Do no harm: ethical guidelines for teacher-researchers

The idea that every teacher can be a researcher is attractive – but the role can be a minefield, says James Williams

Education research: Teacher-researchers must follow ethical guidelines, says James Williams

The idea of teaching as a research-informed, research-led profession is not new. “Research” and “evidence” are common buzzwords when it comes to meetings and group conferences on teaching. Schools are now also gaining “research school” status.

The idea that every teacher is also a researcher is attractive, but research brings with it some very important responsibilities.

The ethics of research involving children, young people and vulnerable adults is a minefield for new and inexperienced researchers. As with medical research, there are guidelines that should be followed. 

One of the key requirements for any kind of research, whether it involves children or adults, is informed consent. Then there is the issue of anonymity, not just for the children but perhaps also for the school itself and any staff involved in the research. 

On top of all this, you may also have to sort out whether or not it’s acceptable to withhold a proposed intervention you believe could be advantageous, in order to have a control group.

Culture of research

In universities such issues are grappled with constantly. There are clear guidelines, and a procedure is in place to ensure that any research carried out by staff or students meets stringent ethical guidelines. The research can only be carried out once ethical approval is granted.

The British Educational Research Association (Bera) promotes a culture of research, and one of its aims is to improve the practice of academic research. The association, founded in 1974, publishes Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. These set out the standards that should be adhered to by researchers in education. This is the guidance that any school, or individual, should consult before starting any form of research.

The guidelines set out five key areas of responsibility that all researchers should bear in mind when designing their research. Researchers have a responsibility towards:

  • the participants;
  • the sponsors of the research (clients and other stakeholders);
  • the community of educational researchers;
  • the dissemination of research;
  • the researchers’ own wellbeing and development.
     

Underlying the Bera guidelines are a set of basic and agreed ethical principles. Research should always be inclusive of different interests, values, funders, methods and perspectives. It should: 

  • respect the privacy, autonomy, diversity, values and dignity of individuals, groups and communities;
  • be conducted with integrity throughout, employing the most appropriate methods for research purposes;
  • act with regard to the researchers' social responsibilities, in conducting and disseminating their research;
  • aim to maximise benefit and minimise harm. 

This last principle is similar to the Hippocratic Oath for doctors: primum non nocere  (first, do no harm).

Is it ethical?

Whatever research is being carried out in a school, from small-scale work within a group to larger scale, whole-school initiatives, the implications of any actions taken must be thought through. 

If you plan an intervention and believe it to be beneficial, on what basis are you going to deny another group that same intervention? If it is simply to act as a control group, this may be seen as unethical. Would the parents or guardians be happy for an intervention to be withheld in these circumstances? Has it been carefully explained to them what you are doing and why?

Informed consent

Consent, particularly informed consent, can be a major issue in education research. Children are not normally considered able to give informed consent, so educational research usually involves gaining such consent from the children’s parents or guardians

Where there are vulnerable children, children in care or children with special educational needs or disabilities, access to such children will be closely guarded. Gaining consent to carry out research will be more difficult. Context also needs to be taken into consideration.

Informed consent will very much depend on the level and quality of explanation given to those asked for consent. The more open and transparent the explanation of the research is and the more detail about the aims, methods, etc, being used, the better. For example, what data is being gathered? For what purpose? Where it will be held, for how long? Will identifiable information be disguised or removed? And what are pupils’ rights, with respect to withdrawing from the study or research project?

Answers to all these questions need to be explained clearly and simply. People need to know what will happen to their data – all the information you collect, how it will be analysed and reported, and where you plan to publish your results.

Anonymity

Anonymity is also very important. Counterintuitively, some people are very happy to have their details known and published, and this may include personal details such as age, sex, gender, sexual orientation and even personal measurements. 

Children, in particular, may not understand the implications of giving access to such data. 

This does not mean that researchers should use these details, even if consent is given. While anonymity may not always be essential for a research project, it is good practice always to use pseudonyms for people, places, schools, etc. 

The issue of anonymity brings with it aspects of confidentiality and safeguarding. When research evidence includes visual data, care needs to be taken to ensure that any identifying features of individuals or places (such as locations, street names, school logos, teacher names and even number plates in the car park just outside the classroom window) are not included. This will ensure that confidentiality is maintained and that safeguarding has been observed. 

In research, confidentiality extends to not revealing real names or connecting pseudonyms with real names, and keeping the number of people privy to real identities limited.

Payments and rewards

Some research studies will offer participants payment or some other incentive for taking part. This also raises ethical questions when it comes to education research. 

Generally, offering a payment as an inducement to take part in research could be considered as introducing a form of bias – that is, the incentive to provide certain answers to questions could be influenced by the payment or gift. 

For example, surveying children’s likes and dislikes of certain sweets and chocolates would not be helped if those taking part were offered a particular brand of chocolate as a reward. Offering more bars of chocolate depending on the volume of answers given would also be unethical. (I should add here that this is purely hypothetical – I have never seen such a piece of research proposed or published.)

Ethical clearance in schools

If you are in a school and want to carry out research – or, indeed, if your school is suggesting that staff carry out research – who provides permission or gives ethical clearance for the research to be carried out? 

In a multi-academy trust, you may have an officer who deals with such requests. But not all academies or schools are in well-defined groups, with trained officers who can assess the ethics of carrying out research. 

As the thirst for more research to be carried out in schools increases, we need to think carefully about the ethics and procedures in place to protect not just the children but those carrying out the research as well.

Dr James Williams is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Sussex. This article includes extracts from his latest book, How to Read and Understand Education Research, which will be published by Sage in March 2020

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