Short and sweet

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Tired of wading through research to glean something useful? Shirley Lawes looks at a new series of summaries from the British Educational Research Association for teachers and academics

The new series of Professional User Reviews published by the British Educational Research Association (BERA) aims to provide educational professionals and policymakers with readable, accessible summaries of recent, rigorous research in a number of curriculum areas in order to "reduce the 'dissemination gap' between practitioners and researchers".

This is how the series editor, Leone Burton, professor emerita at the University of Birmingham, describes the purpose of this series of seven booklets which all grew out of larger, more scholarly research reviews for academic researchers.

The publication of these surveys reflects BERA's commitment to the idea of teaching becoming a research-informed profession and the view that educational practitioners want short, readable syntheses of research that directly inform their work.

This might be seen as somewhat paradoxical. There is an inherent danger in re-presenting serious research in the form of "bites" to be consumed uncritically, when the real importance of research should be to ask difficult questions and encourage critical debate.

Nevertheless, the Professional User Reviews, on the whole, provide a starting point of reference for subject specialists wishing to engage in their own research or for anyone seeking an insight into current research agendas. They are all clearly written and accessible, if wide-ranging, in their attempt to engage the reader. It is unlikely that many teachers will read all of the booklets as each is written for a particular audience and therefore needs to be considered individually.

The format of individual research reviews varies, but the common feature of them all is the inclusion of text boxes of "key messages" and "implications". These range from useful, succinct precis of longer sections of text, to some rather banal statements taken from very short research summaries. The danger of including such "key messages" and "implications" is exactly that of the "research bite".

Individual writers have interpreted their brief quite differently. First, there is a great disparity between the number of research projects reviewed, ranging from 34 in How Do We Teach Children to be Numerate? to 120-plus in Research in Geography Education. Second, there is the issue, as one author pointed out, as to whether DfES, QCA and Ofsted reports count as "research" and whether in the context of a research review their status and influence should be clarified. Policy documents, as the statement of political ideas and ideology, might be used more effectively in a research review as the benchmarks that research seeks to test.

Perhaps the most important purpose of a rigorous research review is to ensure a balance in the research literature included. Findings that express unpopular ideas and "dissenting" research must be present if the reader is to develop a critical engagement with research rather than simply have received wisdom confirmed and assumptions left uncontested.

Take, for example, the two titles How Do We Learn to Become a Good Citizen? and Connecting Research and Practice: Education for Sustainable Development. Both of these reviews, in different ways, assume that current ideas about citizenship education and sustainable development are unproblematic.

The booklet on recent professional and academic research into citizenship education is notable by its volume rather than range. It may be that some research referred to in the booklet provides a critique of the new citizenship education agenda, but this is nowhere in evidence in the commentary provided by the author.

So where does the practitioner reading this booklet go to gain a critical research perspective on the "values" embodied in the citizenship agenda or the underlying principle that political participation can be "taught"?

Connecting Research and Practice: Education for Sustainable Development takes a quite different approach; it is actually a case study of how a group of teachers drew on research on the transformation of environmental and sustainability issues into practical classroom projects. As such, it is an interesting read, particularly from the point of view of how the teachers involved drew on research for practical purposes and how their professional practice developed.

However, given that this booklet is a "research review", the problem is that there is no evidence in the case study that participants in the projects engaged in any research that made them pose fundamental questions.

Did they question the adoption of a set of attitudes and values that are politically and ideologically based, or look at the tension between making children feel responsible for the environment and teaching them scientific facts?

In contrast, Does ICT Improve Learning and Teaching in Schools? gives a measured, critical evaluation of research evidence of the impact and effectiveness of ICT on pupil learning. While some of the "key messages" give a slightly more positive view of research findings than the main text indicates, the booklet raises important questions as to why ICT is given such prominence in both the national curriculum and the standards required for newly qualified teachers.

What Do We Know about Teaching Young Children? discusses key areas of research in early childhood education care including an initial short section on neurophysiological research. The booklet sets out to answer two questions: what does research tell us about how young children engage with curricula in educational settings? And what does research tell us about how adults promote young children's learning in educational settings? These are two clear goals around which the work is successfully organised.

A further question that might have been usefully asked is "why do we have an early childhood curriculum that is so focused on formal teaching and learning?" A summary of research into current government policy would make an interesting addition.

The "key messages" of How Do We Teach Children to Be Numerate? summarise very short sections of text drawing on a more limited number of research reports than other reviews in the series. The booklet covers briefly a larger number of themes than others in the series and as a result might be seen to sacrifice depth for breadth of coverage. Nevertheless, for the reader seeking information on the broad canvas of research into mathematics education, there are a number of basic pointers.

The oft-repeated message of How Is Music Learning Celebrated and Developed? is that we are all naturally musical. That music "is an integral part of our human design" is used in the introduction as an argument for music as an "essential component" of the school curriculum. The authors marshal a variety of research evidence to support the importance of music in the curriculum and particularly the creation of music rather than its reproduction.

Connecting Policy and Practice: Research in Geography Education, is interesting in that it is based on the author's original research. Both the content and format differ from others in the series as this booklet is a historical overview of research into the geography subject curriculum, providing a clear outline of an "ideological tradition". In this sense it provides the reader with a research-based argument rather than a quick guide to research.

Some of the BERA "research review" series encourage the readers to think critically about a specific curriculum area. Student teachers in particular will no doubt appreciate the focus that these booklets provide for starting out on a classroom investigation or PGCE assignment. Hopefully, other subject areas will be covered in due course.

Future research review authors might well start out by interrogating their own principles and assumptions and seek to include more controversial pieces of research.

Shirley Lawes is a researcher at the University of Oxford, Department of Education Studies

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