I recently attended the second CERNN, a chem ed conference on my doorstep organised by some great colleagues from Chemistry and Education. I wrote up my thoughts on most of the sessions earlier but ended up needing a separate post for Tina Overton’s talk.
Tina’s talk was titled “That won’t work with my students! The role of research evidence in changing practice”. It’s heady and evocative, speaking deeply to all those of us who’ve tried to propose an innovation to teaching and been rebuffed. Going into the session I was put in mind of Terry McGlynn’s excellent blog from a few years ago on Education Research Denialism – exploring quite pointedly the way that some scientists may be sceptical of research conducted outwith their discipline. Terry’s blog was full of the zeal I had when younger, and it was really fascinating to get the counterpoint from the very top.
Tina started by laying out the context – we live in an educational landscape of deeply traditional practices, with islands of throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks innovation. When we try to evaluate these innovations, the Hawthorne effect and happy-sheets conspire to tell us that “students liked it”. But even when we do the work to turn evaluation into research, there’s resistance from colleagues when it comes to changing practice as a result.
Lots of different factors can drive this resistance. Some that seem less rational, like “that won’t work here”, but some may be harder to challenge. Lack of time. Lack of reward and recognition. And pastoral concern: “what if it goes wrong and it hurts my students?”. Harking back to Keith Taber’s session at MICER17, educators have a moral responsibility to innovate carefully: putting students through a change, on a hunch or a whim, isn’t good for anyone.
But even with rigorous Chemical Education Research evidence in hand, barriers persist – well-known and well-explored. Telling over and over, presenting research over and over, doesn’t work. By example, active learning has been well-evidenced for almost as long as I’ve been alive and yet uptake is patchy at best.
To better understand our colleagues, Tina categorises teacher expertise. We are familiar with the journey from novice to expert – from content delivery to pedagogical literacy, from me to Tina. But there’s a third apex: the postulant. Postulants are academics with a deep and rich subject knowledge, but little or no pedagogical training, pedagogical knowledge, or willingness to engage with pedagogy as a discipline. Whereas novices seek to learn, and experts are receptive to pedagogical ideas, postulants are much harder to influence.
Postulants are not a new concept, but most articles or leadership courses get to the point of pathologising resistance to change and then stop, doing an injustice to our colleagues by turning them into problems – “if you can’t get them onside, go around them”. But, Tina did something very exciting: a closer look at the philosophy of knowledge and the science of changing minds.
We like to think that scientists are purely evidence-driven, but when we inspect our own resistances (slim though we might think them to be) we find that that the way we accept or reject change is fundamentally tied to our identity in a way that’s hard to shift. We all have a personal epistemology. An individual theoretical framework, influenced and shaped by experience, history, and evidence. By way of example, Tina talked about her own influential early experiences that shaped her personal theoretical framework, such as the information processing model of cognitive psychology, Johnstone’s triangle, and cognitive load theory. And when theoretical frameworks clash, sparks fly. “all this engagement is pandering, they just need to work hard!”
When change uptake is studied formally as an anthropological issue (Herckis and Smith), we find that resistance to change is very deeply rooted. Folks will have an inherited view of good teaching, a fondness for ones own ideas, a scepticism of literature from “other disciplines”, and caring about students! There’s also the memory of past failures, and lack of institutional support to try something new. If a colleague tried to innovate in the past, but timorously and without support, it may well have failed and put them off for life.
To actually bring about significant and worthwhile change in teaching practice, things need to be in place. There needs to be organisational support, colleague support, administrative support, institutional support, and incentivisation support. No one of these things on their own can create an environment in which teaching innovation flourishes productively. Important to this is institutional culture. Top-down institution-led change can remove blame from academics and create openings for academic developers or colleagues. “You’ve been told to flip this class, let me help you” – pivoting our role from change agents to personal support in the face of change. But this can backfire in a number of ways, such as academics feeling a threat to their own empowerment.
So, how do we influence people on the ground, given all of this? We need to recognise that the resistance comes from a good place – concerns over student welfare, deeply-held beliefs about teaching as an answer to “who am I?”– and be careful not to directly challenge these. Give context to the evidence you present; a JCE or CERP article will not be accessible to the average academic. Translate your research findings into understandable language, for novices and postulants alike. And sell the concrete solutions. Recognise that everyone has a personal theoretical framework – and that people can be quick to dismiss alternative theoretical frameworks, so sell with results, outcomes. If/when colleagues are keen to try something, provide mentoring, support, and training to put evidence into practice.
Tina also advocated some quite shrewd tactics, such as students-as-advocates. Do you have a killer student quote from a qualitative study? Use it as evidence! Engage with systems of peer observation – get someone into the back of one of your lectures, not necessarily for the up-front reason that they might end up liking some active techniques and using them themselves. Emphasise the rewards. For example, Tina sold flipped learning to postulant colleagues on the basis that it released research time. And finally, tie SoTL into reward & recognition structures as much as you can.
My take-home from the session was that translating research into the classroom is vital – it may as well have not happened otherwise. A lot of good research gets lost otherwise, and those of us who think we could be champions for innovation have a responsibility to promote uptake. Simply emailing around an educational paper isn’t helpful in the slightest, and I wish I’d told myself that four years ago.