On day 2 of the TEAN conference the keynote was given by Carey Philpott, the title of the keynote was ‘Cultivating through evidence based teaching: possibilities and pitfalls’. I hope to give a flavour of this excellent key note as it discusses evidence based practice and in particular evidence based practice grounded in medical models of learning.
What is evidence based practice?
When we discuss evidence based practice what do we really mean? And do we mean the same thing? Evidence based practice has been a much lauded mode of professional learning for the last few years in the guise of Learning Rounds (LR) or Teacher Learning Communities (TLC).
These approaches have been extensively rolled out across Scotland as 'good practice' to support teachers in collaborative professional learning.
In Scotland after Teacher Scotland Future called for a reculturing of professional learning, models of learning from other professions were brought to the fore, which raises the question: Why a medical model? What is the provenience of this model? Will this support the transformational change wished for to an evidence based teaching profession?
Models of medical practice
There is obviously more than one type of medical practice and different aspects of medical practice, used evidence based learning in different ways. There is disagreement in the medical profession about the medical model yet teachers are being ask to adopt this.
There are lots of different models of medical practice such as clinical practice, mental health, social health, public health to name a few. So why was a clinical model chosen above all others?
The clinical model diagnoses a problem then fixes it but cutting it out, manipulating it or defeating it with medication. How does this model fit with education? So for teachers, identify the problem and then find a solution to reduce or minimise the effects of the issue. This simplified model of clinical practice, does not try to understand the learning that needs to take place to support the change. This solution based approach does not interrogate the why but only asks about the what then gives the how to fix it.
Another limitation of this model is that it is a 'one size fits all' approach, when you go to the doctor with a problem everyone gets the same antibiotics, it does not recognise differences in time, place, knowledge, accessible and a plethora of other social factors. Is this appropriate for education?
What about other medical models? Perhaps we should be looking more towards a mental health model. This model starts with the needs of the patient and through developing a relationship of support and challenge, the individual is helped to learn new ways of thinking, the patient then has to commit to medical advice. This may be a model that more closely aligns with education, as we start with our students and try to find approaches that support and challenge them but it is not successful unless students commit to learning.
Social Health may also give an approach which aligns better with education in the respect that it addresses society as a whole and the groups within society but is a social endeavour, like education. Teaching is a social process which depends on relationships.
Or are we more akin to Public Health in our aspiration to change or modify behaviour to reduce risk and improve outcomes for all members of society. However public health, in addressing behaviours, comes up against the same issues as education in using evidence based approaches as time, place and other social learnings has to be considered and it is not context free.
What about Community Health as a model for professional learning in education?
This would start with the needs of the community as defined by the community. This would lead to a number of different approaches across Scotland as a localised solutions are enacted. This would lead to a very different model of evidence based practice in the form of; this is what you asked for....evidence says....therefore we will do....
So why was a clinical model privileged over the others? And why are we adopting practice rather than adapt practice to fit with our needs and wishes to better the outcomes for our children?
Learning Rounds and Teacher Learning Communities
The Government developed and championed this approach in policy and it is a simple model that both head teachers and teachers liked. Unfortunately this model can lead to tunnel vision as we interrogate practice within our own limited context to make improvements, without questioning whether this practice has value. So it becomes an improvement outcome focused approach but does not question values or ideology. This adds to the technician model of teachers, delivering or finding ways to implement a curriculum without discussing what is worthy of implementation.
TLC's usually come with the title already in place and teachers are asked to sign for the PL opportunity that this will provide, but not doing so would possibly be misconstrued as unprofessional. The agenda for the TLC is 'controlled' by the HT with the aim of delivering the school improvement plan.
Teacher learning communities composed of individuals from across the school will be a mixed bunch with enthusiasts, pragmatists and conscripts. From the business sector evidence would suggest that the best learning comes from creative, innovative working groups who disagree and have differences. Schools tend to have a very strong social culture which can prevent professional learning from taking place as judgements and disagreements are seen as social criticism rather that professional critique. So we are all happier but are we learning?
There is also the long held and rarely challenged idea that collaboration is a good thing. Most people would agree it is a force for good but TLC's can become a form of enforced collaboration which does not support the learning of the individual or the group.
So is learning as part of a medical model a better way to learn or is it just a different way to learn? If an evidence based professional is desired then ministers would have to leave decisions to what the evidence says and not offer policy that produces conformity and tells teacher how to learn. Whatever way we choose to move forward into a more evidence based profession it is absolutely apparent that teachers will require more time, space and skills to develop this practice.