Knowledge For Social Work Essay
Knowledge For Social Work
Social work education in Britain has undergone repeated and fundamental restructuring in the past decade. In the early 1990s the professional qualification, the Certificate in Qualifying Social Work (CQSW), was replaced by the Diploma in Social Work (DipSW), a shift which required significant curriculum changes. Now social work education is undergoing another major change, with the DipSW being replaced by an undergraduate degree. However, despite changes to practice and academic training requirements, there are some constants, some requirements which do not alter. One of these is the demand for social work students to demonstrate that they can ‘apply theory to practice’ as part of qualifying requirements. This requirement, presented casually alongside a long list of further requirements, characteristically fails to grasp that understanding the relationship between theory and practice has long been a source of debate within social science.
In many respects, the recent debate in Britain (see Trevillion, 2000) continues, and draws upon, consistent themes in social theory over the relative merits or otherwise of positivist paradigms, with their underlying assumptions of a social world that can be revealed through the application of correct techniques. The early debates in social theory were structured by a widespread belief in the power of scientific and secular-philosophical knowledge to provide for the direction and improvement of natural and social life. The ‘age of reason’ provided a context of optimism in the possibilities for a collective life informed by justice and representing the march of progress.
Though the optimism generally attributed to the Enlightenment was tempered by ambivalence on the part of some theorists, or rejected by others, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were dominated by philosophical and theoretical interventions which, in general, supposed that knowledge could provide a foundation for political and social progress. This supposition could only be held by assuming that the world could be conceived of as an object, containing an underlying unity, progressing in a logical way, and peopled by subjects whose access to rational thought would liberate them collectively from the superstitions of pre-modern life. The underlying mechanisms of historical progress, the necessary regularities in social life, were held to be available to discovery by the sciences and philosophies, so that such knowledge attained a key role in the achievement of social progress (Penna, et al, 1999).
Although the ‘age of reason’ was also characterized by profound ambivalence concerning the possibilities for rational progress, the social sciences displayed a deep belief in the possibilities of knowledge to understand the social world and therefore guide the development of rationally organized structures, institutions and interventions. Thus the objective of knowledge-generation has been the establishment of a foundational knowledge, derived from the exclusive truth-producing capacity of science, that can inform social action. Foundational principles have been based upon two important assumptions: that theory involved a distinction between mind and world, between the subject and object of knowledge, and that language functioned as a neutral medium for the mind to mirror or represent the world (Seidman 1994: 3).
This historical intellectual legacy, together with a need for professional status dependent on a proper ‘knowledge-base’, drives demands that professional practice demonstrate the application of theory to practice. I want to suggest here that this demand betrays a lack of understanding of what theory is and what it can do and, at best, leaves students confused, whilst at worst it leads to cruel or ineffective practices in agencies. Here I outline the historical context that has led to a particular understanding of theory as a guide to action, point to some perils of its application in practice, and suggest a different method of dealing with theory on social work degree schemes.
What is Theory?
What we call ‘theory’ can be understood as a form of social action that gives direction and meaning to what we do. To be human is to search for meaning, and all of us hold theories about how and why particular things happen or do not happen. Some of these theories are little more than vague hypotheses about what will happen if we act in a certain way in a certain situation and what we might expect from others. But many of the theories we hold are more complex and express our understandings of, for example, how organizations work, of how people become offenders, or why the distribution of resources is as it is. In this sense theories are generalizations about what exists in the world and how the components of that world fit together into patterns. In this sense also theories are ‘abstractions’ in as much as they generalize across actual situations our expectations and suppositions about the reasons why certain patterns exist (O’Brien and Penna, 1998).
In the same way that we use theory in our everyday lives, we also draw upon various theories as part of the ways we act in the world, so understandings of the ‘social’ dimension of social work are also built upon different theoretical foundations. As O’Brien and Penna (1998) point out, theories about the validity of data and research procedures, theories about what motivates individual behaviour, theories about what will happen if we intervene in particular situations in x way rather than y way, become embedded in social, economic and criminal justice policies developed, implemented and managed by different social groups. Theories about the proper relationship between the individual and the state, men and women, homosexual and heterosexual, inform policy and practice frameworks so that the frameworks that legally bound social work, as well as practice priorities and interventions, differ substantially from country to country.
