“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.” Lee Shulman, The Wisdom of Practice
Lee Shulman’s quote is one of the best summaries of teaching I know. It captures the brilliant, maddening and humbling complexity of the education of a child. The pursuit of answers and certainty amidst such complexity appears to be a fool’s errand.
There are people who, despite the chaos of complexity, would present research evidence as promising to solve and simplify – to give us ‘the‘ answer. Then there are people who decry research evidence just as vehemently as those who celebrate it. They argue that any such ‘answers’ are false, or simply cannot exist in such a complex, adaptive environment like a school. Where should we stand?
I am no evidence evangelist. I am a healthy sceptic. I know that evidence in education is too often tainted by ideological bias, personal bias, methodological flaws, variables we barely understand and more. But then expecting research evidence to give us objective, flawless answers is like expecting to find the answer to the meaning of life as being reducible to the number 42.
What research evidence can do is give us complex, flawed and questionable ‘answers‘, or better still prompts or ‘best bets’. These flawed ‘best bets’ can be a starting point for complex decisions being made in pressurised, unique conditions. Such ‘best bets’ aren’t answers at all, but they may at least raise better questions for us so that we can scrutinise our decision making. It can make us stare down our biases and front up to the many gaps in our knowledge. This would be progress in itself – a tentative step forward.
Using research evidence needn’t lead to adversarial either/or thinking.
To some, research evidence is a tool to disempower teachers – little more than a reducible formula we’ll be force-fed on the front line by ideologically driven policy makers.
We should be healthily sceptical but, frankly, such decisions are being made without citing evidence every day. Policy will change regardless. Statistics and damn lies, sans evidence, will be half way around the world whilst we put our boots on.
Therefore, rather than turn away from research evidence through fear, we should attempt to engage with research evidence, using it as an opportunity for us to question and challenge bad policies founded upon a paper house of political whims. Teachers engaging with research evidence could deepen our professionalism, rather than strip us of it. It could become an essential weapon in our professional armoury.
I agree with Lee Shulman that teaching is perhaps the “perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented“, but that only makes me think that we should pursue every avenue possible to know more and to attempt to make sense of such complexity.