02 SES 09 A, Research in Action
Political and policy professionals responsible for the evaluation and improvement of Further Adult and Vocational Education (FAVE) are currently faced with a number of pressing problems. The first is that top-down, micro-managed approaches to the evaluation and improvement of teaching, learning and assessment in FAVE system, such as those currently used widely in England by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), incur expensive overheads which are becoming increasingly difficult to justify in terms of empirical and robust evidence of educational improvement. The second is that despite significant levels of public investment in FAVE in England, the return on this financial outlay has not yielded discernible value for public money in terms of actual improvements in the form of raised levels of achievement for learners. The former suggests that systemic approaches to the external evaluation and improvement of educational practice in FAVE are in urgent need of review. The latter draws attention to how in-house approaches to the improvement in educational practice and the continuing professional development (CPD) of teachers within organisations are also somehow missing the mark. The financial costs to the taxpayer of an expensive but failing system of educational evaluation and improvement, coupled with significant shortcomings in approaches to the continuing professional development of teachers are high. In the current economic climate, these costs are funded by taxes paid by individuals and by businesses who often find themselves in considerably reduced financial circumstances. This places a duty upon those responsible for educational research to critically investigate current approaches to educational evaluation and improvement in England, including models of teacher continuing professional development (CPD,) in order to identify how we might go about educational evaluation and the improvement of educational practice in ways which offer better value for money to the taxpayer and improved educational experiences for both teachers and their students.
However, changing the way that we go about educational evaluation and improvement in the FAVE sector is unlikely to be as easy as it sounds. Voices from across the field of educational research warn that such development is hard won and that what appear to be ‘quick fixes’ seldom, if ever, ‘fix’ anything and never ‘quickly’. Furthermore, the relationship between educational research and the improvement of educational practice is complex and contested. In the UK recent proposals to reshape the landscape of educational research and its connections to teaching are placing increasing emphasis upon identifying the impact of research upon educational practice. In addition, the expensive shortcomings of approaches to the improvement of educational practice developed remotely by educational researchers/policy/political professionals, imposed upon teachers from the top-down and evaluated in terms of ‘outcomes-based’ measures are increasingly well documented in the literature. Of particular concern here is the way in which top-down approaches overlook the importance of context and teacher judgement in order to reduce and oversimplify what can and should be measured and valued in education to what can be easily measured. A further concern is that this approach is operating to inhibit real improvements in practice by overlooking subtle, complex and crucially important aspects of the realities of how educational knowledge is ‘transferred’ and how educational practice actually improves.
This paper reports the findings of a programme of practice-focused research, underpinned by an inquiry-based pedagogy, to support the continuing professional development of teachers in the FAVE sector. The aim of the programme is to produce significant, well-theorised and methodologically rigorous research into educational practice and educational improvement in order to generate insightful and illuminative cases of educative value, not only to the teachers engaged in the research but also to other teachers and policy professionals interested in improving educational practice.
The research was funded by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) in England and conducted by the University of Sunderland’s Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (SUNCETT). The study involved over 200 practitioner-researchers from Further Adult and Vocational Education (FAVE) institutions across England over a period of 8 years. Each practitioner-researcher attended a series of Research Development Residential Workshops over a period of 12 months and was supported by a research mentor from SUNCETT. Each practitioner-researcher identified an area of educational practice in need of improvement and carried out a practice-focused research project into that area of practice, in order to produce a number of research outputs including a research paper/poster and a research conference presentation and in some cases peer-reviewed and published work. Research Methods in the study included: 1. Case Studies 2. Critical incident analysis 3. Analysis of practitioner-research posters. 4. Analysis of practitioner-research reports. 5. Evaluative data from Research Development Workshops 6. Practitioner and learner accounts of their experiences of their research 7. Analysis of Research Impact grids
The findings of this practice-focused study support the work of Stenhouse (1975), Sarason (1990), Coffield (2007,2017), Elliott (2001) who argue that educational research and evaluation should be more educational and that educational research should and could have greater impact upon the professional practice of teachers. Data from this study offer illuminative cases to support the claim that practice-focused and inquiry-based approaches to the initial and continuing professional development of teachers offer a potential alternative to current approaches to educational evaluation and improvement (including external inspection). Data also suggest that this approach is capable of moving educational evaluation and improvement beyond the expensive and bureaucratic imperatives of external inspection regimes, ‘top-down’ micro-management, narrow preoccupations with crude metrics and superficial measures of ‘outcomes’ in education towards more educative, democratic and collaborative approaches to the improvement of educational practice through practice-focused educational research. Findings 1. Approaches to the evaluation and improvement of educational practice which promote fear and ‘performance’ are negatively educative in that teachers learn how to fabricate the most favourable outcome possible and education managers learn how to manipulate data in attempts to second-guess changing demands of inspectors. 2. Such approaches overlook the local knowledge and professional judgment of teachers, the realties of professional learning and set up unhelpful relays of power in educational evaluation and improvement. 3. Teacher-judgment and the role of context need to be taken seriously by those charged with responsibility for the improvement of educational practice. 4. There are different ways to understand the world so we need to stand up for a pluralistic rather that a monolithic approach to educational research which can accommodate practice-focused practitioner-research as well as theoretical research and contributions to new knowledge. 5. Practice-focused research and pedagogical inquiry offer an educative alternative to current approaches to evaluation and inspection
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