Theory about social life is either used or promoted in particular policy and welfare frameworks in order to make them more ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’, and is invariably embedded in the social programs that ensue from them. In this way theories make up the premises and assumptions that guide the formulation of particular policies and practices in the first place, as well as their later implementation. Such premises are essentially theoretical: they are ‘imaginary’ in the sense that the conditions they describe, the logics of action and the structures of provision on which they focus are not proven, definite realities.
This use of theory in the ways described above developed from the intellectual sea-change of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, social organization was understood through theological worldviews, and government of the population justified largely according to divine right and religious edict: the Sovereign ruled over a subject population because he or she was divinely ordained to so. However, from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards a shift in intellectual thinking occurred which was to have major implications for the development of European societies. This historical period – The Enlightenment – marks a time when people start to be understood as self-creating, rather than as products of divine creation. A philosophical shift, questioning theological understandings of the human world and establishing the legitimacy of scientific explanations of the natural world, results eventually in a humanist understanding of social organization.
The Enlightenment sees the establishment of new philosophical systems for understanding both the natural and human worlds and the development of rational responses to social problems. The Enlightenment promises progress and represents a faith in science as a progressive force which can understand, and hence solve, problems in the natural and social worlds.
In this intellectual movement, new ways of thinking overlay those they were in the process of replacing, so that the cosmic transcendence of religious thought was replaced by the universalism of philosophy, and the methods and principles of the natural sciences. It was assumed that a theory could be developed that would substitute for the truth of religion.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century social thought was focused, in the social sciences, on the search for one theory that could explain the social world and hence provide a guide to action – a theory that could be used in practice – famously captured by the term praxis. However, as the twentieth century developed, this conception of theory came under increasing attack, and this attack is one which has many implications for the use of theory in social work education and practice.
Some Problems With Theory
Several events in Europe contributed to a questioning of the application of theory to practice. The establishment of a communist society based upon the premises of Marxist theory was one such event. As the mass exterminations, abuses of power and repressions of the communist state came to widespread notice, so did the rationales underlying them. The communist leadership, following particular strands of Marxist theory, imposed upon populations conditions which, in theory, were necessary for the development of a communist society. Those individuals who did not fit the predictions of theory, or questioned the premises upon which action was based, were considered ‘deviant’ and sent for ‘retraining’ in labour camps when they were not killed.
The endless compulsory ‘self-criticism’ that members of various Marxist groups carried out was aimed at making individual behaviour conform to the tenets of theory. Yet when many thousands of individuals failed to conform, it was their behaviour that came under scrutiny, rather than the premises and assumptions of the theory, resulting in tragedy for thousands. The second tragedy was the application of theory to practice by Germany’s Nazi leadership. These two examples provide perhaps the most extreme illustrations of the application of theory to practice, but the history of social welfare is littered with more mundane examples that nevertheless cause great misery to those subject to theory application.
We have seen the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century whose influence contributed to the institutionalisation (and worse) of people with learning difficulties, the widespread use in the mid-twentieth century of lobotomies in treating people with mental health problems and, to take two examples from this author’s practice career, the use of psychodynamic and behaviour modification theory in practice. I observed the use of psychodynamic theory in practice in the social work department of an acute unit in a psychiatric hospital. A senior social worker specialized in dealing with depressed female lone-parents. Reading through dozens of case-notes (meant to aid my practice) I was struck by the way that these women’s depression was attributed to various failures in their early psycho-sexual development, whilst their practical circumstances – victims of domestic violence, poor housing, lack of money – were completely ignored.
Needless to say, these women failed to improve, but the point to note here is that this failure was not attributed to the faulty premises of the theory and the way in which it was being applied, but to the women’s innate psychopathology. My second example is taken from two years in a residential home for children with learning disabilities. Here a behaviour modification regime was implemented by management with no critical appreciation of debates in psychology about what it means to be human, what motivates behaviour and how behaviour should be understood. Those children who did not respond to ‘positive reinforcement’ (the majority) were labelled and punished, whilst the underlying problems of the theory itself left unexamined.
