Returning to the cave: practicing teachers doing part-time research degrees

9 min read

I was in a supervision meeting with a part-time research student the other day. For those not familiar with this process, it is a regular meeting in which the academic supervisor engages with the student and acts a critical advisor in respect to the student’s research. This is an intimate and demanding relationship. It is demanding because the student, particularly in social sciences, is working alone with the intellectual and practical challenges of their research. This means lots of challenge to the student’s (and supervisor’s) thinking and emotions, as well as a test of their project management in a rapidly evolving conceptualisation of the world and the phenomena, events, cases and contexts under investigation.

Part-time research students undertaking research degrees in education (either and EdD or part-time PhD) are generally working in schools or in an educational setting. All of my part-time research students are school teachers in the state sector.

My research student and I began talking about fitting university work in with school. She explained how hard it was; how difficult it is to switch between her work in school and the thinking and demands of working on her research. There are two worlds, she said, two types of thinking in two contexts.

Her account is similar to the observations I have heard from others, those doing initial teacher education programmes or part-time masters, where they are in school most of the time but then come to the faculty. It is the different contexts and different types of thinking that present such a challenge.

Two worlds.

School and faculty may not appear to be so different to those who are not involved in either. Isn’t it just about time management? But there is a fundamental difference about the work and thinking of the practicing teacher, to that when engaged in scholarship, as part of a training programme or research degree in a university.

The policy context in England’s schools is a system of centralised accountability. With an emphasis on getting students to perform well in public examinations. And, as a consequence, a focus on a narrow curriculum. Schools have become increasingly hierarchical and managerial. With a culture of surveillance, discipline and performativity. Free speech, free thought and scholarship are a secondary, if not supressed, concern.

At university, life could not be more of a contrast. Teachers, as research students, have to become critical consumers of knowledge, theory and scholarship, in a range of disciplines: psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, politics and economics. This a freethinking, expansive, intellectually challenging environment in which it is necessary to rethink, re-evaluate and conceptualise. It is one in which ideas and expression has to be free, to formulate and examine thoughts and constructs.

I am reminded of Plato’s simile of the cave, where in, The Republic,  Socrates tells of the cave as characterising ‘the ascent of the mind from illusion to pure philosophy’ (Translator’s note, Plato, 1974, p. 316). Socrates’s dialogue with Glaucon begins:

I want you to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition as follows. Imagine an underground chamber like a cave. In this chamber are men who have been there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain-wall has been built, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets (Plato, 1974, p. 317).

Like the prisoners teachers are ‘underground’, in schools. They have been there a long time, ‘since they were children’ and their perspective has been narrowed and constrained: ‘their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them’. It is like the accountability context of schools, in which teachers have their legs and necks bound so that they can only see things in a particular way, so that they just focus on examination results. Over a period of time they become accustomed to this way of life, they accept and live with it. They come to accept it as a reality. The accept the concepts as reality.

Imagine further that there are men carrying all sorts of gear along behind the curtain-wall, projecting above it and including figures of men and animals made of wood and stone and all sorts of materials […] do you think our prisoners could see anything of themselves or their fellows except the shadows thrown by the fire on the wall of the cave opposite them? […] Then if they were able to talk to each other, would they not assume that the shadows they saw were the real things? (Plato, 1974, p. 317).

Teachers in the ‘cave’ assume that the interpretations of their perceptions of events and actions are the true accounts. The truth is legitimised by practice norms and education policy. Teachers have to think in particular ways about causality: if I teach in a particular way, the students will do well in their exams…this is how to teach disadvantaged children…the head of department is my manager and complex decisions have to be referred to them…learning takes place through the learning of facts etc. These are the shadows on the walls of the cave. And this is the legitimate truth.

A teacher decides to study for a research degree. They leave the school and go to the university, but this experience is difficult.

Suppose one of them were let loose, and suddenly compelled to stand up and turn his head and look and walk towards the fire; all of these actions would be painful and he would be too dazzled to see properly the objects of which he used to see the shadows (Plato, 1974, p. 318).

They meet with their academic supervisor or course tutor who begins to explain to them that the objects they saw were a limited representations of reality. They had seen teaching, learning and practice in a limited way, because they had been in the cave. This is hard for the teacher to come to terms with at first.

What do you think he would say if he was told that what he used to see was so much empty nonsense and that he was now nearer reality and seeing more correctly, because he was turned towards objects that were more real, and if on top of that he was compelled to say what each of the passing objects was when it was pointed out to him? Don’t you think he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was far truer (Plato, 1974, p. 318).

It’s very stressful, the two worlds appear very different and are incompatible. But the teacher researcher grows comfortable and enriched in the world outside of the cave. The teacher returns to school.

Wouldn’t his eyes be blinded by the darkness, because he had come in suddenly out of the sunlight? […] And if he had to discriminate between the shadows, in competition with the other prisoners, while he was still blinded and before his eyes got used to the darkness – a process that would take some time – wouldn’t he be likely to make a fool of himself? And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting (Plato, 1974, pp. 319-320).

The teacher’s colleagues do not understand why they do not see things in the same way. Because the teacher has broadened their perspective on the everyday experiences in school, they struggle to respond in the same way. The other teachers find this confusing and disconcerting, seeing their colleague, having engaged in scholarship, finding it difficult to return. It makes them question the value of undertaking a research degree. The experience of developing broader theoretical understanding and critical thinking can put a research student in a mental space that is inconsistent with the role of the school teacher. It takes time to manage, adapt to and resolve. In the current accountability climate this can be even more difficult.

There is a wider issue here about teacher scholarship and education research. So much is said about evidence-based research and teachers having access to evidence. This should only be a small part of teacher scholarship, the main contribution of teacher research and scholarship is in the critical understanding of their contexts and professional work. It is similar to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in the arts. Teacher research is way of looking at education, pedagogy and learning, more than it is about learning what works. This is what makes it challenging and rewarding.

This is as much my story as it is my research student’s.


Plato. (1974). The Republic. (H. D. P. Lee, Trans.) (2nd edition (revised)). Harmondsworth ; Baltimore: Penguin.

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