Research is rooted in the real world

15th September 1995 at 01:00
Professor Smithers' article in last week's TES ("Let usefulness be our yardstick for research') could have been read as an anti-intellectual attack on educational research. He portrays educational researchers as living in a world apart from the modern world of education. He demands that the major criterion for judging educational research should be usefulness. This is all highly problematic and potentially very damaging.

Anyone able to attend this week's gathering in Bath of more than 1,000 educational researchers at the first ever European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), could decide for themselves whether they look like "researchers barking up the wrong paradigm". For those unable to attend the conference I would like to put the record straight.

The first and most glaring inaccuracy of Smithers argument is the one about educational researchers using narrow science-based paradigms. Where has Professor Smithers been for the past 20 years? Educational researchers, particularly those in the UK, have been in the forefront of pioneering qualitative research approaches.

Another major step forward, which Professor Smithers has ignored, has been the rise in action research conducted by teachers in their own classrooms. Professor Smithers could also be seen as giving the impression that educational research is a sedate activity occurring in remote ivory towers away from the real world of education.

This just is not true as the urgency to convert research findings into recommendations is more extreme than ever. Three of the seven research projects in which I am currently involved were designed, conducted, and will be finished and disseminated in the space of less than seven months. The most extreme case, connected, as it happens, with the review of vocational qualifications to which Professor Smithers refers, was commissioned this month on the basis that the Pounds 75,000 worth of evidence gathering and analysis would be completed within two months by the beginning of November 1995. Educational research is in high demand and researchers have become accustomed to working to tight deadlines, and producing results .

It is notable that the key policy-making bodies in the UK spend a good deal of money commissioning educational research, so they are clearly convinced of its usefulness. The Department for Education and Employment, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the rest are consistently looking to educational researchers to help them to sort out urgent policy matters.

Educational research has had and will continue to have an extremely valuable role to play in influencing opinions, debates and policies in education in the UK and elsewhere.

What is needed is an ever- stronger commitment to educational research, not Professor Smithers' dismissal of it. This must embrace short-term policy-driven research, as well as longer-term more fundamental research. Researchers need to be given a chance to ask uncomfortable questions, to challenge widely held opinions, and to apply their best efforts to strengthening the evidential base upon which educational plans and decisions are made. Educational research, like a bridge over troubled water, needs to be built on a firm foundation, immersed in the waters of education, but standing above them to provide vision, new insights, and a basis for clear thinking and informed policy-making.

As a member of the Higher Education Funding Council education panel for the next research assessment exercise, I can assure Professor Smithers that we will not as he says be simply looking to see whether he and his colleagues have "clocked up" four publications. We have been asked to judge the quality of the research, and quality unlike "usefulness" goes much deeper than whether a particular piece of research happens to provide an acceptable answer to the question you happen to be concerned about. Some very good quality educational research does not solely address issues high on today's educational agenda. It does however contribute to the longer-term building of theory and a growing knowledge about education. In that sense it is really useful, not just superficially useful in the way that Professor Smithers seems to demand.

Professor Roger Murphy is dean of the faculty of education at Nottingham University and the new president of the British Educational Research Association.

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