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My pledge to Teachers as an Education Researcher.

And why the researcher-teacher relationship needs to be talked about.

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to work as an educator. Initially that meant being a teacher, but as I’ve stumbled blindly into further and different levels of study that’s changed. Most recently, in September 2014, I officially became a Postgraduate student and researcher examining (broadly) the role of technology in chemistry education (largely) up to first year degree level.

In the past five months that I’ve been weaned in the world of education research, a few issues have become blindingly obvious. The most potentially damaging of which is the discord between education researchers and the teaching practitioners. That is, the two exist independently of each other. Not completely, but enough. Enough to be ultimately damaging future students, who are arguably the most valuable resource we have as a race. They’re certainly important enough for us to treat them better than we currently do.

Recognising the problem

I am by no means the first to observe this. In fact the British Educational Research Association has just put out their final report on the state of Research and Teacher Education. The below quote from their final report [link to PDF] can probably best sum up the situation: that teachers are not receiving consistent (or even existent) research-driven professional development:

In many settings, teachers’ experience of CPD is fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research in all its different forms. Addressing this reality should be a priority for policy makers... Higher Education and the broader professional research community have an important role to play in the development of research-rich cultures in schools and colleges. Universities – especially but not only their departments of education – need to maintain the capacity and personnel to support teachers and school and college leaders involved in research and enquiry ‘on the ground’. The need for this support is vital because of the well-documented pressures that teachers and school and college leaders operate under. While it is an assumption of many contributors to the Inquiry that teachers should and want to remain up to date with the latest developments in their subject and in practice and theory more broadly, the suggestion is not that every teacher should be required to be actively and continuously involved in doing research, whatever the benefits of this might be; the existing workload and performance pressures with which teachers cope preclude this. (p.12)

Who’s fault is it anyway?

Dennis Hayes, an educationalist who was part of the reference group used in the production of the reports, recently wrote about his experiences and related beliefs:

It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers…educational researchers put the cart before the horse. Get into debate and relevant research will follow and be taken up.

Dennis, while I disagree with your pessimistic outlook, you’ve probably got the right end of the stick. Imagine this: three professionals in a staff room, bemoaning the lack of clear and actionable guidance provided by research. And now imagine the same three individuals in an academic’s office exacerbated that teachers very clearly aren’t listening to their quite obviously clear instruction. Both are equally plausible, and are definitely scenarios I have witnessed first hand.

To this situation I present an opinion which I admit is potentially dangerous, unpopular, and the product of youthful wishful thinking: I believe that solving this issue lies directly with researchers. If you are trying to solve a problem (say… poor quality of instruction to chemistry GCSE students) through research, then your efforts should include all actions through the conceptualisation, development, testing, and delivery cycle. Until your theory is impacting real life students, in real life classrooms, by actual teachers — your worth as an education researcher stops as a member of the research community. You do not reach the teaching and learning community — the very system you’re studying. I would not measure this as success.


An inherent and hard problem to solve.

To rapidly caveat my previous statement where I heavily criticise those who built the ground I stand on, it’s necessary to look at why this is the case. It’s certainly not because the research community is lazy — the sheer number of academic journals and subsequent publications relating to education and teacher training stands testament to this.

Education research now sits at an extremely exciting cross-roads, moving further into the field of quantitative research, and a systems-based approach while remaining grounded in its beautiful (but limiting) holistic nature. More frequently education researchers adopt approaches which are relatively scientific in nature, in a well justified attempt to improve the validity of their claims.

Yet are such approaches valid? In a 2012 article, Ian Clark provides an excellent overview of the limiting nature of social systems studied in education reserach:

methodological reductionism does not adequately address the study of complex, non-linear, nested, and multi-dimensional social systems. In general terms, human behavior cannot be assumed to be predictable or repeatable. In specific terms, assessment takes place in an “indeterminate zone of practice”, which requires teachers and students to regulate learning by “thinking on their feet” (Schön 1987)…The work of the social constructionist is more complicated than that of a paleontologist, who can take a bone or two of a dinosaur and reconstruct the whole animal. When non-linear systems interact with the environment emergent properties cannot be predicted, because non-linearity leads to instability and uncertainty, hence the need for a theoretical framework which includes methodologies which explicitly investigate the grain of non-linear systems. (p.219)

