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The best antidote to complacency

MANY teachers are sceptical of the value of research. Their criticisms take several forms. For some, the result of research is often nothing more than a statement of the obvious, dressed up in pretentious language.

Alternatively, it can be seen as far too abstract and theoretical and hopelessly out of touch with the realities of the classroom.

Researchers may be portrayed as refugees from the pressures of teaching, people who have sought "asylum" in the relative comfort of a university.

There is, it should be admitted, some validity in the comparison of universities and mental hospitals.

A rather different line of attack is that researchers are merely the puppets of politicians, providing justification for policies that have already been decided on grounds of ideology or expediency. The way in which research is funded is cited in support of this view. Many researchers depend on short-term contracts and it is claimed that future grants to support their work may depend on coming up with findings that, at the very least, do not cause political embarrassment. Tales abound of research teams who have been subject to pressures to tone down or play up aspects of their work.

These negative perceptions are not helped by the fact that, within the research community, there is little agreement about the nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged. Educational research ranges from large-scale surveys, calling for sophisticated statistical analysis, to small-scale case studies, the findings of which cannot be generalised.

Some researchers argue that unless studies conform to the most rigorous social scientific methods they have no value, while others maintain that what matters is an analysis of the principles and concepts that inform educational policy and practice.

Academic journals are full of papers which take sides on this issue - or, in a few cases, engage in extended exercises in sitting on the fence. Both the fundamentalists and the uncommitted agonisers help to fuel the doubts of teachers about the relevance of research to their daily work.

Against this background, what is the case for the defence? First, to deny the value of research is to suggest that teaching is simply a craft skill rather than a knowledge-based profession. It would be inconceivable for doctors to carry out their work without drawing on insights from research.

If teachers are concerned about professional status, they need to take research seriously.

That, however, is a self-interested motivation. A second, much more powerful, argument has to do with the benefits for learners. Think of the immense advances which have been made in the provision for pupils with special needs. A large part of this has depended on the enlightenment provided by researchers from a range of disciplines who have transformed our under-standing of various physical and mental conditions and have encouraged us to rethink our conceptions of intelligence, ability and potential.

Similar points can be made about the impact of research on other fields - such as early education and lifelong learning.

These examples point to the most compelling reason of all for taking research seriously. Good research challenges assumptions, questions routine practices and requires us to explain and justify what we are doing. It is an antidote to complacency and orthodox thinking. In the absence of such challenges we are all inclined to retreat to the comfort zone of the familiar.

Education, by definition, is about learning. Teachers, more than any other occupational group, should be open to new knowledge and new forms of understanding. Researchers, in turn, need to become much more skilful at communicating and disseminating the significance of their findings.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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