by Peter Taylor
In light of the issues of translating theory to practice, we are left seeking answers that are current, applicable and research-based, all at once. Professor Peter Taylor shares his thoughts on the relevance of research to teacher learning in today’s classroom.
My Collins Dictionary suggests that the essence of research is systematic inquiry. On the other hand, my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes the following, attributed to Mark Pattison in a work published in 1875:
In research the horizon recedes as we advance, and is no nearer at sixty years than it was at twenty… And research is always incomplete.
I think of research as a form of disciplined curiosity. The discipline comes from adherence to a particular paradigm or world view, as well as the particular theoretical lenses to view and reflect on the world. I draw on a range of theories associated with learning – individual, group and organizational.
My approach to research is based on the pragmatist paradigm of social science, a paradigm represented in the work of John Dewey. This paradigm includes the view that human beings are interpreting beings, and every interpretation is an interpretive rendering or portrayal.
The goal of a pragmatic approach to educational research is not to reach some ultimate truth (as represented in positivist views of science) but the pursuit of increased understanding, informed intuition and improved practice.
So what relevance does research conducted through this approach have for classroom practice?
At a fundamental level, research brings an “external” eye to the systematic inquiry.
My approach is systematic in that it draws on a coherent theoretical perspective, and uses that theory as the basis for experiencing, analysing and describing practice. By implication, it also provides a way to evaluate practice and to recommend ways to improve it.
Therefore, my research tends to involve immersion in the context that is being researched, immersion that necessarily introduces my theoretical and professional understandings and methods to the context.
In turn, those understandings and methods are reshaped and refined through both the process of interpretation and the subsequent conversations through which contextualized intersubjective agreements are achieved.
I like to think that this process both challenges and enriches the shared meanings available within the communities of practice in which I conduct my research.
Let me illustrate this with reference to a research project in which I am currently engaged. It involves an invitation from a secondary school in Singapore to “validate” its attempt to achieve curriculum reform. This involved a systematic attempt to:
understand what the school attempted to achieve, through reviewing statements about the rationale for the curriculum change, as well as documents that provided an overview of the intentions;
interview “curriculum leaders” to understand their interpretations of those intentions, and the actions they took to respond to them;
observe classroom practices to develop descriptions of what is actually happening; and
interview teachers and past and present students to understand their experience of those practices.
While we, as researchers, have taken our theory-rich understandings into these activities, we have re-developed some of those understandings. We have also had to develop ways to express these contextualized understandings to the stakeholders in that setting – school leaders, teachers, students and parents.
Our work is seen as highly relevant by those within the community of practice. Its relevance acknowledges our status as outsiders, capable of bringing a fresh yet disciplined perspective to their practices – always working with rather than on the community.
It acknowledges our privileged position as observers – we have the time to systematically observe, record and reflect on the routine patterns of behaviour that uniquely characterize the community.
It expresses the contribution we can make through adding to, and challenging, the shared language of the community’s discourse. And it expresses the value that we can add through recommending improvements to those routine patterns of behaviour and discourse.
Educational research can be an extremely valuable complement to the demanding everyday work of classroom practice.
Learning through practice tends to result in the consolidation and routinization of understandings, behaviours and procedures. These make schooling feasible and efficient.
Research can challenge and disrupt those routines and understandings in informed, disciplined and systematic ways, opening the possibility of new routines and new understandings. This makes change possible.
We need both routines and change, especially in the 21st century.