The BERA Professional User Reviews, published in 2003, aimed to critically inform the thinking of practitioners about research. Kate Wall uses them as a focus to argue that the closing of the theory-practice divide is becoming more and more relevant in 2008
The British Education Research Association (BERA) User Reviews were published in 2003 with the aim of providing a synthesis of up-to-date research for practitioners and policy makers. Each one was written through a partnership between a respected expert in the field and a panel of informed practitioners. They aimed to provide information about current, reliable research in a particular educational domain and to stimulate discussion and use of the research in educational practice. There are seven reviews available:
- What do we know about teaching young children?
- How is music learning celebrated and developed?
- How do we teach children to be numerate?
- How do we become good citizens?
- Does ICT improve teaching and learning in schools?
- Connecting research and practice – education for sustainable development.
- Connecting policy and practice – research in geography education.
Later in the article we provide summaries of the latter three reviews to give a taste of what they comprise and the process through which they were written.
The topics which they represent are varied and this list could have covered many different aspects of curriculum, learning process and pedagogy, but as a group they provide many starting points for thinking about research and the way in which it can and should link to practice. The aim was for these reviews to be available and accessible to a wide range of audiences so that they could start discussions about the way in which practice could be developed. An important element of this is easy accessibility: they are all available for download from the BERA website.
There are two aspects to using these guides as a model for dialogue across the theory/practice divide which I feel are important to recognise. The fact that they provide an amalgamation of current research evidence into a form which is easily ‘digestible’ for teachers, but also the fact that behind the publication there is a collaboration of teachers and researchers deciding which information should be usefully disseminated. In 2008 these Professional User Reviews still provide an exemplar of partnership between researchers and practitioners. They model the way in which research and practice can inform each other. In an age where these two perspectives are sometimes treated as separate entities, I would somewhat controversially suggest that one is null and void without the other. I would suggest that people like me, researchers and academics, are likely to be remote from the classroom, based in a higher education institution (HEI) or similar and, as such, cannot possibly have all the answers to the challenges of teaching and learning. How can I have the true answers when I have not been involved in the day-to-day practice of teaching for seven years? On the other side of the argument though, how can a teacher who is immersed in the daily routine of the classroom (and I can remember what that feels like) be charged with having all the answers? If nothing else, finding the time to reflect and take in the big picture is a challenging thing to do. Structures and processes that take into account the advantages and disadvantages of both are surely best practice. Neither perspective should be treated as exclusive of the other. Any model which encourages an exchange of ideas across these different perspectives and supports each party in seeing the potential of the viewpoint, experiences and evidence that the others bring to the discussion has got to be considered a good thing. As such a collaborative process resulting in the co-construction of practice and theoretical knowledge is essential. This is what these reviews represent: a partnership between schools and HEIs, between teachers and academics, between practice and theory.
Linking research and practice
This link between research and practice has become more important with the government’s current drive for teachers to be ‘research informed’. For example, they have recently set up The Research Informed Practice Site (TRIPS). This website aims to ‘offer easy access to essential research findings for teachers, governors, parents and all those who support them in the education of school age students.’ In a similar way to the BERA User Reviews it synthesises research reports into ‘bite-sized’ chunks (digests) that teachers can absorb as part of their busy professional lives. The website is an excellent one, but the real target surely is getting the conversations happening between the researchers and the teachers (and here there is also the potential of the policy makers getting involved) and providing a view point which represents a pragmatic combination of these perspectives. I am not sure whether, at this point in time, this has been fully achieved.
CUREE is another organisation which aims to bring the practice and research worlds closer together. The CUREE website provides different ways for individuals to engage with research, such as links to other websites, publications and events. It usefully has a Research of the Month (RoM) section which is published on the GTCE website summarising research completed by academics that they believe will be of interest to teachers. The website is information rich but as with TRIPS the discussions which might result are hidden and the potential synergy of the merging of ideas from practice and theory are difficult to identify. It is difficult to decipher who has written the summaries and therefore the extent to which the blend of perspectives which I think is the ideal are represented.
The Educational Evidence Portal
The Educational Evidence Portal
is a site which is dedicated to providing a searchable database of resources which can be of use to the education practitioner. The database includes research reports, articles and reviews; data; practitioner guidance; and inspection reports and policy documents chosen on a number of selection criteria. The search engine is a good one, in that the database combines information representing the fields of practice, policy and theory, and its scope is second to none that I am aware of. However, the process of using this information is not clear and the method by which a school can decipher what is best practice is hard to fathom without a great deal of reading.
Making use of the reviews
Granted, within this piece, I am tackling an area which is hard to capture and disseminate. I have undoubtedly missed some of the good work arising from HEI/ school partnerships around the country. Indeed, from my own experience when undertaking this kind of work, I know I aim to prioritise these kinds of conversations with teachers, but generating a record of them, a viewpoint which could be more widely engaged with, is something which we, myself and the teachers, need to develop further. With this in mind, I still feel that the BERA User Reviews provided a benchmark and a framework which should be taken as ‘best practice’ and that a revival of this kind of collaborative thinking and authorship should be considered.
Example BERA Professional User Reviews
Does ICT Improve Learning and Teaching in Schools?
Steve Higgins (2003) ISBN 0 946671 19 2 ICT is one of those areas of education research and practice where innovation moves so fast that it is difficult for best practice to catch up. In this review the question is not necessarily how do we keep up, but whether teachers and researchers can have a conversation about how ICT can support teaching and learning. The discussion which Steve Higgins and his team appear to be asking for and prompting is wider than the individual successes and failures associated with a single piece of technology, but rather about how technologies in general can be used in the classroom. The key messages and particular the implications set out at the end of each section not only summarise the discussion but also provide starting points for further dialogue about the issues that arise.
Connecting Research and Practice: Education for Sustainable Development
Mark Rickinson and colleagues (2003) ISBN 0 946671 18 4 This review really gets to the heart of the matter, the connection of research and practice. As such, it not only provides practical and theoretical insight, but also exemplifies the process which facilitates this effective combining of perspectives. It has to be said that it is a step in the right direction that the practitioners are named alongside the academic as the authors of the report. The body of the review builds on literature syntheses carried out by Mark Rickinson, but supplements this with seven case studies from practitioners providing exemplification of what education for sustainable development looks like. The case studies are clearly laid out and the messages accessible. In conclusion, the review suggests four steps for schools and teachers wanting to engage with research while also urging that researchers think more strategically about how their research is produced and how it is used.
Connecting Policy and Practice: Research in Geography Education
Eleanor Rawling (2003) ISBN 0 946671 24 9
Although this review is explicitly about geography, I believe it is possible to draw direct parallels with other subjects and the lessons which are outlined can be widely learned from. The review draws on a large research study completed by Eleanor Rawlings and has consulted various different groups including the geography associations and a number of user groups to produce an effective synthesis of how to connect policy and practice in geography. The report includes sections focusing on the changing subject curriculum, the changing nature of the subject teacher and the interactions between subject communities and policy makers. It outlines the changes in the subject and the way it has been taught over the last two decades. Diagrammatic representations and useful models are presented to supplement the text and the nature of the curriculum and the way it is taught and learned are problematised. Key messages for subject teachers, for subject communities and for policy makers are provided with the belief that these will help to ensure successful geography learning in the future.