Beware a totalising society

10th October 1997 at 01:00
The TES continues an argument that has divided the education world - what is the value of research? Empirical and theoretical research both have their place in forming policy and practice, say Nigel Blake and Richard Smith

Researchers attending the recent conference of the British Educational Research Association (TES, September 19) were apparently not concerned by the latest attacks on the research community - from Chris Woodhead and the Office for Standards in Education, and from Professor Alan Smithers (TES, September 12). Yet there are important lessons to be learnt if there is to be, as many hope, a rapprochement between the Government and the research community.

Chris Woodhead and Professor Smithers both ask what kind of research is worth doing in education and give similar answers. Woodhead wants "usefulness" and Smithers criticises theory. They both assume that "theoretical" means bad and useless, and that research can be improved simply by restricting it to the empirical.

Chris Woodhead has set up an inquiry which he expects will lead to a purge of politically-biased research, while Professor Smithers talks scathingly of research that "is not going to help you to teach reading and subtraction". Both have clearly decided that educationists should do only non-theoretical, pedagogical research.

One of Professor Smithers's objections is that research can only "tell you what is, never what ought to be". He says: "Decisions about the best way forward were for others to take." And if researchers may not decide what is educationally worthwhile, they are hardly in a position to decide how research money should be spent. But he nevertheless criticises researchers for leaving children at the mercy of untested theories. So it would seem that - contradictorily - he does believe there are some decisions they should take: decisions on which theories to subject to research. Researchers do have to make such judgments.

What is at stake is whether discussions about policy and practice can be informed by rational argument and critique, which is what theory, or theoretical research, offers. If they can't, heaven help us, because then all practical decisions ultimately must be arbitrary, whether they are informed by empirical research or not.

Abandoning all research that doesn't deal exclusively with pedagogy is like getting half-way down the road to good ideas and policy, then wandering off into the undergrowth. Without good theory we may as well fold up all educational research, Professor Smithers's work included.

All empirical research is implicitly theoretical and could not possibly be otherwise. To expunge theory is - logical absurdity apart - politically and administratively impossible.

Academic research is international. You might try to stop British theorisers but you can't stop researchers reading foreign theory.

Profesor Smithers and Chris Woodhead both complain of the "unintelligibility" of much theory, Smithers instancing as "gobbledegook" a paper on postmodernism. Neither has the humility to wonder whether others might find it interesting or wish to try to understand things which they do not.

To their frame of mind, it would seem, such complexities are typical of the "incest" of the research community. But why should such work be satirised as incestuous? Quite simply, researchers need to talk to, learn from and correct each other where necessary, else the whole enterprise of research falls apart, into the arbitrary prejudice of the isolated individual.

The value of much research emerges only over time (think of DDT or thalidomide). It is especially true for education, where pressing problems and increased politicisation always demand short-term solutions (think of the discovery that a simple IQ test could sort grammar sheep from secondary goats).

The slow emergence of what is valuable cannot be replaced by some Obergruppenfuehrer checking for "usefulness" (to whom? for what?) and bias during a three-month inquiry. Not even the judgment of Chris Woodhead's choice for the job, our friend and fellow philosopher James Tooley, can achieve this.

If British research is subjected to centralised and - implicitly- political authority, it will lose credibility abroad. (Other research communities too would have reason to feel nervous.) It will lose authority in schools and other institutions at home as well, unless approved research is officially sanctioned and imposed upon them.

We know that education academics around the world are watching with amazement, wondering if Britain is about to copy the arrogant small-mindedness of some of the most unpleasant - and unsuccessful - regimes in history.

Universities, some suppose, ought to devote themselves to finding the cheapest or most effective ways of doing what the powers-that-be want done. But another view is that they should question and challenge current shibboleths and assumptions, not fall in with them uncritically. For academics and researchers to do otherwise, on this view, would indeed be corrupt and politically biased.

But can we trust universities not to indulge themselves in theoretical flights of fancy? Consider again that bugbear - postmodernism. The topic is an easy target for the discourse of derision, no doubt partly because it looks at the large-scale movement of ideas rather than practicalities. But one of postmodernism's main themes has been the danger of what it calls "totalising projects" - the modern world's dangerous habit of constraining too much within grand schemes for solving everything, from rehousing slum-dwellers in high-rise towers to clearing south-east Asian rainforests cheaply with fire.

Looking at Professor Smithers and Chris Woodhead's totalising blueprints for research, the historically sensitive researcher can only say: "We've been here before. That's why we're not going back."

There is still an important job for Chris Woodhead and Professor Smithers to do. When Chris Woodhead complains of "woolly, simplistic or otherwise corrupt ideas", he could begin by considering Professor Smithers's effective dismissal of rational, theoretical debate. Smithers, exercised by research iniatives that are "trivial, flawed or biased", might look at the research evaluation project which Ofsted has commissioned. Their findings would be worth reading.

Nigel Blake and Richard Smith are respectively Reviews Editor and Editor of the Journal of Philosophy of Education. They write here in their personal capacity.

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