers’ (whatever the phrase really means). What better way to develop our own critical thinking skills than to go back and check the research base on whatever sparkly new idea was the focus of CPD this term? We will have better lessons AND be better able to model these in-demand skills to students.
Position B – Teachers should not have to read educational research
- Workload. Teacher workload is already at a level that is attracting governmental intervention. Teachers are stressed, overworked and beleaguered by the multifarious demands of the profession as it is. This is not to say that I think that the administrative and box-ticking load of teachers is more important that reading research – I don’t – but it’s a fact of life that many teachers are working in systems where they already have an unmanageable number of competing demands. Given that most of us are not Nicky Morgan or Sir Michael Wilshaw we can’t reduce these any time soon… so should we really be adding to them? Sometimes our solution to trying to speed things up, such as providing how-to guides (e.g. this one for literacy teaching), merely adds another sizable bundle of straw to the camel’s groaning back.
- Jargon and impenetrability. Whilst researching possible PhD topics last year I came across the following title of an Ed Psych paper: ‘A Psychoanalytic Phenomenological Approach to the analysis of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership in Higher Education: A Review of Current Practices’. This is not to cast any aspersions as to the quality of the work contained within (I’ll keep those private), merely to point out that academic research can appear fearsomely complex on first viewing. Once inside, things aren’t always much better. Steven Pinker’s ‘Why Academics Stink at Writing’ suggests that sometimes “academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness.” Too often academic communication seems almost deliberately designed to be accessible to as few people as possible, rather than as many. Teachers have better things to do than to wade through this.
- Academics have the responsibility to disseminate their work, without teachers having to root around for it. Something that has really struck me in my two months back in academia so far is the number of people I have talked to who seem to treat questions about the useful applications of their work as vaguely grubby and a bit low-brow. Of course, basic research is necessarily a long way removed from the real world and quite right too; variables must be controlled and relationships established free from the messy causality of the real world. At the same time, however, it is surely right that all research is done with some sort of an eye to how it could be useful beyond the lab. I had just assumed this would be obvious, so it has been a real shock to find that it does not always seem to be the case. Even when research does have clear real world implications, this insularity means that the pressure and expectation to communicate results beyond the academic bubble is not felt strongly enough. This is a travesty, but not one for teachers to solve.
- Research literacy or research authority? Cutting through the jargon and simply reading research is not actually enough. The hardest, and slowest, skill to develop in research engagement is the ability to critically appraise what is being read, and to come to informed judgements about its worth. If we want teachers to read research, but neglect to give them time and training to evaluate what they are reading successfully, then we are simply replacing one appeal to authority with another. I have been trying to read and reflect on research for the last ten years and find no shame in saying that it is still something I find very difficult. And I actually want to do it. Is there any value in forcing this on others who are not so inclined? Twenty years ago John Zeuli published this interesting investigation into how teachers read research, finding that “teachers differed substantively in terms of their willingness and/or ability to read and understand research”. Whilst I am at pains here not to be seen as patronising members of a profession I respect enormously, I wonder if a mandatory approach to research is the right use of many teachers’ talents.
I know the ideal answer here. Systemic reforms of teacher training, school priorities, OFSTED criteria and academic communication would probably do as a starting point. In the absence of these, and from the practical standpoint of a classroom teacher who needs answers now, I remain unsure as to whether the regular reading of research really would be an exercise worth the investment in time and effort. To use a helpful distinction from a recent blog by @DrGaryJones, teachers reading research may have merit, but is it worth it? I’d love to hear what other teachers and researchers think about this.
Inspired by Nick Rose’s recent fascinating investigation into the pedagogical opinions of teachers, I’ve prepared a quick survey to gauge teachers views on their relationship with research. Please fill it in and spread the word… https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1gN5cSg_FS9JR5KxtyjKZPhr-f9q63blJdwqBAdzmDE4/viewform if enough people fill it in I’ll publish the results on here soon.
John S. Zeuli, How do teachers understand research when they read it?, Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 10, Issue 1, January 1994, Pages 39-55, ISSN 0742-051X, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0742-051X(94)90039-6
Duke, N.K. & Martin, N.M. (2011). 10 Things Every Literacy Educator Should Know About Research. The Reading Teacher: A Journal of Research-Based Classroom Practice, 65(1), 9–22. doi: 10.1598/RT.65.1.2
Nick Rose’s analysis of his recent survey into pedagogical opinions – https://evidenceintopractice.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/teacher-survey-results-and-analysis-part-1-2/