Unforgivingly Complex

I have been fortunate to be part of an international forum of educators and students in Japan this week. The teachers have enjoyed talking and sharing examples of professional practice that are making a difference in their setting but also making observations of larger scale processes and policies at work in their countries. Recurring themes have included school alignment and accountability, the use of evidence in education and teachers engaging with research. I am reminded of Deb Netolicky’s recent post about ‘Personal and Organisational Vision in Schools’. The piece drives at the heart of an interesting challenge. If what a system or organisation expects in the way of thinking and working is strictly evidence-based, limited to narrow fields of research but set true towards well-intentioned goals, what scope (or need) is there for teachers to exercise their own professional judgement about practice and research directions?

Schools and even systems seem to be driven to articulate goals or benchmarks and justify them by espousing their research and evidence-base. I can understand why some can be reticent to squander precious time, resources and expertise in pursuit of impacts which are incalculable, add little value or where progress is hard to detect. It is not surprising then that many in education are keen to see professional action as ‘treatment’ (they intervene in a particular situation) in order to bring about certain desirable ‘effects’. So why do anything if there is not a secure relationship between the intervention (as cause) and its outcome (the effect)?

I dare say that the reason why politicians and others in the field are getting punch-drunk on ‘what works’ is the seduction of rapid fixes translated into concrete means with measurable outcomes. However, professional action operates in the domain of the variable, not the eternal. So surely research provides technical possibilities, not certainties.

There is certainly an appetite for research engagement and evidence use in schools. I wonder though how much attraction there is towards abstract technocratic models where it is assumed that the only relevant research questions are those regarding effectiveness or to which the answers have already been obtained through some ‘gold-standard’ methodology or trial. Acceptance of ‘what works’ at any level limits the opportunities for educational practitioners to make judgements about research which is relevant and sensitive to their context. Dylan Wiliam reminds us of some important caveats such as ‘research can only tell us what was, not what might be’ and ‘in education ‘what works?’ is rarely the right question. The right question is ‘under what conditions does this work?’ In the same vein David Berliner (2002) suggests that it is important for schools to pose questions of and for themselves as opposed to transplanting and applying thinking and action that is removed from their context.

Some schools prefer to consume and apply pre-packaged research with ready-to-roll out methodologies with costs/benefits clearly articulated. This may well address immediate or long-standing needs and provide the validating evidence to justify engagement with the intervention. However, are they carefully considering the fidelity of the accessed research or the scope for interchangeability of contexts? Biesta (2007) echoes the need for critical discussion around evidence in education and notes;

“One positive outcome of these ongoing discussions is that some proponents of an evidence-based approach in education have begun to talk in a more nuanced way about the link between research, policy, and practice, using notions such as ‘‘evidence-informed,’’ ‘‘evidence-influenced,’’ and ‘‘evidence-aware’’ practice … but there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relationship between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves.”

It is clear that other schools rupture the afore-mentioned ‘secure relationship’ by generating their own questions about practice and process and are keen to see growth and improvement in outcomes beyond those for which ‘what works’ has already been worked out. This, I would argue, doesn’t make them professionally negligent and ignorant or irresponsible mavericks, they could simply be choosing a field of research and evidence and a set of practices which is suited for their contexts.

Abstaining from embracing someone else’s evidence doesn’t mean that you are necessarily wading through a morass of reheated strategies for improvement or the room 101 of interventions/innovations that lack research integrity or evidence. Schools and individuals shouldn’t have to genuflect and sidle up to someone else’s research or evidence imprimatur because it is what everyone else is doing or because it is an organisational or system expectation. Being able to access research and conduct research itself, shouldn’t be a fight or reduce what we are and do to narrow metrics. When teaching practice and teachers at any scale is reduced to ‘evidence tells us’ or ‘you should be doing’, we should remind ourselves of this gem from Cochrane-Smith (2003);

“Teaching is unforgivingly complex. It is simply not good or bad, right or wrong, working or failing. Although absolutes and dichotomies such as these are popular in the headlines … they are limited in their usefulness … They ignore almost completely the nuances of ‘good’ (or bad) teaching of real students collected in actual classrooms in the context of particular times and places. They mistake reductionism for clarity, myopia for insight”.

2 thoughts on “Unforgivingly Complex

  1. Denise Lombardo

    Nicely said, Jon. Personally, I have a distrust of taking on any whole intervention or approach as so much of what we do is not only context specific as a school, but context specific as a class/teacher/time of day/time of year! What we are aiming to develop at our school is an appreciation for various research-informed approaches, then providing time to implement, reflect and share so that teachers develop not only capacity, but confidence in choosing best approach for their students at any given time. The other comment I like in your post related to the desired end result…so much of the research base is related to how students perform on standard measures…we need to continually question the aims of our teaching…development and growth of human beings? Or great test takers?

    • I share with you scepticism about the altar of reductionism, particularly for complex social systems such as learning (board and narrow sense of the word). There is the potential for the quick fix and we humans frequently fail by attempting to solve the complex with the simple. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for science being able to help me make choices between snake oil and that which is rational. I am grateful for the laws of thermodynamics and being able to target particular cells in the body to elicit a cure. Science has been enormously helpful in guiding my own profession, psychology, from reading bumps on the head to something more considered. My point? Let’s not mistake the value of science in helping us move towards an evidence based practice, away from hocus-pocus with simplistic notions, the test or some other mad metric. Perhaps what we need to do is to understand science better, use it wisely and with skill.

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