by Karen Gravett
Ready meals can be enjoyable, quick and simple to make. And yet we know that prioritising a diet of oven ready dinners is not really good for us. What does this have to do with education? The educational equivalent of the oven ready meal is the ‘best practice’, the quick fix principle that seduces teachers into thinking that generalised solutions can solve knotty educational challenges. In 2007, Gert Biesta explained clearly ‘Why what works won’t work’. Biesta’s argument is that generalised strategies for addressing educational challenges are problematic, as such prescriptions for practice severely limit the opportunities for educators to make judgments in ways that are sensitive to and relevant for their own contextualized settings.
Despite Biesta’s wise words, today the pressure upon university educators to fix educational issues – to resolve students’ dissatisfaction with feedback, to ‘solve’ student engagement, remains stronger than ever. Attempts to simply synthesise the findings of educational research are common, and requests that educators provide simple, digestible ‘best practices’ have assumed even greater volume.
It is easy to understand why. Simple solutions that promise ‘quick wins’ are intensely desirable in our busy and competitive sector, where evidencing teaching enhancement really matters. Complex conversations involving theory and nuance? Less so. Like an oven ready lasagne, the best practice solution offers speed, simplicity, and consistency, but perhaps little actual goodness.
But educators also know that the teaching environment is far from consistent. It is rarely simple. Rather, it is messy, emergent, patchy, emotional, material, complex, and shifting moment to moment. Indeed, the limits of context-free ‘best practices’ are only becoming more evident as student and staff populations diversify, and as educators understand more about how to recognise and respond to that diversity. If we take assessment feedback as an example, how can any simple solution claim to offer a context-free best practice? Yes, dialogic feedback has been shown to be useful and powerful, but we cannot simply ask teachers to engage students in dialogue and assume that they will take on board a teacher’s feedback, in order to develop themselves, and improve. There are multiple reasons why dialogue might be inhibited including poor communication skills, a lack of time and space, a lack of motivation, miscommunication, power relations between students and staff of race, gender, class and disability, technological affordances and constraints, and so on. The teacher needs to consider what is taking place within the situated practice (Gravett 2022), as well as their own values as a teacher, making judgments as to how to proceed within that specific interaction. As Sian Bayne and colleagues (2011) explain: ‘best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right’.
Inevitably, others will pose (at least) two objections to this call to embrace complexity. Firstly, they may say − but what is the point of educational research if it does not generate solutions, solve problems, and create scalable implications that can easily be placed in the educational microwave? I suggest that educational research is about giving colleagues the confidence to ‘educate from scratch’. It encourages teachers to think about the ingredients of teaching and learning. If we think about our example of the student-teacher feedback interaction, then yes dialogue is important, but educators need to take time to look at the ingredients of effective dialogue rather than assuming that meaningful communication is simple and easy to achieve. As Elizabeth Ellsworth explained: ‘Acting as if our classroom were a safe space in which democratic dialogue was possible and happening did not make it so’ (1989, p315). Space, time, relational connections premised on openness and trust, shared understanding, all of these are the ingredients of effective communication. Yes, fostering student engagement is important, but educators need to look at the social and material contexts of the specific class or interaction in order to consider what practices to employ at that moment, and moreover, how to evolve such practices as situations change.
So what does education from scratch mean? It means thinking about:
- The uncertainty, risk and complexity inherent in educational practices
- Our own values as teachers and the impact of these values on our teaching
- The specific sociomaterial environment we are working within, both disciplinary and at the level of the class and interaction. What might be the material or temporal constraints that impact upon our practice?
- The particular learners that we are working with in that context. What matters to them?
- How we can evolve our practice as situations change?
The second objection may be: but today’s teachers don’t have time to develop thoughtful, relational pedagogies! I agree that time is often short. Education from scratch might not be easy or quick. But a permanent diet of ready meals, pedagogies bleached of richness and complexity, would be too high a price to pay. Rather, we can learn from educational research, and from the ideas of colleagues, in order to gain insights that direct our own situated judgments. To develop ‘different ways to see’ (Biesta, 2020).
Fortunately, there is a great deal of fantastic, and thoughtful practice in our sector, but we need to continue and expand upon this, inspiring educators to have confidence to explore their own situated learning environments and to value those nuanced, micro-moments of learning and teaching. By broadening our understanding, we can explore a wider range of meaningful, critical and relational pedagogies, that we might be able to use to develop educational interactions that really matter.
Bayne, S, Evans, P, Ewins, R. Knox, J, Lamb, J, Macleod, H, O’Shea, C, Ross, J, Sheail, P and Sinclair, C (2020) The Manifesto for Teaching Online Cambridge: MIT Press
Biesta, G (2007) ‘Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research’ Educational Theory 57: 1-22
Biesta, G (2020) Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction London: Bloomsbury
Ellsworth, E (1989) ‘Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy’ Harvard Educational Review 59 (3)
Gravett, K (2022) ‘Feedback Literacies as Sociomaterial Practice’ Critical Studies in Education 63:2 261-274
Gravett, K (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education London: Bloomsbury
Dr Karen Gravett is Senior Lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Education, where her research focuses on understanding learning and teaching in higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, transition, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, Co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education. Her work has been funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, the UK Literacy Association, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.