Research informing, transforming, overlapping and ….. unravelling practice.


The Institute of Education, my old University –  achieved in 2014 the highest position in the QS World University subject rankings. The IoE – according QS  – is better at education, than Harvard, Stanford and Melbourne. Is there a more secure base from which to sponsor a new free school? It’s hard to imagine what better qualification could be demanded, if being the world’s leading University – for education – is not sufficient.

Research Informs Practice

But perhaps this is a common-sense belief that doesn’t hold. The assumption that the IoE is best placed to run a free school implies a particular relationship between research and practice. Namely – those in the University develop ‘knowledge’ which those working in sites of practice implement. This is most neatly framed in the strap line of a research centre devoted to adult literacy and numeracy: ‘generating knowledge and transforming it into practice’. The relationship between knowledge and practice is assumed to be uni-directional and unproblematic. Even when researchers and practitioners occupy quite different spaces, they are assumed to have common values, beliefs and practices as well as shared conceptions of quality, knowledge, policy, pedagogy and curriculum. Framed in tis way, research may well inform practice.

Research Transforms Practice

It is also possible that research might transform practice.  To cultivate their recently found professional status, post 16 teachers will need an ongoing and continuing familiarity with a highly-codified and esoteric body of knowledge. Research encloses our epistemic boundaries, mapping the territory upon which our professionalism is premised. While evidence-based-practice would at first glance seem like an obvious aspiration, it has some troubling implications. If practice is evidence based, practitioners are required to adopt practices proven by research as liable to bring about improved outcomes. Failure to improve is willful. It is a failure to properly implement practices that have been devised and proven elsewhere.  Teachers are here understood as ‘knowledge surrogates, practitioners of others’ (Taylor-Webb 2005) design. Teaching becomes a teacher-proof activity, as teachers are required to become conduits, implementers of a scripted, standardized pedagogy that has been tried, tested and proven to be effective. When knowledge about teaching transcends the pedagogic encounter between teacher and student, the intellectual authority of practitioners is negated. The grammar of professional practice – improvised, spontaneous and internalized – is subordinated by the insistence that it should be something other than what it is. In this conceit only knowledge generated by research – decontextualized, transferable and theoretical – is True Knowledge.

Research Overlaps Practice

But if the rage for accountability requires evidence-based-practice to the belittlement of teachers’ knowledge, it also belittles research.  The pragmatists ‘what works’ mantra offers what research in the social sciences is unable to deliver.  Truths about the social world unfold unexpectedly. They are partial, tentative and suggestive rather than equivocal.  To understand what works may require diverse and seemingly irrelevant questions. What may or may not influence practice is open to contestation.  An approach which stimulates one group of learners may confuse another. What works here might not work there. What worked then, might not work now. There is no future-proof knowledge. The invitation for research to inform education practice is an attempt to erase the ‘privilege and precariousness  of human sciences, caught as they are in the interstices of the mathematizable and the philosophical’ (Lather 2006: 784).  It also threatens to usher in a purpose, procedure, reporting and dissemination standardisation future for research in the social sciences (Ball 2001).  There is, in the move towards evidence-based practice, an uncomfortable coupling that casts researchers in the role of purveyors of snake-oil – promising what they cannot deliver for a community that would pay a high price if it were to accept the gift.

Research Unravels Practice

My own experience of the research, policy and practice nexus is of an unraveling. Research informs, transforms, overlaps but also uncomfortably unravels practice.

Research  yields incommensurable truths that make coherence between policy, practice and research almost impossible.  My ongoing explorations into conceptions of quality contrasts professional aspiration with policy embodiment, but offers no neat resolution. Instead research promises practice a Goliathian struggle, a series of intricate and shifting compromises.  Adhering exclusively to professional judgement is not possible and would place practitioners in a perpetual state of conflict. Yet ignoring professional judgement extracts high transaction costs. It causes stress and discomfort and limits professional possibilities.

The quality regime – OfSTED – with its decontextualised strictures, exhausting array of mimetic templates and managerial tactics contributes towards, rather than illuminates, what policy-makers most fear: poor practice. Inspections may weed out the unacceptable, but it is also possible that they simply encounter conceptions of quality that are other than that which has been written into the Common Inspection Framework.

This view is consistent with QS regarding as world leading in education an organisation that the Department for Education considers  unable to surmount the ’high bar’ required to sponsor a school. Were such a school to exists it is possible that something might unravel as state sponsored practice comes into contact with research.


Ball, S. J. (2001). ‘You’ve been NERFed!’Dumbing down the academy: National Educational Research Forum:’a national strategy? consultation paper’: a brief and bilious response. Journal of Education Policy16(3), 265-268.

Lather, P. (2006). Paradigm proliferation as a good thing to think with: Teaching research in education as a wild profusion. International journal of qualitative studies in education19(1), 35-57.

Taylor-Webb, P.  (2005). The anatomy of accountability. Journal of Education Policy,20(2), 189-208.


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