Monday 16 February 2015

Making the work of the School Research Lead matter

Recently I wrote about some of the misconceptions and pitfalls that could be associated with the role of the school research lead.  In this post, I'm going to focus on how we can make the work of the school research lead matter.  In doing, so I will be drawing upon the work of Bent Flyvbert and his 2001 book Making Social Science Matter : Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  In this short blog post I will not be able to capture the full-range of Flyvbert's stance but I hope I will do enough to encourage you to read his fascinating book.

Flyvberg develops a conception of social science based on the Aristotelean concept of phronesis which can be translated as practical wisdom or sound judgement.  Phronesis involves more than both knowledge (episteme) and know-how (techne) but involves making decisions and judgements in a manner of virtuoso social and political actor (page 2).  As such 'phronesis' involves an analysis of values and "things that are good or bad for 'man'.  Phronesis require an undertstanding of both general principles and the specific context, and in doing so requires individuals to make judgements and choices, balancing differing perspectives, considerations and informed by experience. Accordingly, trying to reduce social science theory to just two components - knowledge and know-how is inappropriate, given the inherent involvement of phronesis - judgment in our day to day lives. Given the increased discussion we have on using  'educational evidence' the notion of phronesis is essential in our role as practitioners.

At the very core of Flyvberg's model is the notion of virtuosity or expert behaviours, as such, Flyvberg goes onto explore in some detail the so-called Dreyfus model of human-learning which identifies five levels of the human learning process:
  • Novices act on the basis of context-independent elements and rules
  • Advanced beginner also use situational elements, which they have learned to identify and interpret on the basis of their own experience of a particular situation
  • Competent are characterised by the involved choice of goals and plans as a basis for their actions.  Goals and plans are used to structure and store masses of both context-dependent and context-independent information
  • Proficient performers identify problems, goals and plans intuitively from their own experientially perspective.  Intuitive choice is checked by analytical evaluation prior to action
  • Finally 'expert's behaviour is intuitive, holistic and synchronic, understood in a way that a given situations releases as picture of the problems, goal, plan, decisions and action in one instant and with no division into phases.  This is the level of true human expertise.  Experts are characterised by effortless performance, unhindered by analytic deliberations. (Flyvberg p21)
Flyvberg argues there would be appear to be a significant leap from levels one, two to the higher levels of proficiency and expertise.  In doing so, there is a change from a reliance on rules to a greater reliance upon intuition.  Flyvberg subsequently argues that the main aim of an approach to social science using a phronetic stance is carry out analyses and interpretations of social situations - which take into account values and the interests of society as whole and which provides a guide for action.  The consequence of this stance is that the core questions for a phronetic approach to social science - and dare I say education - are the following four questions.
  1. Where are we going?
  2. Is this desirable?
  3. What should be done?
  4. Who gains and loses; by which mechanisms of power? (Flyvberg p 61)
Flyvberg argues that no individual is going to have the knowledge, know-how and practical wisdom in order to provide all the answers.   Flyvberg concludes his book with a call to arms to make social science matter, suggesting that social scientists need to do three things.
  1. Forget trying to emulate the natural sciences by building cumulative and predictive theory.
  2. Social scientists must take up the problems that matter at a global, regional, national and local community levels.  
  3. Communicate the outcomes of the research in a manner which is meaningful to a wider audience, in particular the community as a whole.
So what does this all mean for the school research lead, well for me I think there are a number of implications.
  • Research leads need to recognise that the purpose of research and evidence-based practice within schools is to support the development of 'practical wisdom' within the school rather than attempting to emulate the 'research' undertaken in universities.
  • Research leads should give thought as to what are the aims of a research or evidence informed school, is this desirable and what should be done?
  • Research leads should acknowledge that through the process of 'research/evidence-based activity there will be winners and possibly losers - which may include pupils and colleagues. 
  • Research leads should strive to ensure that the outcomes of research/evidence-based activity is communicated to colleagues in a way which is meaningful and which informs practice, 
  • Research leads should focus school research efforts on things that matter to their pupils, colleagues, school and local community.
  • Research leads need to recognise that to become a virtuoso in such a role will take time and will involve a process of going from novice to higher levels of expertise, and maybe the best we can hope for is for research leads to be competent rather than proficient or expert as researchers.
I hope this post will stimulate some discussion about both the role of the school research lead but also what we can expect a school-based research activities to achieve i.e. better judgements with improved outcomes for pupils, colleagues and the school as a whole.

Next week I will be reporting from ResearchED Sydney which I am lucky enough to be able to attend 


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