Just what is ‘evidence-based’ teaching? Or ‘research-informed’ teaching? Or ‘inquiry-led’ teaching?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 March 2017
‘It is by virtue of being an artist that the teacher is a researcher’ (Lawrence Stenhouse): deepening the connections between research and teaching
I’ve long campaigned for teaching to be a research-engaged profession, on the grounds that, as the brilliant scholar Jean Rudduck put it: ‘research leads teachers back to the things that lie at the heart of their professionalism: pupils, teaching and learning’. John Elliott, an equally distinguished thinker, provides a convincing rationale: ‘the structures of knowledge into which students are to be inducted are intrinsically problematic and contestable, and therefore objects of speculation’ – and consequently teachers have a responsibility to “model” how to treat knowledge as an object of inquiry.’
With the launch of the independent Chartered College of Teaching last month – an organisation by and for teachers to support ‘evidence informed practice’ – this seems a good time to examine what all this means.
Perhaps, though, I ought to start by doing a bit of ground-clearing around definitions. I think the notions of ‘evidence-based’, ‘research-informed’ or ‘inquiry-led’ teaching – which are often used interchangeably – might be more usefully thought of as forming a kind of continuum or spectrum of meanings. Each one of the three ideas carries its own freight of assumptions with regard to:
- the balance between academic and professional knowledge – for example, ‘inquiry-led’ teaching emphasises the importance of professional knowledge created in the teacher’s own context, whilst ‘evidence-based’ teaching implies the application of exogenous knowledge created elsewhere;
- the agency of teachers in critiquing and creating knowledge – again, ‘inquiry-led’ teaching emphasises the importance of the teacher’s role in co-creating new knowledge based on professional experience and expertise.
For me, each of the three ideas has its own strengths and benefits: thus, where the evidence is secure, sufficiently generalisable and yet able to be actively interpreted and shaped by teachers, it makes sense to talk about ‘evidence-based’ teaching. I’m thinking here, for example, of Carol Dweck’s extensive research on ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ ‘mindsets’ and the need for repertoires of learning approaches, which has been confirmed by independent neuroscientific research on the human brain’s plasticity. There’s no recipe that teachers have to follow (in fact quite the reverse), but rather a set of principles and concepts for teachers to engage with as they try to help their students learn.
‘Research-informed’ teaching makes good use of what research as a discipline can offer: especially conceptual frameworks for thinking about a problem and tools for critical-reflective practice. Engaging with research provides teachers with exposure to ideas and concepts they might not ordinarily come across and this enhances their breadth and depth of understanding. Bob Lingard, an influential educational leader and brilliant scholar, said teachers should cultivate a ‘researchly disposition’. He explicitly rejected ‘a model of teachers as simply translators or interpreters of educational research done elsewhere’. And Donald McIntyre – one of our most highly-regarded teacher educators – proposed that teachers need to be actively involved in critically trialling what he called ‘research-based suggestions’ [my emphasis].
‘Inquiry-led teaching’ seems to be particularly relevant to the many short- and long-term challenges that teachers have to address, the knotty problem that keeps them awake at night. Knowledge concerned with pedagogical practice requires continual testing, questioning and refining, and even re-defining, in different contexts, and by the teachers themselves. The metaphors teachers use to talk about the significance of such research for their practice are remarkably evocative – for example: ‘an island waiting to be discovered’, ‘a beehive pollinating the whole countryside’, ‘a beacon lighting up the landscape’.
And this surely brings us to the question of what we mean by ‘teaching’ on the one hand and ‘research’ on the other; for me, since they are in themselves complex and nuanced activities, the relationship between them must be at least as complex and nuanced.
First, then – despite what we are sometimes told about the need to make teaching more like medical practice – teaching is not an intervention, not a pill to be swallowed, a daily dosage downloaded from some big pharma of Ed Res. Teaching is one side of the coin of which the other is learning; and so teaching is primarily the practice and development of relationships, with ethical and affective as well as cognitive dimensions and responsibilities.
Second, both teachers and researchers need to negotiate the cognitive space, as it were. Teachers often have to struggle not just with unfamiliar language but with the inconclusiveness of much of the evidence; and researchers have to yield their expert and specialist ‘ownership’ of the research in order to allow teachers to articulate and develop their rather different meanings out of it. All of us working in this border country know how intense, messy and demanding a process this is, and how it needs to be understood, not in terms of the ‘application’ or ‘impact’ of research, but as personal and professional change through deepening our mutual understanding.
Third, the kinds of decisions that teachers have to make in the course of an ordinary day are very often intuitive, reflexive responses to what pupils are doing and saying in the moment, so teaching is as much an art as it is a science. This gives rise to a paradox, which you could put like this: the further along the path from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ a teacher travels, the less explicit and more second nature his/her practice becomes. That is why it is often a challenge for expert teachers to explain why they do what they do, and to articulate the precise reasons – ethical, emotional, intellectual – for the decisions they have made during any given lesson.
All this means that we need to get much better at developing innovative research methodologies that can turn the fluent, tacit knowledge of expert teachers into more explicit and codifiable knowledge that can be shared with and interrogated by other teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers. My sense is that this is being accomplished through structured and scholarly collaborations, of the kind you get in professional doctorate courses and other university-school partnerships. These kinds of programmes are designed to make the implicit explicit, to render more propositionally knowable, the complex, nuanced art of practice: perhaps analogous to choreographing the flux and flow of dance. I’d say that this vital – in the dual sense of important and living – process of knowledge creation is what underlies the expertise of authentic ‘professionals’.
Lesley Saunders is Visiting Professor, UCL Institute of Education and Newman University, Birmingham
This blog is based on a talk given at the launch of the IOE’s new Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact in Education