Crossing Boundaries Between Research and Practice...
...A Response to 'Using Research to Promote Equity in Education'
Last week, a number of EPPE Network members attended a seminar at the University of Glasgow led by Professor Mel Ainscow, a renowned education academic and co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education. The talk centred on how research can be used to promote equity in education, drawing on Prof Ainscow’s diverse professional experiences. Undoubtedly, this topic is one which is of great interest to EPPE Network members, and we are no exception. In fact, the theme and content of the talk provoked a number of interesting and challenging conversations about the boundary between practice and research that we thought should be shared via the network blog.
Both of us are former teachers who recently left the classroom. We both chose to pursue an MSc in Education, Public Policy and Equity and reorient our careers towards research and policy within education. Both of us made this change as a result of frustrations we felt as practitioners, unable to achieve the levels of excellence, reflexivity and systemic knowledge we both knew were possible, but were hard to attain without dedicated time and space outwith the classroom. Both of us are now working in the fields of education policy and research and we now both face a new set of frustrations as we try to integrate our complex and imperfect ‘front line’ experiences with the models and ideals of education research. Each of us has encountered moments of defensiveness when researchers have made suggestions about what teachers ‘should’ be doing in classrooms. We have also spent long periods reflecting on how our own practice was not without fault and did not always serve the interests of our pupils in the ways we hoped. In this blog, we take Prof Ainscow’s concluding remarks as a jumping off point to reflect on our own views of how research and practice interact in education, incorporating the enriching, and at times conflicting, duality of our identities as practitioners and researchers.
Prof Ainscow concluded his talk with two quotes from James Hiebert and colleagues in their paper A Knowledge Base for the Teaching Profession: What Would It Look Like and How Can We Get One?, which we respond to in turn based on our own experiences:
"Teachers would need to change their view that teaching is a personal private activity and adopt the more risky but rewarding view that teaching is a professional activity that can be continuously improved if it is made public and examined openly." (Hiebert et al., 2002:13)
When we position ourselves as classroom teachers, this can feel like a challenging suggestion to digest. It has been our experience that the mantle of expectation rests heavy on the shoulders of teachers, with little acknowledgement of the demanding contexts within which they are working. It is often asked that teachers be all things to all students (and their communities), and yet they face restrictive pressures from high-stakes accountability mechanisms, insufficient resources and time, and rapidly changing global factors - all of which impact the extent to which teachers can meet their own ideal standards, let alone those set by different publics.
That is not to say we advocate an insular profession. With consideration for the amount of scrutiny often directed towards teachers, we agree that a perspective shift — making teaching less of a persona-led, individualised and isolated activity — and more collaborative development would create space for teachers to work more proactively with a broad spectrum of colleagues, researchers and policy makers for the benefit of everyone, including teachers. More effective, authentic, and empathetic perspective-taking is challenging and takes time, but is grounded in simple practices, like knowledge-production and personal connection.
Sarah recently spent a day with Heads and Board Chairs from a number of independent schools. They were asked to spend 5 minutes interviewing each other about a high priority concern or challenge in their schools. While the activity was simple, many of them reported that they had learned more about the education issues in their own school, as well as other schools across the country, than they had in a long time, simply because they were asked to focus solely on ONE task and issue for 5 (“teacher”) minutes. The results of this activity are an indication of how insular, isolated, and focused on self-preservation we can all become when we do not practice: i) being present, focused, and listening; and ii) sharing our concerns and challenges with others in our field. Worrying or trying to solve problems alone rarely results in the most effective, positive solutions. How productive could a similar activity be if it was expanded to include teachers, researchers, policy makers, or even the media? What makes a difference is whether teachers are given the time and freedom to step out of their self-preservatory routines and begin this type of reflection, rather than simply urged towards 'professionalism'.
"Researchers would need to move from undervaluing the knowledge teachers acquire in their own classrooms to recognizing the potential of personal knowledge as it becomes transformed into professional knowledge." (Hiebert et al., 2002: p. 13)
As practitioners, this is a perspective that resonated deeply with us throughout the MSc process and beyond into our new careers. In the same way that teachers are guilty of isolation in service of productivity and self-preservation, researchers can easily fall into the same practices. In addition, universities are not always best positioned as institutions to valorise and incorporate non-academic knowledge. Again, conversation - ranging from formal and structured to informal, fluid, and ongoing - promotes understanding, empathy, and ultimately, action. The practice of having conversations is one that is highly undervalued and under-utilised in both professions, and even more so between the two. That being said, conversation should not be assumed to result in easy 'right answers'. Diversity and Inclusion Strategist Aldon Habacon argues that we must have “courageous conversations” about complex and challenging issues to provoke authentic, empathetic, and genuine understanding of each other’s viewpoints and deeply held assumptions. This echoes Prof Ainscow's insistence on being a researcher who is at the table where decisions about education are made, ready to challenge and disturb the status quo where necessary.
We both feel privileged to occupy a space between two professions and perspectives at this point in our careers and as result, we find ourselves well-equipped to engage in critical dialogue of this kind. That doesn't make the conclusions any less messy or challenging, indeed as this discussion demonstrates, our dual perspectives can often be held in uncomfortable tension. What is clear is that by crossing the divide between research and practice we, and our colleagues like us, are on our way to becoming more reflective practitioners and more nuanced researchers. That boundary crossing is something we find enormously powerful and is a major part of our work with the EPPE Network. Our hope is that by making the "courageous conversations" that are already going on between colleagues in education more visible, and by providing a platform through which further discussions can take place, informed, constructive action will result. We want to talk, and we hope that you will join us.
Many thanks to this week's contributors Sarah Kingstone and Ellen Vanderhoven. You can learn more about their work on their member profiles or get in touch with the EPPE Network team via firstname.lastname@example.org.