Professor Marilyn Leask: Teaching - a self-improving profession? Together we can do it. Here's how
The hallmark of a profession is that there is a recognised knowledge base.
An international network of educators has come together in recent years to experiment with ways educators could work together to create and keep updated, an open online research informed knowledge base, using as far as possible, resources already in the education system e.g. the existing research activity by teachers and teacher educators. The initiative is called MESH - Mapping Educational Specialist knowHow.
MESHGuides (www.meshguides.org) are research and knowledge summaries presented as knowledge maps or flowcharts (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Vision: MESHGuide knowledge maps for building teacher knowledge
Many lessons have emerged from this experiment.
- Firstly there is little research in subject pedagogy at the level useful to teachers in classrooms.
- Secondly there is huge replication of studies in some areas and massive gaps in other areas.
- Thirdly, there is no mechanism for scaling up promising small-scale studies, for testing new insights across a wider range of settings.
- The fourth lesson is that for such a system to be sustainable, new practices have to be integrated into existing roles. Charity and government funding is inevitably short term as priorities change and so can only be relied on for special initiatives. In addition, educators are finding that government funded repositories disappear as administrations and priorities change.
- So the fifth lesson is that any online educational knowledge base needs to be independently sustainable. There are examples from other sectors with national subscription or advertising proving funding long term eg www.eun.org (European SchoolNet since 1995- 30 ministries pay a subscription) or www.khub.net (online communities for the public sector).
- The sixth lesson is that synthesis is necessary - a professional knowledge base with thousands of entries on the same topic just provides information overload.
So what can we do? One answer is to review current practices to see if more benefit could be gained from existing efforts. Teacher/teacher-educator research provides a useful example.
Lawrence Stenhouse is credited with initiating the teacher researcher movement (Stenhouse, 1975). What he envisaged was not that teachers would undertake unrelated small-scale studies but that there would be collaboration between teacher researchers and research workers to synthesise the findings of studies undertaken in different settings but using the same methodologies and focusing on the same issues. See Figure 2.
Figure 2: Stenhouse's full vision
A model of this synthesis approach in action is available in the online library in the MESHConnect Open Door online community (https://khub.net/web/efc-mesh, Leask in Hopkins 1989).
Much close to practice research is locked up in PhD/EdD/MA theses. So another example of working more efficiently within existing resources is for universities to require those undertaking PhD/EdD/MA theses to write a summary of findings for users. Selected summaries would need to be added to the MESHGuides repository so they are findable. Often findings can be distilled to a couple of paragraphs of advice for research users and these can be added to existing MESHGuides to strengthen or extend the knowledge base.
Figure 3 MESH – freeing up knowledge locked in PhD/EdD/MA theses
The medical profession is 20 years ahead of the education sector in grasping the knowledge sharing opportunities offered by digital tools. See for example the knowledge services provide by www.cochrane.org or NICE pathways or Map of Medicine Healthguides (subscription only).
Translational research - theory to practice research
MESH is a 'translational research' (theory to practice) system for education. Google shows ten million entries for 'translational research' but most of it is for medicine where there are journals, professors and institutes for translational research. In education, professional association journals are the closest to translational research journals. Figure 3 summarises advice from the British Educational Research Association on best practice in research writing showing the importance of the professional publication ie what is now known as the 'translational research' publication.
Figure 4 Insert translational research slide.
The MESH initiative is huge in scope but as has been mentioned, the vision can be realised by the efficient use of resources already in the system. Look what Wikipedia has achieved in a short period. Worldwide there are tens of thousands of educational research projects undertaken each year often by teachers undertaking small-scale studies. Imagine if it was possible to coordinate the efforts of even a small number percentage of these teachers – even just those in Wales to address issues practitioners face around teaching. A conservative estimate, based on the contents of teacher training textbooks, is that there would be a minimum of 60,000 entries if the MESH repository was to start to cover the research evidence about effective teaching of every concept to every kind of learner with every kind of special need at various key stages in their learning.
Digital tools support new ways of working (See Figure 5) but we as educators have to step up to the mark and develop new ways of working which suit our profession.
Figure 5 From 19thC to 21stC professionalism
No one outside the education sector can realise the vision outlined in Figure 5 and above for teaching to become an evidence- based profession. Waiting for others to tell us what and how to teach is an admission that as a profession we have no evidence base for practice.
Innovative teachers and teacher educators from a number of countries with their professional associations have started the journey towards creating a fully comprehensive MESHGuides repository. To join in, register in https://khub.net/web/efc-mesh, join the MESHConnect Open Door community and explore 'Getting Involved' on www.meshguides.org. The Teaching Spelling MESHGuide is especially popular and the Reluctant Writers MESHGuide provides ideas for teachers wanting to improve their students writing abilities. We leave you to discover the others. In time, we will have whizzy software but you are looking at what are prototypes, produced on basic software by voluntary effort of educators.
If we all donate a few slivers of our time in the roles relevant to us, we can, as educators working together, become a self-improving profession.
Professor Marilyn Leask
Co-chair Education Futures Collaboration charity (UK no 1157511)
Professor Marilyn Leask is the co-chair of the Education Futures Collaboration charity and is responsible for the MESH system of knowledge sharing. She is a visiting Professor at De Montfort University and the University of Winchester.
Note: Some funding is needed for web hosting and editorial costs and this is currently provided by university schools of education and professional associations from five countries.