As I sat down yesterday morning at my computer to begin my usual look through the latest blog posts and tweets etc. before I started my day’s reading, my attention was drawn to two articles. Worried as I was when I began this blog that I wouldn’t be able to write updates often enough, that I wouldn’t have anything to say (I can hear you now protesting how unusual it would be for me to have nothing to say about education!), these articles got me thinking.
The first thing I saw was an article from 3rd April from the TES about Educational Research (for article see here https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=11006849) and while it is based on a paper from Educational Researcher from the summer of last year, it seems to rather miss the point about the nature of education and educational research. The main point of the article seems to be that educational research isn’t addressing the needs of the classroom because it isn’t replicated enough and mentions that the strength of ‘trials’ lies in their repetition. A short scroll through the tweets that mention this article quickly draws attention, although not as quickly or with as much indignation as I would have expected or liked, to the obvious (to me, certainly) difficulty in equating social science research with natural science research and thereby suggesting that one might be able to measure a non native language speaking child’s experience in school in the same quantitative way as one might be able to measure the neutron-proton mass imbalance in the universe (thank you Chemistry World for this analogy). Teaching and learning just isn’t like this. Asking teachers to rate on a scale from one to ten how well they feel they are able to do their job and then asking them to tick boxes that account for their reasons assumes firstly that one can reduce that feeling to such a statement in the first place and secondly that I know all the reasons a teacher might feel like that and that the teacher I’m asking can add nothing to my thinking. Which begs the question why am I asking said teacher anyway! I want to know what teachers’ experiences are of working in schools and engaging in practices that could be defined as self-cultivating. My perspective might be very different to the perspective of each teacher I ask and that’s what I want to find out. It’s not enough to be able to say that 46% of teachers experience self-cultivation when they are reading about Nicky Morgan’s latest speech….
The very next thing I came across was a blog post by Carl Hendrick from 4th April about the use of numbers in education (for original post see here http://chronotopeblog.com/2015/04/04/the-mcnamara-fallacy-and-the-problem-with-numbers-in-education/) Here, Hendrick talks about the McNamara Fallacy, the idea that we can improve something if we measure it enough, and its illogical application to education. Hendrick encapsulates teaching in three points; that teachers are supremely knowledgeable, that they form successful relationships with students and that for them, teaching is all-encompassing. He concludes that these things are not measurable or countable in the way that Ofsted try to measure and count. How would it be possible to quantify the knowledge a teacher has about each student in a class and how they use that knowledge in every decision they make in the classroom for example? Elizabeth Green talks about this sort of decision-making in the first chapter of her book, Building A Better Teacher.
I suppose these two posts resonate for me as they tie in with a concern I am currently struggling with as I consider the methods I will be using in my own PhD. The real issue here is that I won’t be producing data that is based on numbers. And this is fine – it’s good, in fact, at least I think so. So much of what I will be looking at will be found in the nuances of what teachers tell me, and I’m sure at times in what they don’t tell me. The question of course, then arises, as to whether this is enough. Will my qualitative research hold enough credibility to be heard? The concern is that in certain circles, possibly the more official ones, particularly with regard to policy making, hard fact based on numbers is the only way to go. What then, can the impact of my research be if its credibility is limited because of our accountability culture? As an example, I was listening to a broadcast from BBC Radio 4 last week (For podcast see here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b055g8zh) which focused on teachers who leave the profession, which included a brief mention of an impending government study to be carried out by Professor Chris Day at the University of Nottingham. Now I’ve read a lot of his work, but much of it employs quantitative methods, it is about finding statistical significance – proof beyond doubt that something happens or does not happen (a little simplistic I realise but you take my point). The tension for me is that if I want ultimately to access the sort of audience that Professor Day has access to (admittedly, this will not be for a number of years, if ever, – he is at the head of his field), will I have to change my approach? Will I have to employ less interpretive methodologies and resign myself to the numbers approach? This, for me, is a worrying thought, given how I understand the nature of teaching and learning.
Similarly, I think the credibility of educational research as a whole with teachers on the ‘front line’ is worth considering. I have experienced, not really negativity, but certainly some questioning looks for example when explaining what it is I am interested in. I think a lot of people think that teacherly self-cultivation is a load of airy fairy nonsense and want to know where the literacy intervention research, for example, is instead. This might, of course, be a little to do with the branch of research I’m particularly interested in – my PhD will be a partly conceptual or philosophical and partly empirical study – it’s not going to give teachers a ‘pack’ to use or a new thing to do that will magic their problems away. I’ve also read a lot of blog posts and online articles recently where educational research is criticised for being out of touch with what is really needed, with what is really going on, not helped by Michael Gove and his sensible thoughts about ‘The Blob’. I draw on my own experience as a classroom teacher and middle leader here in two ways. Firstly, I remember being an early career teacher, listening to consultants or course leaders etc and wondering how they were able to comment on my classroom or the school I worked in having been out of the classroom for so long. Their advice seemed idealistic in so many ways given the nature of my experience in the classroom. The disconnect between teachers in schools and academics in universities is easier to understand in this respect. Secondly, in schools, teachers have to rely on the research that gets disseminated in whatever way, through courses, initiatives or books (if a given school in fact has a CPD library). Twitter and the plethora of bloggers out there make this easier now but the real academic stuff is kept very much within a strictly academic context. Of course, the next problem would be that even if journal articles were more widely available, when would teachers have the time to read them? Would schools be happy to allow teachers to try new things?
But that’s a whole different issue….