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Opinion, Teaching

Does a PLC Need Research?

In the recent CEA/CTF report Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach, access to research was reported to be the least important factor that teachers said would enable them to better teach in the way they aspired. Why did they put so little stock in research? In an era of increasingly complex classrooms and escalating expectations for inclusive practices with high rates of achievement, are teachers not clamouring for insights into how best to broaden the ways in which students can engage in and demonstrate their learning, how to ensure that they can all read well, how to structure an authentic inquiry, how to use technology to personalize learning, how to teach critical thinking, how to develop self-regulation and so on?

Nothing in the report suggests that teachers do not want to know these things and I can only assume that they do, but evidently they don’t think educational research will provide them with the answers. What they do ask for is more time to collaborate and more “relevant and engaging professional learning opportunities.” Since research ranks so low this would seem to indicate that they expect to learn most from each other and to find “relevant” learning opportunities with fellow practitioners rather than researchers. There is no doubt that professionals can learn a lot from each other, but if they only turn to each other will the profession be reduced to a craft based on folklore? Can it advance, as it must in order to better prepare students for a complex and rapidly evolving future filled with uncertainty and vexing challenges, without the benefit of formal research? Would any other profession do that?

In his classic 1975 study, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Dan Lortie reported that partly due to the way public schooling is organized and partly due to the personalities that were attracted to it, the culture of teaching was “cellular” and characterized by “individualism,” “conservatism” and “presentism.” Teachers, he observed, preferred to work alone without the intrusion of administrators or even colleagues, preferred established classroom practices that worked for them regardless of research findings, tended to avoid change and were so busily focused on the students with whom they were currently working that they did not take a long-term perspective on either their own development or the profession. Times have changed significantly since then, but school culture less so. There is much more collaboration, particularly in support of students with special needs, but I don’t think one could yet call it a new norm; teachers generally still have more trust in their gut feelings about what “works” than more objective student outcome data or research results; and the intensity of school life has increased so that it is generally even harder for them to find time and attention for long-term projects or the “big picture” beyond the classroom.

John Hattie suggests other reasons that research is not more central to teaching in his 2009 book, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. He notes a tendency amongst teachers to “over reliance on anecdotes, dressing up one’s beliefs in the trappings of science or pedagogical language and jargon, making bold claims, relying on one’s past experiences rather than others’ experiences [and] claiming that one’s own experience is sufficient evidence” (p. 252). The result is that almost everything can be claimed to “work” in some sense, but Hattie points out that it is not sufficient to do something that works, one should be doing what works best. To assist he offers a massive meta-analysis of research and identifies the methods that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning.

However, he also cautions against using these results naively, citing Michael Scriven’s observation that “various correlates of school outcomes, say the use of advance organizers, the maintenance of eye contact, or high time on task, should not be confused with good teaching. While these may indeed be correlates of learning, it is still the case that good teaching may include none of these attributes.” (p. 3) For example, Hattie’s analysis shows that the factor under control of a teacher that has the greatest positive effect on student achievement is providing more feedback, but he cautions that, “one should not immediately start providing more feedback and then await the magical increases in achievement … increasing the amount of feedback in order to have a positive effect on student achievement [also] requires a change in the conception of what it means to be a teacher … [and] necessitates a different way of interacting with and respecting students.” (p. 4) As this example illustrates, particular techniques are part of an overall learning context in which the gestalt is more significant than any one factor in isolation.

Teaching is such a complex activity and so strongly affected by context that research demonstrating that an intervention works in some context, or even many contexts, cannot simply be adopted; it must be adapted to some degree. Research must be interpreted intelligently and used strategically along with a teacher’s unique understanding of students’ interests, needs and abilities to strengthen the overall learning environment. Therefore, a teacher needs to know not only that something works but also why it works, and research does not usually provide this causal information because the teaching and learning process is simply too complex and not sufficiently understood to posit generalizable causal claims

Consequently, an essential part of a teacher’s professionalism is being able to select from practices that research has shown to be effective those that are most helpful in a particular context and for particular students. This is an Art and in this Art the practical wisdom of teachers is at least as useful as research results; that is, however,when we are talking about the considered consensus of the teaching profession, but not necessarily when we are talking about the experiences or opinions of individual teachers.

Thus, designing effective learning environments and instructional strategies for particular students can certainly benefit from collaboration under the right circumstances. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that the collective wisdom of groups is greater than the expertise of any individual if, and only if, the groups consist of independent thinkers with a diversity of relevant specialized knowledge and a means of aggregating their thinking to reach a decision (but not necessarily a consensus). This, in addition to personal support, is what I believe Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) provide when they are working well.  They have to avoid group-think, self-referencing, complacency, complaining and the many other pitfalls that rob groups of their potential power, but when they work right they provide a forum in which individual teachers combine their personal experience and understandings of research to act more wisely and effectively than any individual teachers could alone. The PLC, of course, has to be functioning as described above; there is nothing automatic about the benefits of teachers talking to each other.

With respect to the question posed in this blog – Does a PLC Need Research? – the more research knowledge a PLC has to complement its collective experience, the more power its members have to design effective learning environments and strategies. PLCs alleviate the “cellular” nature of teachers’ experience both by putting them in touch with each other and by strengthening their connection to the profession as a whole, including its research, through a pooling of knowledge. Those who read professional journals, participate in university courses or attend inservice events can bring that knowledge back to the group for information, interpretation and creative application.

Teacher collaboration and co-learning is a potentially powerful force for building individual and collective capacity, but if the discourse is not informed by research its potential is liable to be severely limited. PLCs, therefore, should ensure not only that their discussions are well-structured but also that they are well-informed by research.

Next post: The EdCamp Explosion: Is crowdsourcing pro-d really a good idea?


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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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