The crux of his message being that any system involving humans are hard to work with. A statement I’m sure will not shake your very being. Yet a surprising number of education researchers make assumptions similar to this, at least to some degree. Attempting to draw claims, or make alterations, based on a single component of a learning system. My person current bug-bear is people’s apparent fascination with reducing cognitive load. Reducing cognitive load is often done by reducing an activity to its minimalist roots, using just those aspects which are directly relevant to a point to be made. For example in chemistry, using simple uncomplicated set up to show students the practice of, and idea behind titration — often done without large or breakable glassware. As a minimalist I find this idea exceptional and brilliant, however once you’ve altered one aspect of a system you’re going to change a lot of other things, and this is a very complicated pill to swallow.

This interconnected nature presents researchers with a great many difficulties — how are we going to make a difference when we don’t know what worked today with this group of students will not work next Tuesday with another? That’s a scary and difficult prospect and it’s no wonder many do not full account for it’s implications.

This system consists not only of the teachers students, but of the immediate classroom, and the wider sociocultural context. I’m not saying doing a titration with a pipette will affect the perception of gender by society, but these are all factors.

What’s more, teachers are all adults — unique individual humans with idiosyncratic teaching methods which may or may not be ideal. Teachers may be jaded by researchers, and unwilling to work with with a 22 year old with no experience in teaching a classroom. Students may feel similarly. Very few students understand the importance of their education at the time they receive it.

As anyone who knows anyone who teachers will know — they’re under a lot of pressure a lot of the time. They’re generally very sleep deprived because teaching is a hard job. A very hard job. However researchers too have pressures — we consistently need to prove our worth to our supervisors, our funders, our managers, our departments, our wider research community. A lot of the time this means we have to publish. Publish publish publish. We are constantly told to make an impact — a factor mainly measured by our publications and their associated citation in the wider research community. I don’t say this to lessen the severity of the pressure on teachers, but instead to say we too are under pressure. As much as I might want to help save the world of chemistry education — my PhD funding was given on the condition that my work contributes to improving the standards of teaching in my University’s chemistry department. An excellent and noble goal, but one which takes time away from working with real-life teachers. Researchers may live in an Ivory Tower, but that doesn’t mean they’ve chosen it.

Finally, the obvious point to make is that it’s hard. It’s really difficult. Not only do we need traditionally academic research skills: conceptualisation, development, demonstration that something is (not) working, but it also takes people skills: You have to be able to talk to teachers and students. This is a broad skill set that I don’t personally feel I will ever completely fulfil let alone master.


My Pledge: Action over ignorance

Despite these difficulties, I know the kind of researcher I want to be. I accept and relish that I do not have complete control over my research process. It means compromise, and it means being wrong.

I want to be aware of the social systems around teaching and learning in the real world. I do not want to ignore any individual or group. I want to work with teachers and students. I want my writing and speech to reach those who need and want it, and want them to understand what I’m saying. I want to escape the ivory tower. I want to change the way teachers teach and students learn. I want to change the way we see and define education in general, and science education in specific.

At the end of the day — teachers need to have greater access to education research as a process as well as its implications. I am extremely grateful for my background in environmental science — for showing me the need for evidence based approaches, and how to implement these findings in the real, complex, hard-working world.

This means not thrusting a bunch of articles at teachers and expecting something out the end, something other than resentment. It’s about delivering education, ideas, conversation, and thought in such a way that teachers can not only access, but also utilise them. This means being able to understand and then put it into practice. Personally I see it as my ultimate goal to make this as easy as possible for teachers and educators.

This doesn’t mean doing everything for them, it means making teachers want it, and then enabling them to get it. The specifics of this goal will likely concern the rest of my research career, which may or may not include my natural life.

Not alone

I won’t even pretend I’m the first person to realise this problem and do something about it. This approach can broadly be classified as Participatory Action Research — a methodology popularised in chemistry education at least, by Ingo Eilks — a German chemical education researcher who structures a lot of his research in consultation process with teachers and educators. The approach is receiving traction, with relevant work coming out more frequently.

This is a promising time for education researchers and teachers and I’m legitimately proud to say that I am part of it.

This is definitely a journey, and not one that I intend to do alone.