In short, in both these cases, where service-users failed to fulfil predicted outcomes derived from particular theoretical paradigms, the response displayed a notably similar characteristic as in the examples from totalitarian societies – the users were pathologised, rather than theoretical premises examined.An objection could be made here that these examples merely demonstrate a-typical historical circumstances or incompetent practitioners. However, whether at the level of whole societies, whole social groups, or numerous disparate individuals, a backlash against the conjoining of knowledge and power has been manifest in many locations, including: the overthrow of communism in the Soviet Union, the critical interrogation of ‘totalising’ discourses, the decline in membership of organised, hierarchical political movements, the widespread development of ‘rights-based ’ and user movements, and a suspicion of ‘expert’ practice and bureaucracies.
In social theory, the last three decades or so has seen a particularly sustained interrogation of the status of Enlightenment theory. Under the impact of post-structuralism, particularly that associated with Foucault and Derrida , an unpackaging of the assumptions and premises of theory construction has severely undermined the ‘theory as truth and guide to practice’ position. This is not to say such challenges to Enlightenment theory did not exist before, for a long tradition of hermeneutic and phenomenological thought had posed alternative understandings of human and social action.
Post-structuralism, however, has mounted a comprehensive and thorough critique of the epistemological basis of structuralism and realism. In the current examination of Enlightenment thought, Derrida ‘deconstructed’ major traditions in western social thought, showing how accounts of human knowledge depended on the use of key textual devices for obscuring problematic philosophical categories, or for revealing and endorsing particular interpretations and meanings of social and political progress. The construction of any text lends itself to several meanings and interpretations, such that it is impossible to arrive at any one fixed, ‘true’ account.
Foucault, on the other hand, examined the epistemology underpinning the Enlightenment belief in the replacement of an institutionalised theological belief system with one which emphasised Reason and the limitless capacity of human knowledge. Enlightenment philosophy suggests that what occurs in the world is subject to entirely knowable and explainable laws that can be discovered and used in the progress of human society and human mastery over the natural and social world.
Foucault’s contribution to the unpicking of this position was to show, through examinations of historical understandings of punishment and sexuality, that there are other ways of understanding this history which suggest a very different interpretation of the Enlightenment and its effects on social life, and demonstrate that many truths and experiences of social life co-exist that make it impossible to provide an overarching account that explains everything. At the same time, science constantly shifts its parameters, so that what may be ‘true’ at one historical moment is rendered false later.
This brief outline cannot do justice to the sophistication and breadth of the critique of Enlightenment theory, critiques which have resulted in major debates over how we can know our world and what valid knowledge claims can be made (c.f., Lemert, 1999). Even where the foundations of poststructuralist epistemology are rejected there is a much greater appreciation of the problems associated with universalism and linear structures, two of the major props of Enlightenment theory. The permeation of these critiques is perhaps most evident in mainstream emphases on ‘difference’ and social constructivism, ‘difference’ and postmodernism, (c.f.,Briskman, 2001), and a general rejection in many disciplines of overarching, grand theory (Leonard, 1997).
Here attention shifts to the assumptions embedded in theory and the way in which these assumptions become embedded in projects of nation-building, in legal and organisational structures, and in policy initiatives. Goldberg’s (1993, 2002) work on ‘race’ and racialization traces this process of embedding through an examination of the ways in which Enlightenment thought depended upon a racialized subject of social action and object of social theory. The pervasiveness of this discourse entrenches and normalizes symbolic representations and values both culturally and materially within the institutions of modern life (c.f., Goldberg, 1993: 8).
The social sciences are ‘deeply implicated’ in the building of a racist culture and in the ‘hegemony of symbolic violence’ underpinning social systems (Goldberg, 1993: 12, 9). Roediger (1994) examines a similar process in American history and nation-building, pointing to a normalization of ‘Whiteness’ in the construction of conceptual and political subjects. This legacy enters social work in various ways (see Taylor, 1993), but appreciating the role of theory as cultural artefact, as a cultural product, produced in, and reproducing, social assumptions of normativity and relations of domination and subordination, can be similarly achieved in relation to gendered and sexualized categories, for example.
This leads us to a situation in which theory itself can be understood as a key resource in forging a ‘modern’ consciousness, and socio-political spheres shot through with asymmetries of power (Penna and O’Brien, 1996/7), where exploitation and oppression operate through complex and unstable socio-economic mechanisms (O’Brien and Penna, 1996).
