Education research: The intractable problems

One of the more curious aspects of our profession is the way in which knowledge about what makes effective practice has been created and disseminated to its own practitioners. We are I think, singularly myopic in this regard.

Education research has traditionally been one-way traffic. Research has been something done to teachers and not something done by teachers. The history of education research has been characterized by a top-down, “outside-in” model of inquiry where teachers have in effect been mere objects of study. What this has led to is a history of teachers being given answers to questions they didn’t ask and solutions to problems that often never existed.Another problem is not so much that we don’t have good research but rather we don’t know how to implement it at the level of the classroom. The resultant gap between theory and practice has engendered a problematic dynamic where good research is often filtered down to the classroom in a kind of ‘Chinese whispers’ dynamic where it often bears little or no resemblance to its original intention.

A good example of this is the way in which Dylan Wiliam’s seminal work on assessment “Inside the Black Box” was interpreted to mean kids simply knowing what level they were working at for inspection purposes. The work of Carol Dweck and the field of cognitive psychology is another instructive area. There is decades of robust evidence around cognitive psychology, specifically student self-perception and motivation with real implications for education. Yet at present, we have not really been able to translate that work into something that actually has impact at the level of the classroom. There is I think, a particular ironic cognitive dissonance about a school preaching the value of a Growth Mindset in assemblies but then students finding their target grades are a largely fixed entity.

A further issue is that education is often the victim of a reactionary myopia characterised by The Semmelweis Reflex (“the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.”) The term is named after the unfortunate Ignaz Semmelweis who discovered that bacteria was infecting mothers and children in a Viennese hospital in 1846, published conclusive research that would eventually save many lives and yet was publicly scorned at the time by his peers, one of who rejected his claims on the basis that “doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”.

Too many in our profession reject the use of evidence in any form and seem to think that education is a kind of unique profession, that is sui generis among other fields and where good practice is simply self- evident. This is perhaps exemplified best through the ‘well it works for me’ syndrome – something again which appears to be particular to teachers. I can’t think of many other professions where practitioners would be allowed to say “thanks but no thanks” to significant research around their own practice.

However, the recent emergence of practitioner-led research in schools through networks like ResearchED and NTEN represents an opportunity to address some of these intractable problems and provides a new dynamic of professional development and student evaluation. This year we established the Wellington Learning and Research Centre to open up a particular kind of intellectual space where we can ask our own questions and work with strategic partners to find answers that are specific to our community.

Our partnership with the Research Schools International team from Harvard Graduate School of Education allowed us to explore the complex area of student motivation – particularly the fields of grit and growth mindsets – and to conduct a comprehensive literature review, collect baseline data and begin to think about how we might translate that into a set of interventions to trial next academic year.

Engaging with evidence and research is a natural agent of change. What we don’t need are more external answers to questions we never asked and a top-down model of CPD that was as expensive as it was ineffective. Rather we need a more informed set of questions and conversations within our profession about how we might drive our own practice and development.

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