Thursday, October 27, 2011

Research, Knowledge and the Teaching Profession

by Ben Levin — August 29, 2011

The central argument in this short essay is that teaching practice in all schools should be grounded in evidence of effective practices based on both professional knowledge and external research, and that the development of a system to do this is a central need in education.

It is ironic that everyone in schools thinks that the work teachers and students do together is the most important thing about schooling, yet at the same time we are very reluctant to prescribe what teaching should look like. Those positions are logically incompatible. If teaching is so important – as I believe it is – then surely every school has an obligation to make sure that all teaching practice is as good as it can be. And surely every educator has an obligation to seek to improve his or her practice by being familiar with research and by getting feedback from colleagues and students.  
Yet we know that in most schools and school systems, teaching practice varies greatly from one classroom to another, and that results also vary greatly. If you don’t believe this, just ask students or parents. I have also asked many groups of school leaders about the variance in teaching practice. They all admit it is there but very few of them are doing anything about it in a systematic way.
If teaching is a real profession – and I believe it is – then it should engage in what other professions do, which is the pursuit of high quality practice every day and by every single person in the profession. This means not just sharing knowledge, but agreeing, based on evidence, on what counts as good practice and expecting everyone to be guided by such agreement.
In education, this idea is not widely accepted at all. Rather, the belief that teachers should individually determine their own practice is very deeply engrained. This belief is held not only by teachers, but also by many academics in education, who regard autonomy as the central aspect of professionalism. Yet this attitude is not characteristic of other professions. In fact, a professional is only autonomous in certain senses. Professionalism consists in the application of knowledge to specific situations; it does not permit a professional to make choices based on personal style or experience where those preferences are not consistent with the best available knowledge. Of course in all professions the reality is not always consistent with this ideal, but in teaching, the ideal frequently seems to be that teachers should be able to use whatever practices they want.
This kind of agreement on good practice is not about teachers being ordered about on how to teach. It is not about principals or school boards issuing dictates on daily teaching or lesson plans. That is managerialism, not professionalism, and it is inconsistent with what we know about building good practice, which requires the belief of the professionals involved.
Rather than managerial direction, I prefer teachers collectively owning their practice and expecting all colleagues to do what is right for students. “I’ve always done it this way,” or “that way doesn’t work for me” is no more legitimate for a teacher than it would be for any other professional who refused to follow professional codes of practice. What would we think of a dentist who refused to give a patient a lead cover when taking an x-ray or an engineer who declined to use a computer to verify calculations because “I’ve never done it that way”? Personal preferences cannot be allowed to override collective professional knowledge.
A commitment to common practice does not at all take the spontaneity and creativity out of teaching, any more than requiring 14 lines takes the creativity out of writing a sonnet or requiring punctuation takes the creativity out of writing prose. Indeed, as Campbell pointed out years ago (1972), a high level of technical skill actually increases the potential for creativity; it does not reduce that potential. You have to be good at something to be creative about it. Our knowledge about teaching is still limited in many ways (e.g., Hattie, 2008), so there are numerous areas in which there is no agreement on good practice. But where we do know about effective practices, such as using formative assessment, or giving students input and choice, or starting with an assessment of what students already know, or encouraging students to read in their first language, there should be no room for educators to decide they just don’t want to do these things.
Sometimes this idea of collective ownership of practice is translated into the concept of professional learning communities, in which teachers work together to define and implement good practice. Certainly effective professional work does require collective efforts leading to the commitment of teachers to new and better practices. As noted earlier, professionalism has to be built, not imposed from outside. And new practices have to be rooted in the realities of the profession; they have to be ideas that make sense to professionals. Moreover, we know that individual practice is deeply affected by the social setting. So we cannot change practice one teacher at a time; changes will only be sustained if they are supported by and consistent with the way the school or district as a whole operates. In that sense, professional learning communities are a part of a new teacher professionalism. However they are not enough.
Relying on learning communities is not enough because there is no system or driver in this approach that works towards compelling evidence on better practice. The history of professions is littered with examples of new ideas that were entirely rejected by the profession itself before they eventually became conventional wisdom and normal practice. The resistance of doctors to washing their hands between seeing patients is just one of the most egregious examples of the many that could be cited in medicine and virtually every other profession. People, in whatever occupation, are hardily resistant to evidence when it conflicts with our habits or long held predilections.
That is why the second key element in improving teaching has to be a robust research and development effort. Various ideas have to be tested and carefully evaluated, using the best available research and analysis, to determine if they actually do produce better results. Again, we simply have too much evidence, in education and other fields, of practices that were advocated – and often adopted – and only later found to produce no improvement in results.
The possibility for real improvement lies in bringing these two elements together. Research findings cannot determine practice because the results do not always take account of the endemic features of practice, and they will not have impact if they are inconsistent with how most practitioners see their work or with the social organization of schools. On the other hand, practical experience alone is not sufficiently trustworthy either, because it plays on human tendencies to favor what we like or what suits us ahead of what can be shown empirically to be true.
At present, no education system has anything like an organized system of this kind that brings together research evidence and practitioner knowledge in a way that privileges neither but forces each to be tested against the other in a way that is most likely to advance knowledge. Indeed, it is not even clear what such a system would look like if it were to be meaningful on the scale of a state or national education system. It would surely involve very different approaches to research than currently exist in most universities or other research institutions.
But the generation of valid and reliable knowledge, difficult as it is, is only a first step. The more important and difficult task is to have that knowledge become the norm for everyday practice. We know from history that practices in many fields spread very slowly even when they have strong empirical support. In education the mechanisms for learning from evidence are also weak. Few school systems have any organized system for learning about, sharing, and applying research findings in a methodical way. Teaching as a profession does not have the equivalent of, say, clinical guidelines that are designed to shape practice in health care.
Yet the benefits of moving in this direction are evident. If teaching is a matter of what any teacher decides to do, then it becomes vulnerable to whatever practices an external body, such as a legislature, wants to impose. It is only when a profession can demonstrate that its practices are well grounded in evidence that it can have any grounds to resist the imposition of others’ ideas. In this sense, teachers’ autonomy actually rests on their embrace of a model of professionalism in which teachers use evidence to define and shape their collective practice. Since the results of such efforts will also be better for students – by definition, since they rest on the best evidence of effectiveness – this is clearly the direction in which we should be trying to move. If teachers, teacher organizations and researchers work together on this goal, we could see very large improvements not only in student outcomes, but in teacher efficacy and satisfaction. Teaching would then be able to think of itself as a true profession.
Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to live by. New York: Penguin.

Hattie, J.A.C. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses relating to achievement. London and New York : Routledge.

Levin, B. (2010). Can education be a research-based profession? The Australian Educational Leader, 32(2), 21-23.
Levin, B. (2010). Leadership for evidence-informed education. School Leadership and Management, 30(4), 303-315.

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