Not only can the ‘social’ upon which we work not be known in its entirety, not be predicted, not be subject to fool-proof risk assessment, evaluation and so on, but theory production has arguably been a contributory mechanism in the creation of precisely many of those socially problematic circumstances that social work sets out to address. In short, Parton (2000:452) hits the nail on the head in claiming that we need to learn to live with ‘uncertainty, confusion and doubt’. Where then, does that leave theory in social work, if we accept this position? I want to turn briefly, and finally, to some suggestions of the use of theory in social work education.
At the beginning of this piece I suggested that we all use theory in our everyday lives. Given that this is so, and that theory permeates every aspect of academic work, policy implementation and practice initiatives, even when it is tacit and unacknowledged, I would propose that social work students and, ultimately, service-users, would be better served if students were taught how theory-construction takes place and how to unpackage and critically examine theoretical edifices, accounts and the components through which they are constructed. The task for social work students would be not the mechanistic injunction to ‘apply theory to practice’ but rather to consider how adequate the application of theory to practice might be in X or Y case.
To do this, they would have to be taught not so much along ‘who-says-what’ lines, but rather in terms of how theorising as an activity works and how different theories are constructed. Theory building is an exercise in logic, moving from initial assumptions and premises to conclusions, through an argument linked by one or more claims. Taking these components apart can be taught as a skill (see, for example, Phelan and Reynolds, 1996; Thompson, 1996) rather than through the more philosophically based, social theory courses provided in many other disciplines.
Tackling theory in a skills-based way has several advantages: it demystifies theory and enables students to see that, with practice, they can take a theory apart and reconstruct it in much the same way as a plumber or mechanic might tackle a job; it leads to a critical scrutiny of practice proposals derived from (often unstated) theoretical premises and to confidence in rejecting the inappropriate; and, when the theory fails to deliver, it leads to critical scrutiny of the theory rather than the person on the receiving end of it.
This is not a plea for eclecticism, but for much more modest expectations of the theory-practice relationship than are currently formally embedded in many social work training programmes. I say ‘formally’ because many people have a suspicion of theory but, in my view, for the wrong reasons. Most theories offer insights into the ‘social’ sphere that is the ‘work’ of social workers but, ultimately, a theory is only as good as its critics.
This paper considers the demand for social work students in Britain to demonstrate that they can ‘apply theory to practice’ as part of qualifying requirements. It suggests that this demand betrays a lack of understanding of what theory is and what it can do and, at best, leaves students confused, whilst at worst it leads to cruel or ineffective practices in agencies. Understanding the relationship between theory and practice has long been a source of debate and, in many respects, the recent debate continues, and draws upon, consistent themes in social theory over the relative merits or otherwise of positivist paradigms with their underlying assumptions of a social world that can be revealed through the application of correct techniques.
The early debates in social theory were structured by a widespread belief in the power of scientific and secular-philosophical knowledge to provide for the direction and improvement of natural and social life. The ‘age of reason’ provided a context of optimism in the possibilities for a collective life informed by justice and representing the march of progress. This paper outlines the historical context that has led to a particular understanding of theory as a guide to action, points to some perils of its application in practice, and suggests a different method of dealing with theory on social work degree schemes.
Evidence-based practice in teaching and teacher education
What is it? What is the rationale? What is the criticism? Where to go now?
Christer Brusling, Oslo University College, Centre for Study of the Professions.
Invited paper to a workshop at the conference Professional Development of Teachers in a Lifelong Perspective: Teacher Education, Knowledge Production and Institutional Reform. Centre for Higher Education Greater Copenhagen in collaboration with OECD, Copenhagen, November, 17-18. 2005. What is it? Where does it come from? What is the rationale?
This movement, if I may call it that, seems to have originated in the British educational context, and with a lecture given by David Hargreaves to the Teacher Training Agency in 1996. Unfortunately I have been unable to get a copy of it in Norway – there is none in Norwegian libraries1. Lacking this original source I will rely on what comes forward in second-hand sources, in published criticisms in mainly British journals, and in later articles by Hargreaves, where he answers his critics. Philip Davies (1999) from University of Oxford, “the other place” from Hargreaves’
That doesn’t mean that the movement hasn’t reached Norway. A recent NOK 100 million proposal for educational research in partnership with schools show that at least the former conservative government knew about it, mainly through Demos, a British “independent think tank” (demos.co.uk) Agora nr. 8 – tidsskrift for forskning, udvikling og idéudveksling i professioner www.cvustork.dk/agora 88 perspective, writes favourably about evidence-based education in an article named “What is evidence-based education?”.
