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Social usefulness is not everything

I admired Alan Smithers' article on usefulness in educational research (TES, September 8), because it acknowledges the importance of research and laments both the inappropriateness of the scientific paradigm and current systems for disseminating research findings. In other respects it is seriously lacking.

Smithers is not, it seems, aware of the rapid development of action research among practising teachers. This method acknowledges the personal and particular elements central to any pedagogical research which endeavours to make practical changes for the better, and focuses, not upon generalised hypotheses about good teaching, but upon specific practices. The fact that action research is undertaken in most university departments of education tends to sideline Smithers' position. He is poorly versed, it appears, in research methods. At Kingston University, for example, action research-based Masters and doctoral degrees in education are highly popular.

Action research works upon specific problems with a view to improving quality. Surely this is just what Professor Smithers is looking for?

Maybe, but I hope he will also look further, for action research cannot advance educational causes unless it is informed by the sort of scientific work which he deprecates. The action researcher who seeks to improve her own practice in the classroom cannot do without knowledge about factors which correlate with poor motivation, for example. Knowledge about such things helps the teacher to know where the heart of the problem on which she focuses might lie.

There is a more fundamental and serious misunderstanding in Professor Smithers' position, however, and it is one which he should have perceived, seeing as he is keenly aware of the value-laden nature of educational descriptions.

He exposes, as have many others before him, the prescriptive nature of terms like "maturity", but fails dismally to notice a similar value-laden element in terms such as "usefulness".

For whom should such research be useful? To what purposes? We know it should be in the interest of children, parents, society, the economy, democracy, and so on. Professor Smithers fails dismally to acknowledge the most central aspects of educational research, which are those relating to the problems involved in clarifying just what it means for education to be useful in promoting the common good. I invite him to look at the work of such philosophers of education as Wilfred Carr, John and Pat White, Paddy Walsh, Terry McLaughlin and others who deal with fundamental issues of the sort on which politicians and those who seek merely to please them never focus.

The most fundamental conclusion of their research seems to me to be the insight that democratic society is itself doomed unless citizens are educated so as to able to replicate, criticise and enhance the freedoms, rights and responsibilities on which it is founded. Economic and social usefulness must be subservient to this ultimate form of usefulness.

MIKE NEWBY Educational researcher 20 Aboyne Drive West Wimbledon London SW20

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