Generating knowledge and translating it into practice is the strap line of a university based research organisation. Set up in the wake of the policy effervescence that surrounded New Labour’s Skills for life, the organisation has spent the last decade building a comprehensive knowledge base that defines adult basic skills. It is part of an ongoing process through which teaching in the post compulsory sector has become professionalised (despite a little local set-back).
The strap line assumes a spatial division of labour that in my view is not entirely justified. Researcher and practitioner are located in distinct domains. We – over here – generate knowledge. And you – other there – translate it into practice. The ‘we’ or ‘you’ are interchangeable depending on where you position yourself. Such is the relationship between us. Of course, nothing’s that clearly defined. The strap-lined organisation did tremendous work on developing practitioner-researchers, blurring their own apparent distinction. Teachers, managers and students working in post-compulsory settings were for a short period of time, encouraged to research aspects of their practice that they judged to be interesting and worthy of enquiry.
The current research funding formulae of HE means that university based researchers have to demonstrate the impact of their work as a defining feature of what now counts as quality. Ivory Tower? If only. Somehow amidst the hustle and bustle of working life, HE lecturers have to find time to sit quietly and read. Reading on campus feels like an illicit act of defiance. Writing at home is impossible unless everyone in the household agrees to a vow of silence. Amidst the blurring of practitioner-research and the impact agenda, ‘generating knowledge and translating it into practice’ remains a powerfully evocative strap line. Yet, it’s implied relationship between research and practice is not entirely justified.
Teaching in FE is not driven simply by what research demonstrates to be effective ways of working. The clamour for definitive answers to what works ignores the extent to which post compulsory education practice is an inherently political activity. There is no room for neutrality. What counts in FE is determined by what the most recent wave of policy reform decides is desirable. Caught up in this research, policy and practice nexus – teachers spend their time negotiating between what they aspire to and what is demanded from them. For example, adult literacy students often come to college with vague ideas about ‘wanting to be more confident with their reading and writing’. No teacher can fully address that goal; what we can offer is help with improving reading and writing. In the context of an FE college this means a course leading to a qualification. The trouble is, the qualification does not always address what that adult literacy student wants to learn. They can pass the certificate get counted as a success, but their underlying reasons for coming to class remain unmet. We ‘hit the target, but miss the point’. This could quite possibly be resolved with less emphasis on qualifications and much more emphasis on a negotiated curriculum. But this involves a broader discussion about the purposes of education and the social construction of literacy. Research – the attempt to come up with definitive answer about effective practice – cannot resolve this dilemma.
The framing of the question makes another powerful assumption. Namely that research enhances, support or provides an unambiguous evidence base for effective practice. But what happens when it does the precise opposite. Research also interrupts and undermines practice. The academic about turn with learning styles exemplifies this well. Many of my teacher education students arrive at the start of their course familiar with the notion of learning styles. Encoded into session plan templates and part of the colleges observation schedule is the belief that the competent and creative use of learning styles contributes towards outstanding teaching. They also have an intuitive appeal. It makes a kind of sense that some of us would be visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic learners. The bracketed and dated names that follow such claims authorize the idea. So, when a few years later an important study determines that learning styles have no credible empirical base; that they are little more than a waste of time – teachers are not always ready to change their mind simply because another name – bracketed and dated – says so. Many will have dutifully complied with their quality manager’s insistence that they use learning styles to inform their lesson planning. Why should they suddenly change? This of course is a powerful argument for practitioner-researchers. It implies that teachers need to be in a position where they can define relevant research questions and identify how to approach their resolution. That teaching should be a masters level profession. But the interruption and undermining of practice made possible by research runs more deeply than this.
When practitioners begin to truly engage with the theoretical connections between research, policy and practice: everything changes. Critical engagement with policy analysis, a close reading of research, open-ended discussion about the purpose of education, the shock of recognition experienced in reading accounts of professional lives can all be quite unsettling. Learning – a generative dance on the edge of a volcano – does not – in neat straight lines, lead to more efficient practice. If done well it leads to disruptive, anarchic tendencies. It has the capacity to undermine, dislodge and recreate practice.