Evidence that could inform educational practice

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Educational practice is influenced and informed by an ever widening bank of research and beliefs which aim to define and promote how best to teach students and instruct new and existing practitioners (Moore, 1999, p. 121). There is a growing movement towards the opinion that educational practice should be informed by evidence based research rather than that of intuition. In this essay I will explore two methods which can be confidently described as evidence-based and a third which although based on more abstract principals can still be argued to form part of an evidence related system of research.

Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) have been used to evaluate medical practice in the modern era since the mid 20th century. Outside the field of medicine RCTs have been used to inform social and educational practice and policy. The principal of an RCT is first to formulate some hypothesis to be tested. A random sample of subjects is selected into a control group. Another random sample of subjects is selected into at least one other test group for which some form of procedure or intervention is applied. The control group is used as a comparison to formally, and almost always statistically, analyse the average effect of the intervention and thus whether the hypothesis holds a satisfactory level of statistical confidence. To reduce the risk of bias when an RCT is performed, blind trials are often administered in which the subjects are unaware of which group they have been appointed to. Double (and triple) blind trials can also be applied in which the subject, test staff (and researchers) are also unaware of the details of each group. There is an ever increasing movement for the results of RCTs and research to be made openly available to practitioners. Online evidence based information database projects similar to The Cochrane Collaboration are promoting evidence based educational research as well as publishing the results of RCTs to a mass audience (ERIC, 2010).

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The second type of evidence that can inform educational practice is achieved through Reflective Practice. This involves a practitioner continually working towards a goal of 'what works' by engaging in constructive critical analysis of their personal teaching experiences and strategies. This might be achieved by keeping notes or a teaching diary to detail what methods of teaching, classroom management or assessment have been used. Feedback can be collected from other internal sources such as questionnaires, surveys or even discussion groups. These inputs can then be used to autonomously evaluate effectiveness and form policy, whether personal or for a wider audience (Moore, 1999, p. 131). In practice, the reflective practitioner focuses on specific elements of their skill set so as to develop and adapt for the future. Stephen Ball would suggest taking one further step back from reflective practice, towards the Educational Theory of practice. 'It is necessary to start from another position and begin from what is normally excluded.' (Ball, 1995, p117). By a theoretical dismissal of modern instructional practices and beliefs, theorists offer clarity and new perspectives on the raw aims of education avoiding the 'intellectual stagnation' (Ball, 1995, p. 116) of the past. Foucault would argue that by removing the preconceptions of educational practice, we can begin to reassess the essence and fundamental principles of how, what and importantly, why research could inform educational practice (Faucault, 1988, p. 117).

Few would disagree that educational research is, at least in principal, carried out to better inform educational practitioners and policy makers. However the effectiveness of various methods is routinely contested. 'In recent years there has been a growing perception that researchers […] have less and less to say that practitioners find useful' (Schön, 1987, p.10). There are many differences between the three systems of research I have referred to, but ultimately the main distinctions in my opinion are the essence of the objectivity, individualism and collaboration as well as other implications of cost and ethics.

An RCT is an extremely rigorous method of testing medical, social or educational hypothesis. The method of the RCT is usually formally documented and reproducible and the results are objective and quantitative. However the method of evidence collection ignores several variances of which advocates of Reflective Practice would argue too important to be overlooked, this forms the most fundamental difference between the first two types of research. The nature of RCTs means that an 'average result' is achieved, ignoring environmental conditions such as; culture, class, location, the ability and receptiveness of individuals. This average result is criticized as not being immediately applicable to 'real-world' situations. In contrast, Reflective Practice sees the practitioner incorporate the environmental conditions as described above into a review of what Schön describes as 'reflection-in-action' and 'reflection-on-action'. The vast numbers of social and cultural circumstances that can present themselves add further stress on the notion that quantitative scientific-based research as achieved through RCTs cannot be effective in every situation. This disparity highlights the issue as to whether teaching relates better as an art or as a science, and thus whether a policy born of quantitative research can be applied effectively to qualitative situations. The individualistic nature of the Reflective Practitioner is another substantial difference compared with the principals and application of RCTs. The active dissemination of evidence based research from RCTs is seen by some as a challenge to the professionalism of traditional educational practitioners. Moore describes a teacher who has developed skills through personal experience as 'a trained craftsperson' (Moore, 1999, p. 122). Those who fall under the category of Hargreaves' 'pre-technocratic model' might resist the theory that educational practice can be effectively developed into a research-based profession. In direct contrast to the principle of continual development seen in Reflective Practice, the role of Theory in educational research aims to disengage from accepted educational practices in order for the redevelopment of new systems that do not lend themselves to the socially prescribed values that dictate current practice. There is a substantial difference in the cost between the three methods. There are important logistical costs of performing RCTs. Subjects, instructors and invigilators may need remuneration, a venue may need to be rented and there may be a cost in money and time for both the trials and the statistical analysis. The cost and sponsorship of performing an accurate RCT is an important factor to consider and one which I shall explore in more detail later in this assignment. Although there is a cost associated with the time taken Reflective Practice, there is no financial impact. Finally, ethics presents a difference between these types of evidence. An RCT should have at least two groups; a control group and a group that has some form of intervention applied to it. Depending on the favorability of the groups, students could be seen as being disadvantaged by attending the group with less positive effects. In comparison a practitioner employing Reflective Practice would continuously critically analyse their techniques and strategies to the benefit of all learners. Once again Educational Theory falls somewhat outside this comparison but in would be loosely comparable to the Reflective Practice system as the students would potentially be treated equally by the practices developed from the theories.

