There is a valuable body of literature that shows the value of research for trainee teachers, teacher trainers and established teachers.
A common justification for and aim of teacher research is that of “emancipation”. Hopkins reminds us that, “Teachers are too often the servants of heads, advisers, researchers, textbooks, curriculum developers, examination boards, or the Department of Education and Skills” and asserts that “by adopting a research stance, teachers are liberating themselves from the control and command situation they often find themselves in” and that therefore “the teacher is engaged not only in a meaningful professional development activity, but is also engaged in a process of refining and becoming more autonomous in, professional judgement”.
In helping new teachers reach a healthy level of critical judgement we can avoid the pressures of school life that might otherwise interfere with their developing professional judgements. Such pressures include, intitiatives, from a government, local government and school management level, media pressure, and “pupil data” (almost exclusively numerical and often based on IQ testing) amongst others.
So, helping more experienced and beginner teachers use research techniques, and ideas from research, is about helping them develop as competant, professional and autonomous teachers.
Christine Counsel et al  outline three ways in which research based ideas can aid in this development. Firstly they argue that research is a source of “high quality new ideas” which trainee teachers “might be able to use in developing their practice”. Secondly all teachers (even established ones, in the face of external pressures) are “under pressure to justify their practice as being appropriate and effective” and “being able to show that their practice is consistent with the accumulated findings of high quality educational research”, is “among the mmost persuasive ways in which this can be done”.
Finally, Counsel et al argue that having new ideas and being able to point to research to justify one’s own practice is not enough, because “expert practice depends in critical ways on its context” and that coming to an informed, and justifiable opinion, and refininf one’s practice in the light of such opinion of an idea from research, “depends on teachers themselves being able to engage to some extent in the processes of research”.
History teaching is under-researched, and guidance for teachers, old and new, is overtly descriptive or overtly prescriptive
Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry set out three main furrows of history teaching and learning that researchers have ploughed, but claim that, apart from these areas, history teaching “is a considerably under researched phenomenon”. Further, they argue that much of the guidance that is available to history teachers is either overtly prescriptive, or descriptive.
Descriptive guidance, exemplified for Husbands et al in Ofsted reports and subject overview reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors, is guidance in which individual lessons are described, or classroom examples of effective practice are “teased out”, to provide “portmanteau” guides. The problem with such guidance is that it is often far removed from its context, “the ways in which the ingredients of professional practice are combined, nor the circumstances in which good or effective practice is likely to develop”.
Prescriptive guidance, often found in the form of “how to teach”, or “livening up your lessons” texts for teachers, is guidance in which “a model of good and effective proatice is etihter implicitly or explicitly developed and classroom strategies [...] are recommended, often with the aid of examples of lesson plans, teaching resources, or pupil’s work. According to Husbands et al, although teachers find these ideas useful throughout their development, there are a number of “difficulties” that accompany such guidance. These include, a tendency to “simplify the complexities of professional practice”, and a lack of “evidence-based practice”, in which “the underlying ideas of good practice remain under-analysed” and “taken for granted”.
The three areas of history teaching that have been subject to analyis and research, according to Husbands et al, include children’s understanding of history, the purposes of history teaching, and teaching history itself.
Challenges of Research
Research is a challenging activity for trainee and established teachers.
Firstly, teacher research is time consuming, and in a busy schedule for PGCE students, teachers and teacher trainers it has to be made to “pay its way” and thus to be practically useful.
Secondly, teacher research is complex and subject to many preconceptions. Constructing literature reviews requires access to libraries and to guidance. It takes time to learn the language and methods of research, and often formal guidance in the way of courses on research are unavailable or expensive. Many teachers have a vision of research in a pharamacological model, with huge numbers and control groups, with the aim of producing wide generalisations, which means that research is something that others do, probably in white coats with clipboards.
Thirdly, research in general is undervalued by many in the teaching profession. There is, even in history teaching, a strong “commonsense” approach to teaching a body of knowledge to vessels with greater or lesser capacities. To an extent this attitude represents a “barricades” view of professional autonomy, where one is autonomous if one allows no-outside influences to affect one’s teaching, but it is also true that much educational research has been difficult to apply to classroom teaching because teachers and researchers “do not conceptualize teaching in the same way”. Hopkins argues that effective learning is not the result of “a standardized teaching method but the result of both teachers and pupils engaging in meaningful action” and that traditional approaches to education research have been to try to discover standardised treatments for educational problems – an example perhaps of guidance that is, in the words of Hubands et al, overtly presctiptive.
Fourthly, and finally, many teachers are unable to share their findings, or the problems they come across, and overcome, in the process of their research. Sometimes because of the factors outlined above teacher research is a lonely farrow. In school new and student teachers feel already especially exposed to pressure about their teaching and, when faced with difficulties they might be encouraged to “stop experimenting” and concentrate on “teaching”. When research is completed it might be difficult to discuss new ideas in departments where experienced teachers feel threatened by new expertise, or who are dismissive of research in general for reasons already discussed.
- Counsel, C. Evans, M. McIntyre, D. and Raffan, J (2000) The Usefullness of Educational Reasearch for Trainee Teachers’ learning. Oxford Review of Education Vol. 26 Nos 3 and 4. [counseletal2000]
- Hopkins, D. (2002) A Teacher’s guide to Classroom Research Open University, Maidenhead [Hopkins2002]
- Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry. Understanding history teaching. Maidenhead; Open University Press, 2003. isbn:0335212727. [HusbandsKitsonPendry2003]