Tuesday, 11 November 2014

'What Makes Great Teaching' - is it time for a critical re-appraisal

Over the last two weeks we have seen both the publication of the Sutton Trust's report on "What Makes Great Teaching" and the Sutton Trust/ Gates Foundation international teaching summit held in Washington DC.   Indeed, there have been a number of blog posts from attendees reporting on the summit, for example John Tomsett and Tom Sherrington,  with Mr O'Callaghan providing an invaluable summary of relevant news and blogposts. Given this increased focus and attention on evidence-based education it seems reasonable to pause and reflect, as the notion of evidence-based education is not an uncontested concept.  As one of the key aspects of evidence-based practice is to challenge one's own cognitive biases and look at competing arguments and perspectives, it seemed sensible to me, a self-confessed advocate of evidence-based education, to consider some alternative viewpoints.  In doing so, I will not be arguing for, or against any particular approach to teaching or pedagogy.  Instead, I will be trying to gain a greater understanding of some of the underpinning assumptions  of  'What Makes Great Teaching' so hopefully it can become an even more useful intellectual stimulus for educational research and practice.   Drawing upon the work of Biesta (2007) the rest of this post will cover the following ground:
  • general objections to evidenced based education;
  • the non-causal nature of education;
  • educational research and intelligent problem-solving;
  • distinguishing between the cultural and technical purposes of education;
  • the implications of the above for the dissemination, implementation and follow-up to 'What Makes Great Teaching'.
    Biesta states that opponents of evidence-based education have a raised a number of doubts about the appropriateness of an evidence based approach to educational practice including: one, evidence based education being part of the new public management agenda; two, evidence-based medicine being an inappropriate template for the development of evidence-based education; three, issues around the nature of evidence within the social sciences.   .  
     Biesta goes onto argue that evidence-based education implies a particular model of professional action i.e an effective intervention can bring about the required outcome. Biesta argues that education cannot be understood in terms of cause and effect due to the non-causal nature of educational practice, with the 'why, what and the how' of education being intimately bound together.  As such, an essential component of being an educational practitioner is the exercise of judgment in what is 'educationally desirable'(p21)
    Secondly, drawing upon Dewey's practical epistemology Biesta argues that the role of research is to provide us with insight as to what worked in the past, rather than what intervention will work in the future.  As such, all that evidence can do is provide with us a framework for more intelligent problem-solving.  In other words, evidence cannot give you the answer on how to proceed in any particular situation, rather it can enhance the processes associated with deliberative problem-solving and decision-making.
     Thirdly, Biesta argues that evidence-based education has too great a focus on the technical processes of education - what works or does not work - rather than performing a more nuanced and profound cultural function.  Biesta argues that an open and democratic society should be informed by debate and discussion on the 'aims and ends' of our educational endeavours, whereas evidence-based education is currently too focused on the technical means.  
     So what are the implications of Biesta's stance for our reading of 'What Makes Great Teaching'. One could certainly read the report as sitting very clearly within a technocratic model of education, with the three simple questions which inform the report focusing on the what and how of education, with no consideration of 'why'.  As such, it could be argued that to maximise the benefit 'What Makes Great Teaching' it requires a broader and far more wide ranging discussion into the very purposes of education. Leaders of staff within schools and college's when discussing the implication of 'What Makes Great Teaching'  should do so in a way which facilitate the democratic discussion of the purposes and ends of both education and the school and college.  Reflecting upon how these technical recommendations can be implemented within the school/college in a way which is empowering for both staff and students. 
     A key assumption of 'What Makes Great Teaching' is that educational reality involves clear relationships between cause and effect, with particular approaches to teaching being more effective in bringing about the desired student outcomes.  I'm not going to argue either for or against objectivist or subjectivist stances to epistemology and ontology, others are far better able to do so.  That said, if we are to be evidence-based practitioners it is essential that we fully explore the underpinning assumptions of research, in this case assumptions of cause and effect, with this especially being the case if the research corresponds with existing perspectives.
    As for the practical implications of 'What Makes Great Teaching'  for educational practice, even though the report identifies the components of great teaching, the frameworks which can 'capture it ' and what could be done to develop improved professional learning this does not, or should not provide a set or recipes or check-lists that will guarantee better teacher learning and student/pupil outcomes.   This is certainly the case given the fast-changing world and the implications for pedagogy  and learning of ubiquitous mobile technology (See Benedict Evans' recent presentation).  'What Makes Great Teaching" tells us what may have worked in the past, it may tell us what could work in the future, though not definitively. As such 'What Makes Great Teaching' provides is a valuable resource for practitioners - be it headteachers or teachers - to engage in reflection which will be increase their capacity and capability to find 'solutions' which are fit for their particular settings.
    Finally, if reading 'What Makes Great Teaching' provides a prompt to read other reports and articles which have a different perspective on evidence-based education, so that as a result one has a greater breadth of understanding of the challenges of evidence-based education and the cultural implications, then the report my have provided both a technical and cultural stimulus to ensuring pupils and students experience even greater teaching.

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