Gold-dust waiting to be made into ingots

13th September 1996 at 01:00
As the British Educational Research Association conference gets under way, Michael Bassey re-opens the debate on the value of research, and Moyra Evans (below) explains why teachers are mounting their own inquiries.

It is good news that the Teacher Training Agency has taken up the idea of "teaching as a research-based profession", but it is regrettable that the agency chooses to perpetuate the myth that educational research in the universities contributes little to classroom practice. Geoffrey Parker, the agency's chairman, recently talked of "the shortcomings of much traditional education research, which in our view is still too little focused on classroom teaching". Hopefully, the vigorous responses from members of the British Educational Research Association (TES, June 28) will scotch this myth once and for all.

Educational research is, of course, much bigger than research into classroom practice. Not only does it embrace learning in all aspects of society (home and workplace as much as school and college), it is also an essential instrument for evaluating educational policies and for analysing the implications of proposed policies. At the same time there is an expectation that worthwhile theory will be generated which will illuminate educational issues more generally.

The TTA is this year spending Pounds 60,000 on grants to 33 teachers to carry out classroom research (see table, below right). Applications closed on May 3, the names of the successful applicants were announced on July 5 and the findings have to be submitted to the agency by December 15. The money can be used to buy supply cover to release the teacher for research, travel expenses, library work and to buy tutorials from university and college staff.

The teacher-researchers are investigating important topics, although it seems unlikely that the 20 research days which the grants may provide will be sufficient to obtain any substantial findings. But much more serious is the fact that the title of nearly every project implies the research will be seen not as a case study but as a search for generalisation. Instead of saying "Investigating the effects of pupil transfer between Abbey Road Primary and Baker Street Secondary School" the research is set in "the primary and the secondary school". The understanding that schools are different - in their buildings, their staff, their pupils, their parents, their local communities and their histories - and that these differences have an effect on educational outcomes, seems to have escaped those who advised teachers applying for grants.

This is not academic pedantry; it is a matter of whether the results of the research studies will be of any use to other teachers. Case studies can be valuable if other teachers can relate to them; generalisations drawn from individual case studies are likely to be unacceptable in logic and valueless. Methodologically, this list of projects is flawed from the start.

But is this the best way to spend Pounds 60,000 devoted to classroom research? Already, every year, about 1,000 dissertations are prepared by Masters students in universities and colleges, researching on their own schools and classrooms. Many of these are carefully conducted action research studies where the author, often working with school colleagues, reports on the consequences of some worthwhile change introduced into his or her classroom or school practice.

Most of the university and college tutors supervising these studies ensure that the methodological error pointed out above is avoided. Unfortunately, very few of these studies are published beyond depositing one copy in the university library. There is gold-dust hidden on the shelves which is waiting to be found and made into ingots.

Suppose that the TTA spent its research funds on commissioning a writing team to disseminate the results of some of the existing studies. The brief would be to search the libraries, prepare a database of the abstracts of classroom-based dissertations of the past 10 years, sort them into appropriate categories and synthesise from the dissertations accounts which describe successful researches into school and classroom practices. And then make them widely available, perhaps in the style adopted for the Office for Standards in Education Reviews of Research. That would help put teaching on to the gold standard of a research-based profession.

Professor Michael Bassey is executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association and an external examiner for several Masters programmes in classroom action research.

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