Conscientious investigators

4th November 1994 at 00:00
* Research Methods in Educational ManagementBy Daphne Johnson. Longman Pounds 18.95. * The Principles of Educational ManagementEdited by Tony Bush and JohnWest-Burnham. Longman Pounds 16.95.

The tradition of the teacher as researcher or as reflective practitioner has a noble pedigree. Its relevance in the modern educational landscape is, if anything, greater than ever. An underlying theme of both books is that as schools become more autonomous, the spotlight falls on the distinctive ideas and values of each one, bringing the educational management of each into sharp focus.

As well as being set books for Leicester University's MBA in educational management by distance learning, these volumes aim to help all people involved in educational management to develop professionally. This ideal is a crucial one. Buffeted by change, schools need to reclaim control and teachers need to be liberated from the parochial and pragmatic. The books succeed only to a limited degree. One provides a sensible and coherent introduction to research methods and excels in its treatment of the integrity and ethics of educational research. It works better than most books in this field. The other is a useful compendium of management theory, a veritable portmanteau of cameo explanation and reference. What's lost in this comprehensive array is critical bite. Description dominates; one longs for more analysis and illumination from practice. Models and "plumbing diagrams" proliferate and, ironically, many chapters suffer from the charge of one contributor that "over-elaborate planning models are precisely the kind of devices which give theory a bad name".

Daphne Johnson's book is in two sections. The first deals with research principles, approaches and tools, and then focuses on "doing your own research project". Throughout each chapter are cross references to extended readings by various authors represented in section two. The overall effect is of a practical study manual.

Despite a sense of fragmentation, the book succeeds because of Johnson's pragmatic advice. Research is conceived as a "compromise between aims, resources available and feasibility of the area of study", and Johnson rightly stresses the need to allow readers of research enough access to make their own judgments. Above all she argues powerfully for the rights of those researched and the "need to protect them from their own indiscretion by using material in a tactful or sanitised way, or not at all".

The great merit of Johnson's book is its lack of pretension and avoidance of unnecessary technical language, gently leading teachers into small scale research. By contrast many of the contributions brought together by John West-Burnham and Tony Bush in the MBA core text assume a high level of understanding and use specialist language. The chapter roll call is familiar, including leadership, strategic planning, resource management as well as motivation and communication. Within each of the 16 chapters the authors valiantly attempt to sketch most of the prominent theories in the field, and inevitably depth is sacrificed to breadth.

There are a number of good contributions. John West-Burnham's philosophical analysis of management in educational organisations is clear and lucid. Drawing on the business management theorist Peter Drucker, he powerfully questions applying the stereotype of market economics to non-profit-making organisations. Tony Bush also makes a sound, if unexceptional, case for the relevance of theory to practice, quoting from A. Jennings: "It is only fools who learn by experience. Wise men do not learn of the existence of every brick wall by banging their nose into it".

Other contributions are less distinctive. John O'Neill gets lost in his own discussion of organisational structure and culture, while in an article on managing learning, Mark Lofthouse seems to write about anything but, and falls victim to his own judgment that the future of education is seriously in jeopardy if teaching is more important than learning".

The book ends on a high note, with John West-Burnham's tightly argued account of the limited value of external inspection as opposed to rigorous quality assurance measures. This rather symbolically indicates the need for a volume which interrogates theory and practice rather than merely charting it

These books make useful study guides and bring together a wide range of current thinking. They map the territory well and with authority, but the reflective practitioner will want to move on to explore more challenging paths.

Graham Handscomb is deputy head of Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex.

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