Research should be at the heart of learning

11th September 2009 at 01:00

It is heartening to see in these straitened times that Lifelong Learning UK and the Institute for Learning are offering bursaries for would-be researchers among teachers in further education. But it is not clear how anyone in the sector, overburdened by the demands of managing or teaching, may be enabled to take advantage of these.

Both agencies are clear in their aims. The sector needs, as former education secretary Estelle Morris has said, to take up arms in pursuit of "evidence-based practice", since too much pedagogy still relies on received opinion and unquestioned assumptions about its efficacy.

The benefits of research, especially of "action research" that suits the FE learning environment so well, scarcely need rehearsing. Agencies are interested in the benefits to the sector central to continuing professional development, and that includes the sharing of good practice.

College managers should be keen on developing staff, providing opportunities for innovation and fostering the "leading edge" of practice - all good for the reputation and health of a college.

Teachers are interested in revitalising their ideas, establishing sound reason for change and development. And they want to see learners participating and reaping the benefits of well-conducted enquiry. Research should be at the very beating heart of organisational learning; all other functions should be informed by it.

Why is it, then, that hardly any research takes place in such a vital educational setting? There is research about FE - it comes from external bodies. One can mention The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, for example - some comes from government quangos, and some from university schools of education.

But only the rarest of this is sufficiently grounded in the exertions of classroom life to have the necessary focus and impact to effect change. Historically, research is the prerogative of higher education, while the popular and actual construction of FE has been as the trainer of trades, the provider of craft skills and, more recently, the vocational end of schooling.

There may be much to research here, but there is a lack of incentive, time, money and imagination to bring it about. Managers are occupied with the expedition of targets. Research is a luxury they cannot entertain.

There are good precedents, though, for a more enlightened approach to fostering research. It has been well embedded in the medical profession for years, and the nursing fraternity is well ahead of education practitioners.

Productive, properly conducted research is empowering, opening mind and practice to new possibilities. It is liberating - not simply in the sense that new knowledge is liberating, but in the positive character of its process. And it is inclined to be democratic. Conversely, research can be challenging and sometimes subversive, which does not sit comfortably in the politics of measurement and compliance.

For all that, colleges would do well to seize the bursary opportunity. Go on, then: invite proposals from your staff; apply for both bursaries and any others you can find; and provide some protected, paid-for time - say two months - to give your staff all the benefits of research activity, your college the benefits of their enthusiasm, and your learners the benefits of their efforts.

Brian May, Lecturer in initial teacher education, South Staffordshire College.

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