Tomorrow I will attend my first lecture on my MA course. Subject: Reflective Professional Development and Educational Research. By way of preparation I have been sent a 12 page printout of a lecture which I must read before attending the session. The title of the lecture is "Teaching as a Research-Based Profession: Possibilities and Prospects". It was delivered to the Teacher Training Agency in 1996 (that's 10 years ago!) by David H Hargreaves, who was then Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge (perhaps he still is - it has proved unexpectedly difficult to establish whether this is the case). Googling the title of the lecture, I gather it had enormous impact, although I had not before read it in its entirety.
Prof Hargreaves compares education to medicine as a research profession. He says:
The medical profession has gained in public prestige concurrently with the growth of its research. The teaching profession has not.He contends that, unlike research into the natural sciences, educational research is non-cumulative. He refers to the lack of a knowledge base for teachers, and highlights the difference in the way the two professions approach applied research, particularly in the light of the fact that so little of the research is undertaken by teachers themselves. Doctors have access to journals to keep them abreast with developments and advancements in medical research. Teachers do not, nor do they bemoan the lack of them, according to Hargreaves. He talks about the way in which research has driven medicine forward and regrets the fact that the same cannot be said of education.
I'm still assimilating the material, but thus far (and in no particular order) I have had the following thoughts on his comparison between the fields of medicine and education:
- I would like to suggest that education is to learning what paediatrics is to medicine. It is that part of the field that is practised involving children. Paediatricians try to ensure that sound medical practice is followed as they tend their patients. Teachers try to ensure that effective learning takes place as they tend to their students. While, as Hargreaves says, there may not be a huge body of research on advances in education, but there are huge quantities of information on the subject of learning. It is the persistence in the view that education is somehow separate from learning (or that learning is a subset of education) that means that the results of learning and behavioural research do not make the transfer. Education is something that is done to people, while learning is something that people do. The goal is for learning to take place during the process of education, but this is sadly not always the case, as we often hear.
- Medical research is very often carried out on other creatures in laboratory conditions first. Since mammalian anatomies have so much in common, it is possible to extrapolate from the findings of such research. However, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which specifically educational research can be carried out on animals! On the other hand results of learning and/or behavioural experiments carried out on animals are well known (think Pavlov, Skinner et al). Mind you it could be argued that the transfer of these findings to humans is questionable, since behaviour patterns show less commonality across species. It is true that some educational research is carried out on "human subjects" although it is probably not politically correct to refer to these changes in policy as "experiments". (My own sister's ability to spell is probably entirely due to genetics and my mother's intervention, since she was one of the live subjects of a short-lived and failed experiment in literacy teaching called i/t/a - initial teaching alphabet. What an unmitigated disaster that was! And the cause of a whole batch of permanently poor spellers)
- Many medical advances have been made under the most adverse of conditions. For example, plastic surgery advanced in leaps and bounds during world war 1. Education is thankfully not often presented with such "conducive" conditions.
- Doctors do not have a curriculum to follow. And to me, this is a key point. They see their patients one at a time, and treat each one according to their needs. This frees them up to apply new thinking (their own or the outcome of recent research). The face of medicine has changed enormously as a consequence. Teachers do not have that measure of freedom. They see their learners in batches, and must follow the curriculum in order to prepare their charges for the final exam. As a consequence, the face of teaching has changed far less over the centuries.
- People visit the doctor because they recognise they have need of medical attention. People go to school because the law says they must, or because their parents have told them of the value of a good education.
- Medical researchers tend to explore existing conditions. Education faces the challenge of preparing people to do jobs that do not yet exist on equipment that has yet to be invented, solving problems that have yet to be identified.
Now it just remains to be seen whether I am able to hold my tongue and be civil when we come to discuss this subject tomorrow evening, or whether I leap aboard my soapbox, throw caution to the wind and stick my foot very firmly in my mouth. I am hoping for the former, but that soapbox is pretty close to being my natural habitat!