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2015 > Letnik 5, št. 2


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The purpose of the following paper is to present some calls and approaches to teaching as they are used in education, and to address the question of teacher knowledge.

In recent decades, probably due to the complexity of development and differences in interpersonal relationship, a radical change in the role of education has taken place. The concepts of teaching as an evidence-based profession or reflective practice, learning from reflecting on our experience, have become more and more obvious. The paper focuses on these two concepts as opposed to merely competence-based teaching. It also addresses some issues of ESP teaching and learning.

Key words: educational research, reflective practice, evidence-based practice, teacher knowledge, ESP

1 Teaching and teacher knowledge

Teaching, regarded either as a science or art, has always played an important, if not even crucial role, in the history of mankind. There has been much debate over the question of what kinds of knowledge teachers need to be effective (Tamir, 1988) and how to define teacher knowledge. Does content or subject matter knowledge play more important role than pedagogy? Should educators and researches focus more on various aspects of teaching rather than subject matter? Are these two domains exclusive in research?

The knowledge of teachers has become a focus of interest to educators and policy makers (Shulman, 1986) and started to attract the attention of scholars. For example, Grossman and Richert (1988) identify teacher knowledge as "a body of professional knowledge that encompasses both knowledge of general pedagogical principles and skills and knowledge of the subject matter to be taught" (p. 54). Shulman (1986) classified teacher knowledge into various components and introduced a new domain, referred to as "pedagogical content knowledge", the content knowledge that deals with the teaching process, including the "the ways of representing and formulating the subject that makes it comprehensible to others" (p.9).

Many researches point out that, in order to achieve good teaching, good subject knowledge is a prerequisite and an essential component (Ko et al., 2013; Coe et al., 2014; Morrison, 2014). Coe et al. (2013) also stress the importance of teachers' ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions. Moore (2004) emphasises the role of a reflective practitioner who should always reflect "upon ongoing experience as a way of improving the quality and effectiveness of one's work" (p.100).

Considering all different identifications of teacher knowledge, the question remains which components of teacher knowledge have the strongest impact on student achievement (Burgess, 2006).

2 Evidence-based practice

It was medicine that gave impetus for some changes in education and for the implementation of the evidence-based practice idea. The advocates of evidence-based approach to education point to medicine as an example of how scientific research can lead to improvements in practice. However, there are some researchers who question the simple application of scientific knowledge to practice, e.g. Schön (1987), who comments that "there has been a growing perception that researchers, who are supposed to feed the professional schools with useful knowledge, have less to say that practitioners find useful" (p. 10), thus questioning the usefulness of strictly scientific research.

To understand the notion of evidence-based practice one should first answer the question "What is evidence?" In its broad sense, it means that practice should be supported by evidence produced by educational research, i.e. systematic collection of data which can be subject to public scrutiny. Not surprisingly, there are different views on educational research, for example, it can inform practice and help in the future planning of practice. For some researchers, including Bassey (1995), it is "concerned with attempts to improve educational judgements and decisions" (p. 39), thus including both practice and policy. There are also researchers (Burkhardt & Schoenfeld, 2003) who express an opinion about educational research as not being useful. Contrarily, some educators claim that the gap between research and practice contributes to bad and disappointing student outcomes, as noted by Carnine (1997).

According to the principles and concepts of evidence-based practice, educational practice should be based on research evidence. It is educational research in its various forms which produces evidence and consequently useful and reliable information on effective practice. Hargreaves (1997) also claims that educational research could and should have much more impact on the professional practice of teachers than it has.

Researchers often take a different stance as to the interpretation of educational practice and evidence, yet there is one common strand, namely how to improve pedagogical practice. To achieve the improvement of practice through research, evidence "about what works with whom under what conditions and with what effect", as noted by Hargreaves (2007, p. 13), should be scientifically based with the aim to establish a partnership between researchers and teachers, and, finally but very importantly, to meet the educational needs of users. As pointed out by Ball (1995), there should be link between these parties, the complex interplay between knowledge and the objects of its concern.

