Blog by Dr Rachel Lofthouse
In August 2015 I was invited to make a short presentation at a discussion organised by Optimus Education. The question was Is research-based classroom practice realistic and is it desirable?
This blog is the essence of my contribution.
To consider the question I am going to draw on the work of Martin Hammersley, Jack Whitehead and Gary Thomas, with a little bit of Aristotle and my own thinking thrown in.
Of course the question is actually really complicated. We have to unpack it in order to develop a critical response.
- What do we mean by research?
- What kind of research is relevant – which academic disciplines are we drawing from?
- What does it mean for something to be research-based?
- Who conducts the research, is it somebody else’s research that I learn from and apply, or is it my research that I conduct in my classroom?
- What does it mean for something to be realistic – is it to do with funding, opportunity, or priorities? What does it suggest about the teachers’ role, skills and knowledge for them to realistically base their practice on research?
- And who is to judge what is desirable? What are the outcomes we are aiming for? Do we all share the same goals?
Wikipedia defines research as ‘creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge’. So it’s about knowledge. Are we therefore simply proposing that teachers base their classroom practice on ‘knowledge’? This seems to make sense.
But of course research takes many forms and the type of knowledge generated depends on these forms. Hammersley sees a distinction between scientific research and practical research. Scientific research aims to contribute to a body of knowledge, is judged in terms of evidential validity and is the pursuit of ideas that do not have immediate practical value. Practical research has an immediate audience of practitioners and policy makers, aims to provide knowledge of immediate practical use, and is judged in terms of its relevance and timeliness. Surely we would be most interested in practical research – related to the issues we face in the classroom, providing answers that would be of immediate use. Although it is scientific research that has given us the much hailed insight into cognition and the brain (for example), so we do use both.
Whitehead recognises education research as a formal academic discipline. However, he makes the case that educational researchers generate explanations of their educational influences in their own learning and in the learning of others. He calls these explanations living-educational-theories. Perhaps teachers need living-educational-theories (not research) on which to base their classroom practice?
So – what is my take on whether research-based classroom practice is realistic and desirable?
On a simple level it is not classroom practice we should consider but classroom practices (plural). I propose that we should not worry so much about research-based classroom practice (which could be relatively singular and static), but that we should be concerned about the ongoing development of diverse classroom practices. If we are concerned about the role of research it should be about how it supports each individual teachers’ practice development – something which happens over a career and supports professional changes that ripple beyond their own classroom. How, for example, can research be used to support coaching, mentoring, curriculum design, lesson study or practitioner enquiry as means to develop classroom practices?
We should have an ambition that teachers develop phronesis – practical wisdom wisely used in context, or as Thomas suggests ‘the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances’. Imagine an education system in which professionals had the disposition to act truly and justly according to their values and moral stance. It might help us to counter the influences of policy-makers and quangos who determine so much of the daily experience of learners, teachers and school leaders.
So – my question is – how might research contribute to the development of teachers’ phronesis, and as such help them develop practices which are based on their ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances? This ambition should be both realistic and desirable.
Hammersley, M. (2003) Can and Should Educational Research be Educative? Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 29 (1), pp. 3-25
Thomas, G. (2011) The case: generalisation, theory and phronesis in case study, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 37 (1), pp. 21-35
Whitehead, J. 2015. Educational researchers and their living-educational-theories. BERA. Accessed August 20, 2015, www.bera.ac.uk/blog/educational-researchers-and-their-living-educational-theories