A need to move in mysterious ways

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Outbreaks of angst about the usefulness of educational research seem to have become endemic. However, the most recent bout has been more severe, perhaps because it came from respected members of the research community itself.

David Hargreaves, for example, in his Teacher Training Agency lecture last year, argued that much educational research is irrelevant to teachers and fails to produce knowledge which can be applied in the classroom (TES, June 28, 1996). More recently Alan Smithers of Brunel University told the British Association's Festival of Science that most educational research is "a waste of time" because, among other things, it fails to focus on issues "which would help teachers improve their performance" (TES, September 12, 1997).

These concerns have motivated the Office for Standards in Education to launch an inquiry. A cynic might regard these developments as symptomatic of political manoeuvring around research funding, with the new quangos - the TTA and OFSTED - trying to wrench control from older institutions such as the Higher Education Funding Council and the universities.

Putting such cynicism aside though, the crucial issue remains: how useful is educational research? In order to answer this question we must decide how such an assessment can be made.

First, what we are assessing? It seems sensible to regard educational research as activities which involve the systematic collection and analysis of data with a view to producing valid knowledge about teaching, learning and the institutional frameworks in which they occur. This definition is fairly straightforward, but complex judgments have to be made about what comes under the heading.

One problem is that traditional notions of systematic method, such as the testing of hypotheses and a commitment to quantitative measurement, have been extended in recent years to include new approaches, such as detailed qualitative case studies and subjective accounts. Another problem is that the subject matter of educational research has become very large - ranging from the study of linguistic patterns in classroom interaction to education for the elderly.

Given this vast field any assessment will be based on a sample, and it must be a reasonably representative one. One danger is that judgments are made on the basis of small, peripheral, or untypical samples of research. Another is that they are made from unprincipled selections from research journals and conference papers intended mainly for the internal consumption of the research community.

We must also clarify what we mean by usefulness. One possibility is to adopt a fairly narrow interpretation. This might involve judging a project useful if it resulted in findings which could be directly applied in classrooms. But this suggests that many research projects which are not concerned with the effectiveness of classroom teaching - those for example which explore the organisation of the education system or relationships between schools and parents - are not useful. Yet projects on these themes are important because they provide information to a broader community including policy-makers, managers and parents.

And, given the difficulties of establishing the effectiveness of different teaching approaches, I doubt if research can ever achieve this technological-typ e product, at least on any significant scale.

Another problem is that this view of usefulness suggests that the goal of research should be restricted to the discovery of how a centrally-prescribed curriculum can be most effectivel y "delivered". Yet what makes a lot of research interesting and significant is that it goes beyond this to raise and explore critical questions about what is taught and learned, and about the nature of classroom, school and system-wide processes.

Most researchers enjoy the freedom to do this and thereby contribute to wider debates about the nature of education and schooling. Curtailing such freedoms would be unhealthy in a democratic society.

Regarding the only useful research as that which has an immediate impact on practice ignores the division of labour involved in the production of much knowledge. Individual projects may produce only one part of a jigsaw, and their usefulness may not always be apparent. We must, however, recognise that educational researchers have not always been adept at putting their jigsaws together, often preferring to start new ones before finishing the one they are working on.

Furthermore we need to take account of the broader, long-term impact of many projects on knowledge, thinking and practice.

These arguments suggest that a broader interpretation of usefulness is desirable. Such a view would take account of the diversity of educational research and importance of research on topics beyond the classroom. It would also recognise that research can rarely deliver universally or immediately applicable prescriptions, but can inform, illuminate and raise questions about the nature of educational policy and practice. It wou1d also accept that such a function is often performed through the collective endeavours of researchers, and in indirect and subtle ways.

So, we should resist narrow, instrumental judgments of the usefulness of educational research, and see it as useful if it provides knowledge which contributes to, and sometimes raises, value debates in the broad and diverse world of education.

Peter Foster is a senior lecturer in education at Crewe School of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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