Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Evidence, research and professionalism

Both Conservatives and Labour have now made raising the professional standing of teachers a priority in the lead-up to the General Election next May.  For Tristram Hunt, this is linked to a teachers’ ‘Hippocratic oath’ while the Conservatives now propose to establish a College of Teaching to protect standards and to raise the status of the teaching profession. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says she wants teaching to be seen as having a similar status as professions such as medicine and law and will ‘allow teachers, like other professions, to set their own high standards for their members; to take a lead in improving the profession's skills and abilities; and to champion higher standards for children.’

The government says that it will set up a fund to provide ‘evidence-based professional development, led by a network of more than 600 outstanding teaching schools’.  For those of us who were involved in this sort of research when we were teaching, this is a welcomed move.  But, evidence-based research is neither easy to do nor something that can be directly linked to improvements in standards even if that was its intention.  Having spent two years doing an Advanced Diploma in Education with John Elliott at UEA and a M.Phil at Cambridge, I found that effective evidence-based research is something that takes time and does not lead to immediate solutions…it is a process that creates a way of thinking about teaching and learning rather than simply an administrative tool to achieve change.  Unless this distinction is recognised and the problematic nature of the notion of ‘evidence’ in evidence-based research is recognised then is is probable that it will lead to ‘cosmetic’  results or action without change…change in slow motion. 

It has been my experience that teachers fall into three broad categories: those who embrace change, those who resist change and the majority who fall between the two and hope to continue what they’re doing and for whom change is less a challenge more an obstacle to get over.  When my much-maligned generation went into the profession many of us did so because we saw teaching as a life-long vocation…we were never going to get rich teaching as many of our colleagues did who entered the legal or medical professions.  Few teachers did any research and those who did were regarded as somewhat exotic beings…I remember being told by a prominent head teacher in the late 1980s that doing research into teaching would get me nowhere and that it was of little value.  In fact, for most teachers it was what has been called a ‘quiet billet’ involving little planning…many teachers wrote their lesson plans once and then used them for the remainder of their careers…with an liberal use of coercion to enforce authority.  The assumption was, something I was told in my first professional development session as a teacher…and this statement was the whole of the session…if you assume that you have a class of disruptive idiots in front of you, you’ll never be disappointed.

We have come a long way from that antediluvian view and it is to be hoped that a College of Teaching will further develop the excellent classroom-based research that has been a feature of good professional development since the 1990s but, despite all the attempts to establish a well-paid cadre of excellent teachers, we still do not have an administrative cadre in the profession.  The inevitable route for the excellent teacher and middle-manager is out of the classroom and into educational administration and there is a considerable attitudinal and intellectual difference between being an excellent teacher and being an excellent manager…managing finances is very different from managing children.   

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