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'Research is a way to touch a flame to bigger ideas'

A new research hub can attempt to answer some of the questions that are exclusive to the FE sector, writes Tom Starkey

research education FE college vocational

A new research hub can attempt to answer some of the questions that are exclusive to the FE sector, writes Tom Starkey

According to who you’re talking to, educational research is either a tool for progress or a way to insidiously influence things for the worse. In fact, I’ve often found that those opposing views are simultaneously held by the same person and which way they swing is dependent on whether the findings match up with their already established beliefs. Call me cynical, but when it comes to education, no research is going to change the mind of someone who holds an ideology close to their heart. Which is a fair few people in this business (whether they like to admit to it or not).

Then again, I also think that research has a value in itself. It’s a catalyst for thought and exploration, which are essential components to education at any level. But for me this has to be coupled with relevance to context (which is not something I’ve seen much of in my admittedly limited reading, especially in regard to the multitude of variation in learners).

Extrapolation of generalities in research is a major bugbear of mine, especially when you combine it with one of my other dark fixations on the invisibility of some types of students (especially those that we find in FE) in the wider educational conversation. It’s too often I read sweeping statements about how teaching should be carried out, or what form learning should take, or whatever hypothesis is proved, disproved or used for a reeeeeally cool TED talk.

Research hub

So I think it’s a fantastically positive step that FE is getting its own research hub with the introduction earlier this week of the Networking the Network website (awful, awful name but, y’know, you can’t have everything) which seeks to promote research in the FE sector.

Why is this important? Well, because of context. It recognises FE as its own beast and (hopefully) will attempt to explore some of the issues and answer some of the questions that are exclusive to the sector. It’s early days yet (as the bare bones website can attest) but for me it’s a heartening step in the right direction when it comes to the recognition of FE's unique qualities. It’s those qualities that need to be considered by researchers and practitioners to ensure that any findings or exploration or thought actually has something to do with the environments and learners that our area encompasses. An area that is too often overlooked.

So I may be cynical about research – I think that it can be used as shield or a spear and whichever one you pick up is very much to do with your personal, messily emotional preferences – but it also has its place as a way to touch a flame to bigger ideas and different ways of thinking. Hopefully, with this new attempt at sector specific research and collaboration, we can ensure there is focus on problems and issues that are essentially "FE", leading to making things a little better specifically in the world we inhabit.   

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England

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