He says that it operates on two levels, the first being “to utilize existing evidence from worldwide research and literature on education and related subjects”, the second “to establish sound evidence where existing evidence is lacking or of a questionable, uncertain, or weak nature” (p.109). The first level is described thus: Educationalists at all levels need to be able to: • pose an answerable question about education;
• know where and how to find evidence systematically and comprehensively using the electronic (computer-based) and non-electronic (print) media;
• retrieve and read such evidence competently and undertake critical appraisal
and analysis of that evidence according to agreed professional and scientific standards;
• organise and grade the power of this evidence; and
• determine its relevance to their educational needs and environments2.
(Davies 1999, p.109).
Davies acknowledges the debt of the education sector to medicine and other health professions, which predated education with fi ve to ten years in the implementation of the idea of evidence-based practices. According to Davies, it is derived from the
University of Oxford Master’s programme in Evidence Based Health Care. argreaves explicitly argues for evidence-based teaching by pointing to the success of the idea in medicine, and by the similarity of the work of doctors and teachers:
Practicing doctors and teachers are applied professionals, practical people making
interventions in the lives of their clients in order to promote worthwhile
ends – health or learning. Doctors and teachers are similar in that they make
2 Note that evidence-based education in this defi nition curiously enough comes out as a
pure intellectual exercise, lacking the fi nal application to practice.
Agora nr. 8 – tidsskrift for forskning, udvikling og idéudveksling i professioner
www.cvustork.dk/agora 89 decisions involving complex judgements. Many doctors draw upon research about the effects of their practice to inform and improve their decisions; most
teachers do not, and this is a difference. (Hargreaves 1997, p. )
One reason to turn to evidence-based education is that doing so would make education less vulnerable to “political ideology, conventional wisdom, folklore, and wishful thinking”, not to mention “trendy teaching methods based on activity-based, student-centred, self-directed learning and problem solving” (Davies 1999, p. 109). But what constitutes evidence? For Hargreaves (1997) evidence is evidence about “what works”. The dictionary says that evidence is “something that furnishes proof”
(m-w.com). To be able to provide proof of the “working” you need to measure the outcome of the teaching activity in question, and you need a procedure of relating the measured outcomes to the activity to make the relation an evidence3. Hargreaves doesn’t see much of a problem with how outcomes are constructed, but is adamant about what ought to be the preferred procedure, the RCT, the randomized control trial, often called “the golden standard”4. Davies (1999), on the other hand, is more permissive of a variety of procedures, thus voicing a broader conception of educational outcomes.
In addition to RCT, he mentions survey and correlational methods, regression analysis and analysis of variance. He allows for inquiries that seek to describe the meanings different people attach to different teaching activities, and the broader and long-term consequences of them, e.g. on “students’ and parents’ sense of self and their sense of social worth and identity” (p. 115). Analyses of naturally occurring teaching interactions, conversation and discourse are
In keeping with the parallel with medicine, I would say that not only expected and beneficial outcomes should be measured but also non-expected and possibly harmful ones. Hargreaves here echoes the standard text of research methodology from 1963, Campbell & Stanley, Experimental and Quasi-experimental Designs for Research: “[We are] committed to the experiment: as the only means for settling disputes regarding educational practice, as the only way of verifying educational improvements, and as the only way of establishing a cumulative tradition”. Cited by Howe (2005), p.308. Agora nr. 8 – tidsskrift for forskning, udvikling og idéudveksling i professioner
www.cvustork.dk/agora 90 also mentioned as worth-while in this context. He further wants to ask normative questions within the evidence-based teaching paradigm: “whether or not it is right
or warrantable to undertake a particular educational activity or health care intervention” (p.115).