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Due to the diverse natures of the three methods discussed, there are unsurprisingly few similarities between them. RCTs and Reflective Practice do share a fundamental ability to build on previous evidence-based knowledge or experience in order to achieve greater understanding. One could also conclude that Reflective Practice and Educational Theory are both qualitative forms of research, however I state this with slight hesitation. Due to the breath of Educational Theory in general, some areas might also fall into the realm of quantitative study.

During my discussion of whether the practice of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) could be or should be 'evidence based' in TMA 01, I focused on my experience of EFL practice in South Korea. I wish to continue this line of discourse to investigate whether RCTs have informed or might inform the research and practice of it.

I believe that if EFL research had the appropriate sponsorship then RCTs could support research in educational practice in three specific areas relating to; teacher recruitment, training and support, teaching strategies and teaching environment. At this point it is important to note the exact terminology involved in the practice of English language instruction to fully appreciate the subtle but very significant differences between the support and motivation behind research activities. EFL is a term used to describe the learning of English in non-English speaking countries. Study is often undertaken as part of a course leading to an examination or for career development. Comparatively, the learning of English from within an English speaking country, where the learner is a long-term resident, is defined as English as a Second Language (ESL), English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) or English as an Additional Language (EAL). The demographical definition is important because the nature, stimulus and budget for research activities differ for each.

'The ability to speak English is critical for everyone living and working in the UK. It underpins employability and gives people the ability to support themselves and their families, engage more fully with the wider community and access necessary services. […] Because it so important, we are spending around £300m a year investing in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision.'

(John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, 2009, p. 2)

ESOL practice focuses heavily on the language of social integration (see, www.directgov.co.uk) and as such the wider social benefits attract a greater allocation of funding than that of standard EFL. This differential is reflected in the higher number of research projects using RCTs in ESOL when compared to EFL. As I make this statement I am aware that the breath of my personal research is biased by language. It is important to make clear that as EFL, by definition, is taught in non-English speaking countries (except for a small number of student 'tourists') one cannot ignore the possibility that RCTs might be performed, documented and published in a foreign language and therefore less accessible than those published in English.

I will continue by exploring how an RCT relating to the basic qualification level of teachers could inform educational practice. From personal experience EFL institutions give too greater importance to the sole presence of native speaking EFL teachers at the cost of rarely observed; recruitment selection processes, teacher training and support networks. An RCT could be conducted to test the hypothesis that: over a twelve month period, the average level of English acquisition and conversational ability of students is higher in classes instructed by qualified teachers compared to teachers with no teaching experience. The results of such an RCT could be used to inform research on policies by governments to define and regulate the migration of EFL teachers, perhaps by enforcing a minimum level of teaching qualification for working-visa applicants. Local authorities and pressure groups could use research information to promote the requirement for some regularity body to support the management of teachers and curriculum in private EFL institutes. The media could be better informed and therefore play a role in reporting to promote the perceived benefits of possible reforms to the general public.

Finally, and once again, I must conclude that due to the segregated environment of private EFL institutes in South Korea there is little or no collective national management or sponsorship offered to be able to engage in this kind of research. Each institute operates so independently of any educational authority that often the main concern reduces to one of financial, not educational, gain. Until these two are more closely aligned, either by public pressure or legislation, there will continue to be little room for the types of research evidence that I have explored during this assignment.

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