Should teaching be a research-informed profession?
Updated: Aug 16
Teachers are required to make decisions based on their professional judgement, it makes sense that understanding the latest educational research will enhance the ability of teachers to make the best decisions for their pupils (Brown, Zhang, Xu, & Corbett, 2018; Bush, 2018; Cain, Brindley, Brown, Jones, & Riga, 2019; Kennedy, 1997). The positive potential from engaging with research can extend beyond independent decision-making but can also impact the way in which teachers reflect and identify their professional capital (Bush, 2018; Day, Kington, Stobart, & Sammons, 2006; Goodnough, 2010; Handscomb, 2019; A. Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). Hargreaves (1996) goes as far as to say that research engagement will not only improve the quality of teaching, but also the ‘standing of teachers’ within society (D. Hargreaves, 1996, p. 1).
This all sounds wonderful, so if the benefits of research are so clear, then why is teaching not a research-based profession?
Far removed from the golden ticket as it has sometimes been portrayed, educational research and teachers’ ability to engage with it is both complex and flawed. How knowledge is generated and for whom it is created are currently barriers to teachers’ engagement with education research. How this can be resolved is still a question to which educationalists are seeking answers.
Further understanding of the relationship between teacher identity and the production of educational research is required and as both teacher and EdD researcher, I am in a unique position to see both the theory and the practice in action and as I can see it, this debate from the 1990s is a good place to start when we look into whether engaging with educational research is a good idea.
Educational research has three audiences:
2. teachers and school leaders
3. policy makers.
The way in which each of these audiences engage with the research is different and so the ‘usefulness’ of educational research can vary. Teachers and school leaders aim to use research to improve the outcomes and experiences of children in their classrooms, whereas policymakers aim to find patterns and effective practices that can be transferred into policy. On the surface, these two aims may seem are linked as they are both based around what can be implemented within the classroom, but what if overgeneralisation of evidence takes control away from teachers? For academics, the aim of educational research is to add to the current body of knowledge and improve our understanding of the systems and processes of education.
I think that an understanding of what the issues are with the use of educational research in schools can be summarised through the Hargreaves/Hammersley debate of the 1990s. It is an oldie, but a goodie.
In a lecture to the Teacher Training Agency in 1996, David Hargreaves identified several key barriers to teachers’ engagement with educational research and painted a picture of a broken system that did not serve its purpose. Hargreaves argued that having research-informed teachers would have a positive impact on the profession and that creating knowledge for an academic audience alone is misguided. His critique of the production of educational research is based on a comparison between that and the system in the medical profession which I will unpick here.
Is engagement with research always positive?
Hargreaves’ first point is that using research to inform practice would have a positive impact, but this research base does not exist. In 1996, as with now, teachers could be better supported by educational researchers as the work that was being undertaken has not always directly impacted what teachers were doing in the classroom or is not published in a format/location that is accessible to teachers, we lack a ‘shared technical language’ (D. Hargreaves, 1996, p. 2). Hammersley argued that it is not as simple as simply creating knowledge, but improving access to this knowledge that is important. There is a greater number of publications sharing current education research to teachers, such as the ResearchED series of ‘research informed guides’ or the peer-reviewed, teacher-centred Chartered College of Teaching publication Impact. Whilst these publications are increasing in number, we still have a way to go before we have a strong foundation of knowledge on which to build our research-informed house.
Another issues is about who educational research is for. Should it just be for teachers?; ‘parents, governors, administrators, pressure groups, politicians and citizens generally’ (Hammersley, 1997, p. 149) are all invested in education and so if we move to make educational research for just teachers we run the risk of excluding other actors. Whilst a more teacher-centred approach would make teachers feel more involved in creating knowledge, we have to be aware of the issues in the past that have led teachers to either ignore research or feel detached from it. Errors in following trends and the generalised policies being applied out of context has led to a healthy distrust of research in case new initiatives turn out to be yet another fad.
Comparing Medicine and Education
Hargreaves compares teachers and medical doctors. I remember this being a popular topic of debate on Twitter a few years go. Both are people-centred roles and whilst doctors deal with patients and family members, to whom teachers are responsible is a little more complex. Who are teachers responsible to? The answer could be parents, pupils themselves, governors, or society, depending upon one’s perspective.
As discussed above, teaching does not have an agreed research base from which to expand knowledge, whereas medical research builds upon what has done before a. For teaching, the same is not true as educational research is on the whole, non-cumulative (D. Hargreaves, 1996).This research based isn't impossible to create, but it is always going to be difficult and impacted heavily by the political climate at any given time.
There are two flaws in Hargreaves’s comparison between medicine and education. Firstly, it ignores the differences between the complexity of motivations in education and teaching. Secondly, it oversimplifies the role of the practitioner. Judgement is inherent in the medic and educator’s decision making. A doctor's main aim is to treat patients who have medical conditions and so success can be determined by their ability to cure them or manage their conditions. Failure can be measured by death and recovery rates. What constitutes a 'success' in education is far more complex than this. Hammersley does not value smaller studies carried out by individual practitioners such as action research. He claimed that they lack a clear contribution to the accumulation of knowledge. I think we have missed out on the big issues question; knowledge about what? This means that lines can be drawn between those who create knowledge and those who apply it to the classroom (probably a whole other blog entirely… not to mention the basis of my thesis!) but also along philosophical lines regarding what the function and purpose of education is.