Practitioners often tend to base their practice on various teaching materials without asking themselves or trying to find "evidence about what works with whom under what conditions and with what effects" (Hargreaves, 2007, p. 13). For this reason, they should carefully consider the research findings which they aim to rely on, especially when provided by someone else, always bearing in mind that they need to be applied to a particular situation.

Educational research and educational practice are closely connected. Research is a reflection of educational practice and, at the same time, it can influence it to a great extent:
• It can and it should have an impact on educational practice, providing useful information on effective practice, i.e. on what works (pedagogical knowledge). It can help teachers improve their professional practice.
• Educational research gives a picture of either effective or ineffective practice; on the basis of such research findings policy-makers and education managers can get guidelines for implementation of policies.
• Through educational research various problems can be exposed and, if recognised as problems, they can generate a policy and lead to different judgements – in accordance to different approach to the problem. The problem exposed through educational research can lead to exposing another problem.

Action research can lead to personal theory. In this framework, educational research can serve as a means of developing personal theories, especially if we take into consideration that "the outcomes of teaching depend upon so many variables" (Bassey, 2007, p.143). The outcome might also be some unpredictable research findings leading towards new issues and, consequently, towards new decisions.

Evidence-based practice could and should be derived, among others, through experience on professional discourse with fellow teachers. Thus, the body of research evidence on educational practice can be continually formed and compared. Such critical discourse and reflection on overall educational processes, if conducted properly, can inform other practitioners and, very importantly, influence policy-makers in their attitude towards good practice.

3 Reflective practice

The process of reflection and investigation into one's own educational practice is one of the main characteristics of reflective practice within which action research is one of the possible and probably most frequent forms of such practice. Schön (1983) introduced and highlighted the concept of reflective practice as a process of "reflection-in-action". According to Schön (1983) and Moore (2004), it is reflective practice, either reflection-in-action, almost unconscious reflection, or reflection-on-action, taking place after teaching, and not research-based practice that is essential for better professional practice. However, there are some professionals who criticize reflective practice claiming that it is just another superficial activity (Harrison, 2013).

Through the process of reflecting both in practice and on practice, teachers continually reshape and develop their approaches in their practice, using various activities, such as debriefing with peers or learners, seeking feedback from learners, and keeping a journal (Kaufman, 2003).

Reflective practice is therefore closely connected with educational practice. Its benefits are the opportunity for the teacher to achieve greater effectiveness, depending upon "judgements as to what is worthwhile and decisions as to what to do", as cited by Bassey (2007, p.147) when discussing his views on reflective practice and action research as a subset of educational research.

Reflective practice is a beneficial form of professional development, offering teachers the opportunity to gain a better understanding of their own teaching methods. Through reflection on practice, issues that need addressing are discovered, generating problem solving actions. On the other hand, the reflective teacher can find out which teaching practices worked well and why, making him/her " aware of small changes in teaching that made a big difference in student achievement" (Gage, 2007, p.156).

One of the forms of reflective practice is action research, i.e. teachers engaging in action research in order to learn from it and use it to improve teaching and learning, to make decisions about practice. The action research process consists of various steps, from planning, acting, observing to reflecting, using descriptive or analytical approaches. Reflective teachers strive to go beyond merely delivering the subject matter, they always try to improve their teaching practice by questioning themselves, looking for new and improved ways of working with learners. For the teacher who has not yet acquired researcher's skills it is a good start to reflect on his/her own practice, which can be a vehicle for effective educational practice. How reliable his/her reflections are, whether they might count as research, as sound evidence, is open to dispute, since there are different approaches as to what counts as research. If it encompasses a systematic pursuit of knowledge, systematic collection and analysis of data, it covers some features of research. However, it is believed that knowledge produced through research should be made public in order to provide more reliable answers and to lead to credibility. Taking all these facts into account, a great majority of reflective practice-based activities are probably concerned with improving educational practice of a competent teacher and with the above mentioned issues, thus not complying completely with the notion of research.