Davies’ (1999) omission of the necessary last element in evidence-based practice, i.e. how the purported evidence is to be put to use in practice, avoids a difficult and much discussed problem. Hargreaves (1999b) is of course right in pointing out that this problem is different if practice refers to policy making, as in the phrase evidence-based policy, or to teaching in classrooms, as in the phrase evidence-based teaching. The use of evidence in policy making is about deciding on “large issues concerned with levels and types of resource allocation – decisions which are difficult to undo” while the use of evidence in teaching “refer to the relatively small-scale professional practices of teachers in schools and classrooms, which can usually be easily revised” (Hargreaves 1999b, p. 245).
In both circumstances enter a lot of considerations apart from “evidence”. Answering critique from Hammersley (1997) Hargreaves (1999b) admits that context sensitive “’practical wisdom’ pervades (both) expert medical and educational practice. There is some hard science deep in the knowledge-base of doctors, but the closer a doctor gets to an individual patient, the stronger the elements of judgement or of practical wisdom that also enters into the decision. Teachers acquire ‘practical wisdom’ too; but, in comparison with doctors, they have little accepted scientifi c knowledge to insert into their decision-making.”
He claims that the infra structure of knowledge available to teachers is far less developed than that available to doctors, and that teachers seem to be less effi cient than doctors in fi nding the scientifi c knowledge there is. He argues that one reason for this is that the knowledge base in medicine is cumulative while that in education is not, but ought to become.
This leads to Davies (1999) second level of concerns about evidence-based teaching: “to establish sound evidence where existing evidence is lacking or of a questionable, uncertain, or weak nature”. Hargreaves’ lecture in 1996 to the Teacher Training Agency stated that teachers only to a small extent base their practice on (hard) scientific evidence, but he didn’t blame teachers but researchers for failing to produce such evidence, especially produced by RCT procedures. With the £12,000,000 funding for developing evidence-based policy and practice by research he hoped researchers would be encouraged to respond appropriately (Hargreaves 1999a). In another journal article the same year, titled “The Knowledge Creating School”, he urges teachers themselves to produce the knowledge they need.
To sum up: Evidence-based teaching is a concept borrowed from the health sciences and recommended for teachers (you might add: by new-public-management-governments and elite researchers). You may get the impression that it’s use implies a critique of teachers for not including research-based evidence in deliberations on how to teach, but mainly it is a critique of educational researchers for not providing the needed cumulative research-base, built on research of the randomized control trial (RCT) kind. The rationale is that once such research has taken off and its results have been efficiently disseminated, evidence-based, or evidence informed, teaching will become more frequent.
Critique of the notion of evidence-based practice
Hammersley (1999) challenges Hargreaves’ on three accounts: his description of educational research as non-cumulative, his prescription on how research could contribute to practice, and his argument that education should learn from medicine, which he considers a parallel to education. Hammersley shares the view that educational research could become more cumulative, but researching ‘what works’ has not proved successful in this respect, despite sustained attempts: “much educational research in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century was devoted to investigation of effective teaching; and one of the reasons for the changes in educational research over the past 20 years is precisely the failure of this work to produce conclusive, cumulative fi ndings” (p.144).
But he also reminds us that there are different meanings of the concept “cumulative”. There are obvious “problems involved in identifying distinct and standardised ‘treatments’ in education”, Hammersley exemplifi es by the “problems faced by researchers seeking to distinguish teaching styles”. What about the problems in operationalising the concept of learning? What should be done about the disagreements about what students should learn? What about the problems of how to measure “the most important kinds of learning”? Hammersley asks if it is possible even in principle to do so. A preoccupation with what is easily measured may very well have profound effect on teaching, narrowing objectives accordingly.
To establish fixed, universal causal patterns in teaching seems equally difficult, if not impossible. What might be aspired to is “local, context-sensitive patterns in which interpretation and decision on the part of teachers and students play an important role. Unlike in most areas of medicine, in education the ‘treatments’ consist of symbolic interaction, with all the scope for multiple interpretations and responses which that implies”.
Hammersley thinks that “the production of information of high practical relevance usually depends on a great deal of knowledge that does not have such relevance…for science to be able to contribute knowledge that is relevant to practice, a division of labour is required: a great deal of coordinated work is necessary tackling smaller, more manageable problems that do not have immediate pay-off”. Hargreaves is described as having a “narrowly instrumental view of practical relevance”, promoting an ‘engineering model’ of the relationship between research and practice. An engineering model assumes that most teaching problems are technical, which is not likely. On the contrary they seem in most cases to be ‘practical’, that is involving making judgements in complex situations, exercising discretion, not following rules.
