David Carr, teacher training and evidence-based practice

My reading recently led me to a now rather old article by David Carr in the Oxford Review of Education. I have not read as much Carr as I ought to have done, though this is on my list of things to do, but I found the following extract very interesting in the context of recent (though not novel) debates about ‘evidence-based practice’ in education. The fact that this article was written 21 years ago, the year when many of our new teachers this year were born, helps to show the longevity of the questions with which we still grapple today.

I find the following paragraph in particular quite interesting:

“It is easy to see in the light of this idea, however, why even well-intentioned students and teachers become seriously disillusioned with their educational theory courses when what has been presented to them under the guise of practical science fails to deliver the results for practice which would seem to have been promised. For whilst there are, to be sure, practical educational problems of a more or less technical nature about effective lesson preparation, organisation, presentation and the control of groups, these are normally of a very specific nature which relate to circumstances of resources, current discipline practices and curricular traditions in particular schools and they are not issues to which the higher level and more general researches of social scientists into cognitive development, attitude formation, group dynamics or personnel management can provide much in the way of direct practical solutions without considerable critical and evaluative reinterpretation and adaptation to particular circumstances. The sort of craft knowledge and skill (techné) which is required for efficient and effective everyday practice is in truth best learned on the job and it is probably not greatly or immediately assisted by general meditation on the empirical findings of social scientists.”

I am not sure whether I agree with this, but it does encourage me to think that policy-makers, managers and some teachers jump on an ‘evidence-based’ bandwagon too quickly. Carr takes this line of thinking and applies to the training of new teachers, something I found particularly interesting in the light of my last blog post.

“What precisely such student teachers find difficult to grasp is that genuine professional maturity as an educationalist cannot be based on the casual acceptance of simple, final and conclusive answers to complex questions such as those about the significance and contribution of forms of knowledge and understanding to healthy individual growth and flourishing; that any teacher who has ceased to think further about such matters and is no longer able to see the entire enterprise of education as – in a variety of ways – inherently problematic, is no longer properly functioning or progressing as a mature professional.”

Again, I need to reflect further on the nuances of this, but I find this helpful in composing an understanding of what is meant by teacher professionalism, particularly in the sense that teachers need to continue to make a problem of their practice. Carr argued that it was wrong to see the role of universities in teacher training as one of teaching new teachers a set of procedures and techniques.

“From this point of view it is not the job of university and college lecturers, nor is it within their power, to provide students [trainee teachers] with tailor-made answers to their particular practical difficulties; rather it is to help them explore in the context of a wider education about education, schooling and their contributions to social and individual flourishing, the different available rational conceptions of and perspectives on education as a human moral practice. The proper task of academic or theoretical educational studies in universities and colleges is not that of training classroom technicians to perform routine functions but that of the education of individuals in the kind of professional autonomy which will assist them to make wise and principled decisions on complex moral and evaluative issues.”

I want to share these passages (and do if you can go and read the article) as two of the issues Carr raises are at the forefront of educational debate today. There is, first, the question of how best to prepare new teachers for their careers and, in the light of structural questions, it is perhaps easy to overlook what the substance of teacher training might entail. I do not think that anyone argues these days that the best place for developing one’s practice is in a school, which is why all PGCE students spend most of their time working alongside experienced teachers in schools. Carr’s argument, however, is that, while necessary, such experience is not sufficient. The debate about ‘evidence-based practice’, secondly, has once again been placed high on the agenda, and it worries me that some in this discussion fall back on the model of ‘if you do x  then y will happen’ which, for many reasons, is I think an insufficient description of the professional knowledge that teachers need to have. From both an academic and professional position, these issues trouble me greatly.

Extracts from Carr, D. (1992) ‘Practical Enquiry, Values and the Problem of Educational Theory’, Oxford Review of Education, 18.3, pp.241-251

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