Why #researchmatters

by Howard Stevenson.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese proverb that is intended to be more an ironic curse than a blessing. Whilst we certainly live in interesting times I cannot think of any time in the 30 years I have worked in education that have not been ‘interesting’.  Nor should that surprise us. Few areas of social life have such an impact on every one of us individually. Education is, above all, about shaping our individual and collective futures.  Who are we? Who do we want to be? How do we want to live together? It is inevitable it will be the subject of discussion, debate and indeed dispute.

Education does not just prepare us for living in this new world, but it is also part of creating it. Education both shapes, and is shaped by, the world of which it is a part. At any one time, it both reproduces and transforms. This precisely why, for those who work in education, the opportunity should be a mix of privilege, exhilaration and responsibility.

Unfortunately many educators do not experience their work in this way. The fast pace of change, and the uncertainties of globalisation, have made politicians both anxious and arrogant. Tony Blair once said of education ‘we know what works’, the challenge apparently was to ‘apply those lessons [and] push them right through the system’. Change has to be rapid. Results must be immediate. All of this, in England at least, is reinforced by a top-down quality assurance system that decides what ‘good’ is without any meaningful involvement from local communities.

Powerful voices, often far removed from classrooms and the experiences of young people and their teachers, get to answer the big questions – what is education for? What should it look like? What is ‘good’?

Small wonder that teachers often feel devalued, and their professionalism undermined. Faced with constant changes to the curriculum, assessment and the high stakes accountability system that judges them it should not be surprising if a new dependency culture emerges. Over-worked and under-pressure teachers lower their sights – ‘just tell me what to do’. In such a world education research is either an irrelevance, or it is only useful if it is able to respond to the desperate plea ‘tell me what works’.

There is now an opportunity to change this. At policy level, there is a rhetoric that encourages teachers to engage with research (even if, for many teachers, having the time to be able to do this properly remains elusive). There are also many examples of teachers self-organising around research-engaged activities – in conferences, teachmeets and on social media. More and more research is becoming open source and accessible.

The problem remains that whilst access to new knowledge maybe opening up, the structures we often work in can serve to close it down. Much of the work that takes place is driven by a narrow set of questions, or the search for ‘quick wins’. The irony is that whilst we expect research to be transformatory, the reality may be that it is simply serving to reinforce. The challenge is to change this.

The answer lies in resisting the logic that separates teaching and research, and instead seeing teaching and researching as two sides of the same coin. Too often the two are divided (and this increasingly applies to universities as well as schools). Teachers teach. Researchers research. This is very different to the model of the early universities for example where teaching and research were seen as indivisible. The need now is to reinvent what Newman called ‘the idea of the University’ as a site of independent, critical thought and robust debate.  We need to celebrate research that asks big and difficult questions. We need to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty as the natural order, rather than pursuing quick fixes and easy wins. We need to debate what matters, as well as searching for what works. Above all we need to remind ourselves that the values of academic freedom, in schools as much as universities, are important features of a democratic society.

Such an opportunity provides a challenge to both researchers in universities and teachers in schools.  The challenge for researchers is to reinvent the idea of the university, but also to extend it beyond the bricks and mortar of the building we call ‘the university’.  The image of university education departments as disconnected and isolated ivory towers has long been a caricature. For example, in England the level of partnership work between schools and universities in relation to teacher education has been substantial over very many years. To portray it as otherwise is often a deliberate misrepresentation for political ends.  There is a need however to develop new relationships, be active in new spaces and not only make research more open and accessible, but more engaging.

The challenge for teachers is to begin to look up, in a system that often only encourages looking down.  Engaging with research is the way to re-professionalise the work of educators, and to counter the trends towards de-professionalisation that are long established in the system.  This is not easy.  Teachers’ working conditions often militate against such engagement, whilst the system, intentionally, does little to encourage discussion of big questions. However, the only people who can change this are teachers themselves. Many years ago, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves wrote a book entitled ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ I think teacher professionalism is worth fighting for.  However, this cannot be a ‘leave it to me, I’m the expert’ form of pseudo-professionalism. Rather it is a claim to professionalism predicated on a recognition of the extraordinarily complex work of teachers. This requires an engagement with research to help address the deep and complex questions that present themselves every day in every classroom in every school.

There is an opportunity to move beyond the impoverished debate about theory vs practice. Such divisions are unhelpful, and often cultivated deliberately. Another world is possible, but those of us who work in education must be willing to build it for ourselves. That possibility only becomes a probability if we find new ways to work together.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

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