The analogy with medicine is criticised for not taking into account that the practice of medicine is more towards the engineering side of a continuum which at the other side has the practical. Even within medicine the notion of evidence-based practice has been criticised for downplaying practical judgement in clinical situations, that “the focus of clinical practice is subtly shifted away from the care of individuals toward the care of populations, and the complex nature of sound clinical judgement is not fully appreciated” (Tonelli 2000).
Hammersley cites a medical researcher who raises the same critique towards medical research as Hargreaves does to educational research: it is methodological weak, use inappropriate designs, unrepresentative and small samples, incorrect methods of analysis, and faulty interpretations. The blame is put on practitioners doing research without adequate research training, a fact that doesn’t actually support Hargreaves’ recommendation that more teacher research should lead to a stronger body of knowledge with practical relevance. Hammersley concludes his critique: “The diagnosis (of the current state of educational research) is mistaken and, taken as a whole: the prescription is likely to be
In the North American context an equally forceful critique of the arguments for research for evidence-based practice has been voiced by Howe (2005). His critique is organised under the headings “experimentism5 and scientifi c method”, and “experimentism and values”. The object of his analysis is a National Research Council report, Scientifi c Research in Education (2002), which he means represent a more moderate form of experimentism than other infl uential publications advocating research for evidence-based practice. In short he states that this report:
• unconvincingly characterizes the conduct of research as hierarchical, both
temporally and logically (p. 309);
• offers little defense of its call for a renewed emphasis on randomised experiments
against well-known criticisms regarding the issue of external validity
(generalisability from research contexts to other contexts) (p.309);
• does not take into account Cronbach’s observation that generalizations decay,
The word ”experimentism” is used by Howe to refer to scientifi c research advocating the randomised control trial as the “best” research method. thus making the goal of a cumulative education science fundamentally unattainable;
• does not take into account that human intentionality signifi cantly complicates how to understand causal explanation in social research; • places outcomes outside educational research, by focusing on means; • places not-manipulable variables, like socio-economic stratifi cation, outside the limits of educational research by insisting on RCT as the method of choice, thus making educational research “a political innocent exercise”.
Howe (2005) turns to Toulmin (2001) to fi nd an alternative to experimentism – an alternative that is without the short-comings described above: Activities for which social research is often seen as a tool for improvement – medicine and education, for instance – call for intentional behaviour on the part of practitioners in the form of craft-based practical judgement. Stephen Toulmin observes that when performed well, these judgements must respond in a “timely” manner to the unique and unanticipated actions of other persons, as well as to their different ways of seeing things. According to Toulmin, research informing such practices should exemplify a model that is “clinical” and “democratic” rather than “applied” and “elite” (Howe 2005, p. 317).
Teachers’ relationship to research Do teachers experience a lack of research results when planning to teach? How do teachers relate to educational research? Do teachers fi nd some research genres more relevant and practically useful than others? Does teachers’ practice-based research contribute to a knowledge base of teaching? None of these questions are raised in the early discussions on evidence-based teaching, but specific answers to them seem to enter as premises to prescriptions.
