2017 is here, and Christmas feels like a distant memory as the spring term gets under way. But in recent days, staff rooms and classrooms all across Wales have been abuzz with tales of school trips, holidays, time spent with family, as well as the inevitable marking and prep.
For some teachers in Wales, much of last Autumn will have been spent by the word processor, or in the library, studying, reflecting, researching and writing. It’s been my privilege over the past few years to be part of a team supporting early-career teachers through the Welsh Government’s Masters in Educational Practice (MEP). Autumn half-term is when the Master’s dissertation deadline is fast approaching and MEP participants are putting the finishing touches to their 15,000-word teacher-led research projects. Every year I’m taken aback by the quality of the work I’m asked to supervise and review: the honesty and criticality of these teachers’ reflections; their willingness to look anew at their practice, and to engage with research, evidence and literature; the systematic approach taken to data gathering and analysis; and above all, the profound impact these teachers have on their learners, and also more widely on their colleagues, schools and professional learning communities. As a member of the alliance delivering the MEP, it has been a pleasure to have worked with the EWC and Welsh Government to develop an open searchable database of these teacher research projects, the Master’s in Educational Practice Research Library, and to have worked alongside BERA and WISERD Education to establish an Outstanding Teacher Inquiry Award for the MEP teacher research project judged to have been the most outstanding in each year.
We hear so much about the research-practice gap in education, and the alleged inaccessibility of educational research - both literally in terms of access to it, and discursively in terms of the style and register researchers use to convey findings. We also hear the view that educational research often takes no account of the daily, unpredictable realities of teaching, that its findings are not easily transferable to practice, and that research is done to teachers, and not always with and for them. Each of these criticisms and perspectives has some validity and a grain of truth to it. But criticism identifies a problem and does not in itself overcome it – in fact there is a risk that simple repetition and rehearsal of these barriers can make them self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.
My view is that it is time to make the research-practice gap a historical artefact: there is too much at stake to view the worlds of practice and research as separate and irreconcilable. A recent BERA inquiry on this subject, chaired by Professor John Furlong, noted that ‘research-rich’ school environments are the hallmark of high-performing education systems, where teachers and research institutes work closely together to facilitate the two-way exchange of knowledge and insight. And, the New Deal called for a new professional learning model that included the effective use of data and research evidence to inform and enrich educational practice and pupil learning.
We all have a part to play – teachers, Headteachers, policymakers and Universities - and we need to work together enable research and professional inquiry to become a staple component of initial teacher training, ongoing professional learning, and routine classroom practice. We need to create systems that harness teachers’ professional curiosity, creativity and commitment to learners, and enable them to test evidence-based approaches, and have the confidence, tools and support they need to create and disseminate new knowledge. We need to provide a framework where teachers have access to the most recent and reliable research evidence, and can seek support from Universities and research institutes on finding relevant evidence. We also need to do this without adding to workload, or without taking the best and most promising teachers out of the classroom for too long. Many of us will have seen the virtuous cycle of reflection, creativity, analysis and enriched practice that can be produced when the correct support framework is in place for teachers to engage in research and professional inquiry.
So, back to our MEP teachers who have been busily putting the finishing touches to their research projects this Autumn. These teachers and many others like them are part of the solution to ensuring that Wales can continue to build a profession that is comfortable with educational research and inquiry, that can take a critical view of the validity, limitations, and applicability of evidence in live classroom contexts; and a profession that has the capacity, tools and support to contribute directly to research and inquiry, based on teacher-led concerns and schools’ own practice enhancement agendas.