Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan and Minister of State for Schools David Laws announced earlier this week in an article for the Guardian their support for a College of Teaching that “can drive the profession forwards, helping to put it on an equal footing with other high-status professions such as medicine and law.”
This is something that will be welcomed by many teachers, as it represents a big step towards the attainment of profession-led standards of practice. However, many of us will welcome calls for the professionalisation of teaching with a degree of caution.
Why? Well, Morgan and Laws state clearly the need for an “evidence-led profession” and “evidence-based professional development” and, in doing so, they may be seen to tacitly agree with claims by the previous Secretary of State that the education establishment is overrun by a “blob” of teachers and academics with scant regard for “what works” and who ensure our education system gets steadily and “progressively worse”.
According to the website ClaimYourCollege, the college of teaching “will also harness the experience of its members and draw on robust evidence that will speak truth to politicians and pundits – reducing ineffective interventions, policy and practice.”
Whilst I welcome the increasingly prominent role of “evidence-based” and “evidence-led” practices (though I prefer the term “evidence-informed practice”), I am concerned that the concept may be hijacked by those with a particular political stance who interpret evidence and research through the lens of their convictions.
When viewed from this perspective, a good question to ask would be what actually constitutes good evidence and whether, in education, professional judgement ought to, not only complement, but even temper what research suggests. Professor Biesta of the University of Luxembourg suggests that research is often limited to “questions about the effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting, among other things, that what counts as ‘effective’ crucially depends on judgements about what is educationally desirable”. He adds: “judgement in education is not simply about what is possible (a factual judgement) but about what is educationally desirable (a value judgement)”.
When applied to education, Professor Sandra Nutley of the University of St Andrews suggests that randomised controlled trials, if they are to be used in education as widely as they are used in medical research, need “to be complemented by other forms of evidence, such as qualitative research and survey evidence if we want to know, not only how something works, but also whether it’s right for this particular group of people”. In her view “many schemes only recognise practices and programmes that are underpinned by the strongest of evidence bases. This can stifle innovation, especially where funding is tied to the use of only recognised policies and programmes. There is merit in programmes that seek to recognise practices that may be helpful but do not yet have a strong evidence base to underpin them”. In other words, one should not stop exploring new opportunities simply because the evidence base is deemed to be insufficient, as it may still be developing.
The views of leading academics in the field are reflected in Nesta’s report Decoding Learning, which clearly shows how digital technology can support some of these processes:
- Learning from experts – Theories of learning emphasise the role of a more knowledgeable other, or expert, in guiding learners. This could be a peer, but is more usually a teacher. Nesta’s research has found that digital technology offers new ways of presenting ideas, through animations, video lectures or podcasts.
- Learning with others – Research highlights three particularly promising areas for development: representational tools that enable the activities taking place to be presented to the learners; scaffolding tools that provide a structure for learning with others; and communication tools that support learners working at a distance from each other to collaborate.
- Learning through making – Digital technology can bring the idea of constructionism alive. Learners can construct anything in their imagination; and they can then share, discuss, reflect upon and, ultimately, to learn about that construction.
- Learning through exploring – Digital tools can provide new and engaging ways to explore information, and offer new ways to structure the environment that learners explore. The evidence in the few examples found was of a high quality and suggests that technology does offer the potential to enhance learning through exploration, an aspect which the authors of the report found to be currently underused and undervalued within educational settings.
- Learning through inquiry – Technology can be used to organise inquiry that might otherwise be difficult to accomplish, to change how learners look at problem solving, and to connect learners’ inquiries to ‘real world’ scenarios.
- Learning through practising – The report found that the use of technology to support practice is rarely seen to be innovative; but promising developments include the use of rich multimodal environments that can create challenging problems and provide appropriate feedback.
- Learning from assessment – The report also highlighted digital technologies’ potential to support formative assessment or the assessment of other skills. It found that using social networks and read-write technologies, such as web 2.0, can facilitate peer, collaborative and self-guided learning. Combining data, captured through a variety of digital tools, with learning analytics was found to offer great promise for assessment.
- Learning in and across settings – Finally, Nesta’s research suggested that technology can help learners apply and transfer learning from one setting, such as a lesson at school, to another, such as a field trip or the home.
What is striking about the findings, above, is how they differ from those by the government funded Education Endowment Foundation and its parent charitable concern The Sutton Trust, which, arguably, can both be described as promoting evidence-based yet traditional teaching practices (there was not a single mention of technology in the most recent report by the Trust on what constitutes great teaching).
So, whose evidence will the college of teaching base its recommendations for practice on? Who will decide what constitutes good evidence? Will we be encouraged to interpret this evidence as teaching professionals or will this evidence be interpreted for us? And would a college of teaching continue to eschew the application of technology to support teaching and learning as an “ineffective intervention”?
Who knows. Perhaps it’ll never happen. But then again, it might, so we’d better start thinking about what a college of teaching would do, what it would look like and what it would actually mean to teachers.
Professor Biesta is quoted from:
Biesta, G. (2007), Why “What works” won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57: 1–22