I would think that the answer to the first question is no. A common place view of teachers’ planning is that it is based on textbooks and concerned with amounts of “covering”, using standard methods of classroom instruction: a short introduction by the teacher, independent pupil work with textbook exercises, question-and-answer-patterns, summing up by the teacher in class. Twenty years ago research on teachers’ planning was frequent, today it seems to be an almost closed field of study. Perhaps the expectations of the paradigm of evidence-based teaching on teachers to include research results in their deliberations on how to teach may lead to its re-opening. Do teachers find some research genres more relevant and practically useful than others? Kennedy (1999) observes that:
Many genre advocates refer to teachers to justify their arguments, claiming that teachers need more authoritative knowledge (so we should conduct experiments), more dynamic portraits that reveal multiple truths (so we should write narratives), or more richly detailed accounts (so we should do ethnographies). (Kennedy 1999, p.511)
Case studies and ethnographies, she continues, have long been justified by: …contentions that educational events are governed not by universal laws of cause and effect but, instead, by human interactions and by multiple concurrent and interacting influences; that the meanings of these events can be understood only within their context; that detailed descriptions of the full range of these interactions and dynamics are the only way to accurately represent these events and their meanings;
that the kind of complex dynamic knowledge represented in case studies and ethnographies is more like the kind of knowledge ordinary people use to store their experiences; and that such detailed and multifaceted descriptions enable audiences to see similarities and differences between the research setting and their own situations, thus enabling generalizations by analogy rather than by statistical extrapolation. (Kennedy 1999, p.54)
She sets out to investigate if teachers find some research genres more persuasive, more relevant, and more influential on own practice, than others, and if so, what features of each genre contribute to these evaluations. 100 teachers were interviewed after having read five articles describing research of different genres. Results show that the three evaluative criteria were highly correlated, but also that reasons for valuing them varied across genres. Experiments appeared to be highly valued, but so were non-experimental comparisons and narratives.
Case studies appeared more influential than surveys. Independent of genre research studies proved to be particularly useful if they “helped teachers understand the relationship between teaching and learning” (Kennedy 1999, p.528). Kennedy concludes that a majority of teachers found most of the articles persuasive and relevant, but for different reasons. The genre contentions with which she started were not empirically verified.
The TTA itself designed a questionnaire on teachers’ perspectives on educational research, and distributed it as attachments to journals of two teacher organisations, one for primary teachers, the other for secondary teachers. Everton, Galton & Pell (2000) report on the findings. As an unknown number of subscribers were “corporate members for local education authorities and industrial companies” they were unable to specify teachers’ response percentages. It was however estimated that the first group only returned 15% of the questionnaires, the second possibly a little more. In the second group most, i.e. 84%, were filled out by school leaders. All in all: the manner this investigation was carried out does not justify its analysis in terms of “teachers’ perspectives”.
Does teachers’ practice-based research contribute to a knowledge base of teaching?
As a result of Hargreaves 1996 lecture to the Teacher Training Agency the
British government allocated £54000 to the funding of teacher research projects.
In an evaluation of the resulting reports Foster (1999) found that “a significant minority of the projects appeared to be practical: concerned with the improvement of teaching, learning or educational achievement, rather than the production of knowledge” (p. 383). He found “that only in a minority of the reports are factual claims well established… as a result, it is difficult to see these as much more than opinion based on pre-existing views of good practice” (p. 393).
Foster concludes that critical scrutiny of findings from teacher research before dissemination is crucial, but is afraid that “the view of knowledge production and dissemination which underpins this TTA scheme sees little role for such scrutiny. The priorities are rapid production and immediate dissemination to practitioners” (p. 395). To sum up: There is research evidence that teachers see the RCT research genre as relevant and useful to practice, but no more so than many other research genres. There is research evidence that teachers’ practice-based research does not contribute substantially to a body of knowledge on teaching, not to mention a cumulative one.
In line with the observation that there is more to teachers’ decision making than following authoritative evidence-based rules for practice, the discourse have changed from talking dichotomously about evidence-based/not evidence-based teaching to talking about evidence-informed teaching (Hargreaves 1999b) or the extent to which teaching is evidence-based (Davies 1999).
It is interesting to note that while waiting (?) for research-produced evidence on “what works”, in teaching and in teacher education, British teacher education has become teacher training, managed by the Training & Development Agency for Schools. Its publication “Qualifying to teach. Professional standards for qualified teacher status and requirements for initial teacher training” lists skills, competencies and understandings would-be teachers must acquire (TDA 2005). Hagger & McIntyre (2000) complains that “these lists have been accompanied neither by any rationale for the items listed nor by any explanation of the conception of teaching expertise which underlies the lists” (p. 485).
Not surprisingly, I found that in this publication the word ‘training’ appears 51 times, the word ‘education’ 15 times (most of these in naming school subjects or institutions), the words ‘research’, and ‘theory’ did not appear at all. My conclusion is that there are serious problems, philosophical, historical, and political problems, with the notion of evidence-based practice transferred to teaching and teacher education, at least in its original interpretation.
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Sue Penna, Ph.D. can be contacted via e-mail at: [email protected]