Why is it wrong to look for evidence, and why should teachers have more time for theory? Cliff Jones continues his series examining the meanings of CPD words and concepts in current use

Cliff continues his series looking at CPD terms and concepts. You can read his earlier article here

Evidence

The one thing that a professional life generates without any trouble at all is evidence. The problems are collecting it, collating it, working out its significance, reporting it and using it as a basis for further professional learning. Sometimes evidence can be clearly tangible and seemingly unproblematic such as examination results. But really such evidence is often merely the output from effort. Until it is examined critically we do not know what it signifies and should not refer to it as the outcome of professional learning. Teachers with poor results in one year are often exhorted to change the way they are teaching but sometimes the following year’s improved results are really due to having a different class. In other words, what looks like evidence for improved professional learning may be nothing of the sort.

Intangible evidence might include an improved atmosphere, a more positive approach to learning and lots more that is difficult to measure or to explain to another person. For that reason intangible evidence is often unreported. This is a pity because it might be of considerable significance. Charles Clarke, when he was secretary of state, said that he could recognise good-quality CPD by the ‘buzz and enthusiasm’ in the school. Tony Blair said the same recently. The problem is that politicians value measurable outcomes more highly. You might think that linking the buzz and the measurable outcomes is all that you have to do but, as a number of retired teachers might tell you, the buzz and enthusiasm sometimes take years to pay off and you cannot tell an inspector to come back in 20 years to talk to adults who you inspired when they were children. Nevertheless, it is worth attempting to convince others if you think that intangible evidence is significant.

And while we are talking about evidence being significant, people often think that the only important thing about evidence is that it has to be strong. If, however, you interview a thousand teachers asking each one if they would like to have their salaries doubled a report that says that they all said ‘yes’ is hardly significant. It is important to know the nature, the strength and the significance of evidence.

Looking for evidence ‘NO’. Looking amongst evidence ‘YES’

It is never a good idea to ‘look for evidence’. This is what can happen when targets are set. We may expect certain kinds of evidence and we may even have an idea of the meaning to be given to evidence before we see it but it is fundamentally unsound to confine yourself to looking for the evidence that matches your hypothesis. Better to look ‘amongst’ the evidence that has been generated, especially the unexpected, and examine it for its significance. That is how penicillin was discovered.

We do not have to discuss high-flown theories about research to know this. Neither Hercule Poirot nor Sherlock Holmes would have made the mistake of excluding evidence that did not fit a pre-conceived theory, let alone Alexander Fleming and those that followed him.

Interrogating professional learning

Supposing you had decided upon some intended outcomes for your professional learning at the outset of the year and towards the end of the year you wished to make sense of what has taken place you might find it helpful to take each of your intended professional learning outcomes in turn and, making full use of the evidence that you have assembled, ask yourself the questions listed below. You might, in particular, take note of question seven which refers to unexpected evidence for unintended outcomes.

Questions

Q1. Did I achieve my intended professional outcomes as designed? In other words, was my definition of what I wanted to achieve very accurate and was the evidence that I expected to generate produced entirely as predicted? How can I tell that this is so? Is there any evidence in my portfolio to support this? What professional impact does the evidence signify?

Q2. Does what I wanted to achieve now look as though it should be redefined? Do I know and understand it better now? How would I define it now? What evidence can support this? What professional impact does the evidence signify?

Q3. Did what I wanted to achieve turn out to be impractical? In other words, were there strong, though perhaps unforeseen, professional reasons why it could not happen? What evidence supports me in saying this? What professional impact does the evidence signify?

Q4. Did I achieve more than I expected? In other words, did I go further than I hoped or, perhaps, this intended professional outcome actually encapsulated far more skills, knowledge, understanding and experience than I could see at the outset? What evidence supports me in saying this? What professional impact does the evidence signify?

Q5. Was this intended professional outcome really not for me? In other words, is it a sign of good professional development if I identify what I am not so good at? On what basis can I say this? What professional impact does this evidence signify?

Q6. I did not get round to addressing this intended professional outcome but should it continue to be a target for next year? In other words, although I did little on it this year or have good reasons for not achieving it, might it be an idea to carry it forward? What tells me that this is a good idea? What professional impact does this evidence signify?

Q7. Having responded to the questions above, now ask yourself if you have any unexpected evidence for unintended outcomes. If you do, make reference to it, make a list of what you believe has been achieved like this and, again, answer the question: what professional impact does this evidence signify?

Taking it further

A sequence for discussing what has happened to you in terms of professional development could be as follows.

  • Discussion – a paragraph or two describing what you think happened. 
  • Identification of evidence – perhaps a paragraph upon the relevant items listed in the previous section and collected or described in your portfolio.
  • Explanation of the significance of the evidence – again, a paragraph or two and remember that you are considering this evidence in terms of its professional impact.