Reflective teachers can get answers, either on their own or with the help of fellow teachers, to some strategic aspects of their teaching approaches through research-based responses and reflection-on-action, not focusing just "on measuring success by outcome ..." but by "exploring the nature of teaching and learning process" (Moore, 2007, p.128).

Reflective teaching can be usefully applied to ESP teaching, for developing knowledge and skills in integration with professional skills. ESP practitioners, especially when teaching in higher education institutions, often have a great deal of autonomy in delivering the subject knowledge. They are given just broad guidelines as to the requested topics by their policy-makers. Effective practice and information into the subject knowledge remains in the domain of each practitioner, which is, on the one hand, very demanding and rewarding, but, on the other hand, it gives the teacher the opportunity of becoming de-professionalised and leading towards individualism.
To improve the quality of subject delivery and pedagogical knowledge the ESP teacher should address questions such as:
• how to motivate students more
• how to enhance and provoke their communicative skills
• how to overcome problems due to wide discrepancies in students' English proficiency.
• what are the learners' needs.
Who else can gain an in-depth view on teaching performance and complexity of issues arising from a teacher-learner relationship than the teacher him/herself, provided that he/she strives for improving the teaching through experience and reflection, so that his/her educational practice is subject to continual research and research evidence?

4 Differences and similarities

Reflective practice is based on practitioners' research or reflection on "what one does in the classroom" (Moore, 2007, p.122). Only practitioners can carry out such research, as noted by Kemmis (2007, p. 173). Consequently, reflective practice used to be referred to as practitioner research.

Evidence-based practice can be based on the evidence from worldwide research carried out by other researchers or on the research undertaken by the practitioner him/herself. It is important how evidence is gathered; it does not require just a thorough investigation and reflection into what is going on in the classroom, as it is the case with reflective practice, but also a detailed gathering of evidence, using either qualitative or quantitative methods.

Whilst evidence-based practice is generated by evidence, reflective-practice is concerned with producing evidence with the aim to help improve teaching / learning outcomes.

Similar views are expressed by Hargreaves and Stenhouse; the first one is "primarily concerned with defining research as a basis for practice" while the latter with "defining practice as a basis for research" (Elliot, 2007, p.86).

Of course, one should question the validity or reliability of evidence produced by practitioner's reflection. By measuring the validity of evidence of both practices one can foresee the possibilities of dissemination. If evidence-based practice is based on evidence, evidence should be sound, generated by research; therefore other practitioners could utilise its findings. On the other hand, there is a lesser possibility for dissemination of reflective-practice findings since there is no "cumulative body of knowledge" to be widely disseminated, as argued by Hargreaves (Hargreaves, 2007, p.51), and if evidence is produced, it is most probably through qualitative action research.

It is obvious that both practices are undertaken by the practitioner as a response to some problems, either present or past, occurring during educational process with the aim to achieve better results and to develop his/her professional competences as a teacher.

What is more, in both practices there is a close relationship between enquiry and some form of practice. Both can contribute to educational reform, informing other practitioners and policy makers about the results and beneficial effects and thus influencing local or even national policies, although there is a range of possibilities. The impact on educational policy depends upon different factors, mainly on the validity of evidence and often on outcomes-based views of policy-makers.

Both practices require commitment from a skilled practitioner, a sound understanding of educational research, and above the ability of observation and sensitivity to education-related issues.

Besides differences and similarities between both two practices there is another point to be considered, namely the possibility of occurrence of overlapping. Research-based practice is put into practice; furthermore, it is tailored to fit within its scope and carefully observed, or better, reflected upon.

Although evidence in its broader sense encompasses dissemination and generalisation, it is often another form of evidence, i.e. the experiential evidence, carried out through action research, which can and should lead towards effective teaching. In other words, as noted by Moore (2007), it is the competent craftsperson who should be a reflective practitioner, linking reflective practice with evidence-based practice through a practitioner-driven methodology.


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