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The role of research in teacher education - BERA RSA inquiry

29 January 2014

John Oversby, Institute of Education, University of Reading, RG1 5EX, j.p.oversby@reading.ac.uk

The plethora of routes into teaching science, especially in England, has unearthed a variety of beliefs about what constitutes good preparation for teaching in our schools. Collins & Gillespie (2009) provided a review of science teacher preparation in the US that was largely descriptive, with helpful suggestions for further research. A major focus of these was to investigate efficacy of different programmes. The British Education Research Association (BERA) and The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) have been conducting an enquiry into the role of research in teacher education, and launched the Interim Report recently.

In a real sense, the BERA-RSA Inquiry (2014) elaborates that call for further research. The six papers that constitute the interim report provide an excellent overview of the place of research in teacher education, from England’s position where it has been written out of the Teacher Standards to the Scottish position where it is a requirement of their standards. The Interim Report makes it clear that it is not possible to link undertaking education research with teacher effectiveness, while maintaining that is a core component of professional education, per se. The papers are concerned with making available insightful reviews of aspects of teacher education by respected researchers. A final paper on Teacher Engagement with Research arising from feedback on the interim findings and dealing with overall conclusions will be added by March 2014 to complete the final report. The papers so far completed and published are:

1. UK Policy and Practice: the Role of Research in Teacher Education. Out of four UK jurisdictions, England has almost no requirement for research in its courses or teaching standards, while Scotland has the strongest reference. In England, the emphasis is on performance as the only significant characteristic of a teacher, as reported by OfSTED at the ASE Summer Celebration Conference in 2013. This reduction of teaching in England to one aspect, and the neglect of other contributory attributes such as working collegially, and engaging with research are quite at odds with systems in other jurisdictions. The variation across the UK is only explicable by the strong impact of an ideological position, not only by the Secretary of State but by many Head Teachers and other leaders. 

2. International Overview: the Contribution of Research to Highly Performing Systems. This focused on four systems, as case Studies: Chile, USA, Singapore and Finland. Engagement with research was a strong characteristic in Singapore and Finland, although it is not possible to show that this is a cause of their high performing status. I have experience of doing some teaching in the Finnish teacher education system, where all students are expected to learn about education research methods and results as part of their process of carrying out a piece of research as part of their Masters course. In my experience, the teachers I have met are not only highly competent as teachers but also have high quality skills as critical thinkers. 

3. Philosophical Reflections on the Contribution of Research to Teacher Education. The authors were critical of the emphasis on 'what works' but pointed to the notion of professional knowledge. ‘What works’ reminds me of the search for the ‘silver bullet’ that is often encapsulated in the question ‘from your knowledge of research, what is the best way to ….?’ Firstly, the implicit assumption is that there is a method that is the best in all contexts, and secondly, that teaching is relatively simple so that there exists a best way if only we could find it. Professional knowledge deals with the complexity that is the reality. 

4. Integrated ITE programmes Based on 'Research-Informed Clinical Practice. This is worth us exploring further. The report quotes“for beginning teachers working in an established community of practice, with access to the practical wisdom of experts, ‘clinical practice’ allows them to engage in a process of enquiry: seeking to interpret and make sense of the specific needs of particular students, to formulate and implement particular pedagogical actions and to evaluate their outcomes” and the establishment of “partnerships between university departments and practitioners … typically located in innovative ‘teaching schools, ‘lab schools’ or ‘professional development schools’, which are intended to play a similar role to teaching hospitals in medical education”. This system is a truly collaborative rather than complementary partnership. The report gives examples from Aberdeen and Glasgow of such partnerships. 

5. The Contribution of Research to Teachers' Continuing Professional Development. For me, this was the least convincing paper since it was strongly influenced by the personal views of the author. 

6. Building Collective Capacity for Improvement at a School and System Level. This was replete with references to Action/Practitioner Research. Barriers to research engagements were given as “lack of time, difficulties with access to research” from the GTC Scotland, school budgets, “pressing demands of test and examination performance targets and tables” from a UK teacher union. 

There is ‘credible evidence’ that engaging with research is an essential feature of initial and continuing teacher education but not yet enough to convince others, not least governments and some school leaders. Within ASE, we face four challenges. The first is a general atmosphere among teachers that education research is not necessary and that it does not help in everyday teaching. The second is that the tension between supporting teachers being compliant with government policy and in becoming critical thinkers based on evidence is too often resolved in our actions by an emphasis on the former and a neglect of the latter. The third is that we have less contact with teachers recently, in our conferences and regional activities than before. The fourth is that there are fewer science education researchers working in the UK through closures and changes in teacher education. At the policy level, we now have the BERA-RSA Inquiry outcomes to challenge governments and school leaders to engage with research. At the ASE activity level, where we are faced with a system where teachers are too often cocooned and isolated in their schools, we could use technology to initiate virtual conferences where teachers could work collaboratively with education researchers in real time, or through the kind of conference where discussions take place over a few days through blogs. Both these models are well developed and successful now. 

References

BERA & RSA (2014) The Role of Research in Teacher Education: Reviewing the Evidence (Interim Report of the BERA-RSA Inquiry) British Education Research Association, London

Collins A and Gillespie N (Eds.) (2009) The continuum of secondary science teacher preparation Knowledge, questions, and research recommendations Sense Publishers, Rotterdam 

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John Oversby 150

Guest blog by

John Oversby (Chair, ASE Research Specialist Group) 

Views expressed are those of the author


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