The reality of having to make numerous decision simultaneously in the classroom whilst one pupil needs the toilet and another can’t find their book is far removed from Hargreaves’s perceived clean-cut role of educational research. Instead, the realities of teachers are much closely to what Schon defines as the ‘swampy wetlands’ of being a practitioner (Schon, 1983). The uncertainty and complexity of being a teacher means that rather than being able to read an article and apply its recommendations, teachers as professionals can make shrewd decisions by considering what is the right action for their context.
Promotion in schools is often quicker than in medicine. I was a head of department in my third year of teaching and am an Assistant Principal now after then years of teaching. This simply wouldn’t happen in medicine in the same way:
‘Promotion in hospitals is slow: one remains a junior doctor, working under the supervision of a consultant who ‘owns’ the patients, until one’s late thirties or so.’ Promotion is based on knowledge … that is assessed through examinations … Advances in medicine are made by leading practitioners who are for this reason deeply respected by juniors – and trusted by their patients. In education, by stark contrast, we have de-coupled promotion from both practitioner expertise and knowledge of research. A headteacher or a professor of education, though perhaps formerly an outstanding practitioner, rarely has regular teaching duties in a school. Teachers get transformed by promotion into managers… and lack the deep respect junior doctors show to their seniors.’ (D. Hargreaves, 1996, p. 4)
This is an over-simplification of what Hargreaves envisages as the ‘perfect’ system. In medicine, movement to private practice remove those conducting research in a similar way to headteachers leaving the classroom. Although this comparison may be flawed, Hargreaves has identified a potential problem in the education system: you don’t have to be research-informed to be a headteacher. In addition to this, companies have started to use this scientific approach to marketize educational research. Take for example the VAK ‘learning styles’ which is based on research undertaken by psychologists in the 1920s. Teachers and school leaders promoted the idea that pupils could be divided into visual, audio or kinaesthetic learners. Software, textbooks, school-based training, and continual professional development sessions were all purchased to organise and promote this idea. The search for a way in which we could categorise pupils and diagnose their learning needs, to be treated by a teacher using a vast variety of techniques for different pupils, led to a waste of money, time and resources.
Knowledge Production in Education
Simply put, knowledge is produced away from schools and is unlikely to be authored by those working in them full-time. This becomes an issues as it is ‘the researchers, not the practitioners, who determine the agenda of educational research’ (D. Hargreaves, 1996, p. 3). Knowledge generation is therefore created along the lines created by university academics, not the teaching profession and the production of knowledge in education is unique in that it relies on other disciplines such as cognitive science for its development rather than standing alone as a singular entity (Carr and Kemmis, 1986). As an academic discipline, educational research sits on the bridge between different social sciences. ‘Educational researchers have been adept at falling off both stools, achieving neither prestige form the social scientists (e.g. psychologists) nor gratitude from classroom teachers’ (D. Hargreaves, 1996, p. 3). Hammersley (1997) argues that Hargreaves has skirted over the issues surrounding knowledge acclamation in educational research, ignoring the move to qualitative research in the 1970s and the related criticisms of measuring impact and ‘positivism’ in research. (Hammersley, 1997).
Hammersley argues that ‘one important cause of the unsatisfactory nature of much educational research is that it is too preoccupied with producing information that will shape current practice. This seems likely to be one source of the lack of testing and cumulation of knowledge that Hargreaves complains about’ (Hammersley, 1997, p. 146). This adds another layer of complexity to the ability of educational research to support teaching – can educational research support teachers if we are only focusing on the present? This approach would mean that research engagement is valued on the effectiveness of short-term projects rather than as a wider principle of how practice should be conducted. It also means that we are not reaching the enduring and sustainable system that many of us who want to promote.
Vitally, the Hargreaves-Hammersley era debate has shown us how it can be difficult to link teachers with research.
Moving forward, the next generation of educational researchers must consider the practical, financial and philosophical barriers that need to be addressed before teaching can become a research-engaged profession.
In what we will call the ‘evidence based’ era, we need to move from a ‘what works’ agenda to a ‘what works best for teachers’ agenda if we are to improve the standing of the profession and quality of education.
Brown, C., Zhang, D., Xu, N., & Corbett, S. (2018). Exploring the impact of social relationships on teachers' use of research: A regression analysis of 389 teachers in England International Journal of Educational Research, 89, 36-46.
Bush, T. (2018). Professional learning communities and school leadership; Empowering teachers Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 46(5), 711-712.
Cain, T., Brindley, S., Brown, C., Jones, G., & Riga, F. (2019). Bounded decision-making, teachers reflection and organisational learning: How research can inform teachers and teaching British Educational Research Journal, 45(5), 1072-1087.
Day, C., Kington, A., Stobart, G., & Sammons, P. (2006). The personal and professional selves of teachers: stable and unstable identities British Educational Research Journal 32(4), 601-616.
Goodnough, K. (2010). The role of action research in transforming teacher identity: modes of belonging and ecological perspectives. Educational Action Research, 18(2), 167-182.
Hammersley, M. (1997). Educational Research and Teaching: a response to David Hargreaves' TTA Lecture. British Educational Research Journal, 23, 141-161.
Handscomb, G. (2019). Professional learning and research. In D. Godfrey & C. Brown (Eds.), An Ecosystem for Research-Engaged Schools; Reforming Education Through Research (pp. 138-153). London: Routledge.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital; Transforming Teaching in Every School London: Routledge.
Hargreaves, D. (1996). Teaching as a Research-Based Profession: Possibilities and Prospects Paper presented at the The Teacher Training Agency Annual Lecture
Kennedy, M. (1997). The connection between research and practice. Educational Researcher, 27(7).
Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner; How Professionals Think in Action London: Ashgate Publishing Limited.