Monday, September 18, 2006

Education research: not off to a good start!

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Having said all of that, out there in the blogosphere, which didn't exist when Hargreaves delivered this lecture, teachers are faithfully recording the results of their efforts: successes, failures, lessons learnt - homing in on the education arm of learning. The Vicki Davises, the Jeff Utechts, the Graham Wegners, the Bob Sprankles of the world. And, at the post-compulsory end, the likes of George Siemens and Barbara Ganley. Blogs, podcasts and wikis abound. And, while they may not constitute formal research, they do constitute a body of knowledge which can be accessed by any with the interest and the means.

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!


Harold Jarche said...

"throw caution to the wind" I say, but then I'm a learning activist ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, me too, rather... which is what I'm afraid of. I'm likely to get myself branded as a troublemaker from the off!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that it might have been deliberately picked in order to provoke discussion!

Anonymous said...

Karyn, what a brilliant set of comparisons. I say go for it. But then I would!

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

I used to be a market researcher so here are some thoughts he might understand:

Just remember that something has to be used to create the primary research question. The anecdotal evidence of teachers such as myself make great resources for developing the "primary question" used in more widespread research.

Secondly, there is the old adage that when you dissect a frog, he is no longer a frog. Any time a living, breathing element is studied there is a certain amount of error that is introduced. When doctors study the human body, there are many variables but it is still one body.

When a person studies the classroom, there are so many variables that need to be isolated that it is virtually impossible.

So, although research is very important (everything we do at our school is research based), you end up having to use meta-analysis like Marzano has used. If you want to find truly useful research, he's the one I like because by using meta-analysis (or analysis of a large number of studies to find patters) you tend to remove so many variables and see true patterns emerge.

The tough thing about analysis of technology is that it is evolving so quickly, it does not achieve stasis long enough to actually study it.

I hope you'll keep your cool, do your research and discuss these topics in a meaningful professional way because I have found soap boxes to be slippery routes to irrelevance and I've stood (or slipped) off too many in my lifetime!

Good luck, if my little bit of research background can help you, e-mail me offline. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

jvvw - I had considered that possibility, and I honestly hope that that's the case. Otherwise I am a bit worried that we're starting with something that's a decade old.

Mark - Thanks, and yes - I can just see you doing exactly that, but you would be so much subtler about it than I would. You'd ask all sorts of provocative questions and then sit back and chortle to yourself as chaos ensued!

vicki - the voice of gentle reason in amongst those egging me on to stir up trouble. Bless you. Thanks for the warning and, yes I know about the dangers of that soapbox, (and I bear the scars to prove it) but I tend to have a 50 horsepower mouth and a 5 horsepower brain. I am your stereotypical shoot-from-the-hip South African. There are those who know me, those who love me, and those precious, precious few who know me and still love me. Among them it is said you always know where you stand with Karyn - if you can stand at all, that is! My sister-in-law says I am the most grown-up person she knows... until someone touches on one my hot issues - then all semblance of maturity vanishes and it's handbags at dawn. It might not surprise you to hear that my favourite disciple is Peter, I so understand that man! I draw much comfort from his story - right up until the point where tradition tells us he was crucified upside down! As I said, I am hoping to be civil. I'll let you know.