Remember, there are no ‘correct’ answers. What matters is the rigour with which you interrogate your own professional development.

You could also critically review the literature that you have used. Remember that the literature relevant to your professional development is likely to include a mixture of academic writings, official documentation, work-based and personal professional materials (such as policy documents, action plans, schemes of work) and newspaper articles.

Make a list of the literature that you have selected as most relevant and, for each item in the list, describe and explain its relevance, usefulness and significance to you and, perhaps, other professionals. Another way of describing this is an annotated bibliography. Make sure that each item is identified so that a reader would be able to obtain or have sight of a copy.

Remember that it is possible that an item of literature such as a new assessment order or a new inspection report might not be very welcome but it may, nevertheless, have considerable significance. If you intend to register with a HEI, you will be provided with guidance on useful reading.

Remember also that, while academic and theoretical literature may help to shine a light on practice, a confident professional may be in a position to challenge and contribute to theory.

In other words, HEIs will wish to see evidence of professionals engaging with literature not simply describing it. It will, therefore, help if you are able to able to show that you have also considered the literature as a whole. In other words, say something about the different impact upon you of particular items or kinds of literature. Try to introduce some comparison.

Research and theory It is often said that the mere mention of the words ‘research’ and ‘theory’ in the presence of a British teacher will erect an impenetrable force field: that the loss of a free period on a Friday is far more important than using theory to make sense of practice.

Let’s look at it like this, theory is useful because it helps to shine a light upon or make sense of practice. There are, however, a number of confusing perceptions of research and theory. One is that they are all about numbers: having to understand hard sums. But quantitative research is by no means the only kind. Another is that the word ‘data’ refers only to numbers. It doesn’t. It refers to information of all kinds and conditions.

Remember that Holmes always told Watson that information precedes theory. So we must get our information by researching and, when we have made reasonable sense of it, then we can begin to form a theory. And once we have something that can be called a theory we can devise a means of testing it.

Much research and theory in education is very interesting to read and professionally useful. Most of it is written by teachers. Maybe they do not all work in schools or colleges anymore but it is likely that they did and, if they have moved to higher education, almost all of them continue to teach and are inspected and held accountable for their teaching to a far more stringent degree than they would be in schools and colleges. If you are being inspected right now you might not believe this but Ofsted are ever present in higher education and they are only one of a number of inspectors you can expect to find in an HEI. In other words, the researchers are not writing and constructing theory from the top of an ivory tower with only a vague and unrealistic idea about the professional life of a teacher. And, increasingly, educational research is being carried out in partnership with teachers in schools and colleges. Often it is initiated by a school or college.

Consider the following. 

  • Without researching practice there is no theory. l We make sense of practice by using theory.
  • Critically examining (researching) or making sense of practice can challenge, test and construct theory.
  • Theory and practice cannot be separated.

Research as exploration

Imagine going at night into a room with no lights and no windows. All you have is a small torch that you wave about in order to make sure you know where you are going. Well, research can be like that. You have decided that you need to explore the room so you take with you something that can help you see your way. It is not perfect and may only light up the odd corner. Nevertheless, it seems to be worth doing and you can find out something of value, including perhaps a knowledge of what you will need to do next time if you are to explore further. Take a bigger torch perhaps?

Sense-making or understanding?

‘Sense-making’ implies something different from ‘understanding’. Although the word ‘understanding’ is in widespread, everyday use, when someone says that they ‘understand’ they are often suggesting that they think have got to the bottom of a problem. ‘Making sense’ of something, however, indicates no more than that, on the basis of the information available at present, this is what it seems to mean or signify. It could change.

If you wish to be careful about claims for professional development it might be better to make more use of ‘sense-making’ rather than the more ambitious ‘understanding’.

After all, it was once ‘understood’ that the sun went round the earth.

If, however, we continue to use ‘understanding’ it might be a good idea to bear in mind the word’s ability to mislead. It may need to be qualified.

Relativists have been criticised for asserting that everything is true no matter what the perspective being used. Maybe that is a good argument for believers in absolute truth but I am not saying that everything is true. I merely feel more comfortable when we go a bit careful in making statements.

Ivory towers: a thing of the past

It is easy to imagine a gulf between people in higher education talking about nothing but theory in an impenetrable language and teachers in schools solely concerned with the practical problems of the ‘here and now’. But that is a caricature derived from the past. It is far more likely today that teachers will make use of theory to shine a light on their practice and use their growing professional self-confidence to challenge and even construct theory.

Oxbow schools

An oxbow lake is a stretch of a river or stream where the water on one bank flows so sluggishly compared to that on the other bank that it becomes cut off and is condemned to become stagnent. Could this be a good name for schools that fail to keep fresh with a good CPD policy? Especially, perhaps, a policy that brings in ideas from outside and allows for a little risk taking.

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