Teachers need to learn to trust research again

09th June 2017
Politicians have cast doubt on education research because academics told them what they didn’t want to hear. Now, says Linda Graham, mistrust between teachers and researchers threatens a partnership that is vital for the advancement of education

We’ve all heard it. Much research in education is unhelpful to the key stakeholders grappling with real-world problems: teachers, school leaders and education policymakers.

The problem, we hear, is that academics focus on issues that are of interest to them, shrouding their investigations in esoteric theory that no one else understands. They write up their findings using incomprehensible prose (or statistical mumbo-jumbo), and then publish their taxpayer-funded research behind academic publisher paywalls.

There is some truth to this, but it’s not the whole truth and it should not be used to characterise research in education writ large. Nor should this characterisation be allowed to affect the relationships between teachers and education researchers, and the respect that they have for each other.

I worry that this is already happening and what the consequences might be.

Dismissing education researchers

Just over a year ago, I was disturbed to read the suggestion – tweeted by a teacher attending a ResearchED conference at the University of Cambridge – that education academics should be made to pay schools for access to research participants. I was shocked because education research was clearly not being perceived as a public good; something we should support in the way that we do other forms of research.

It was an isolated comment, but it stuck in my mind. Perhaps that’s because it was one in a long line of worrying comments about education research and university academics, some of which have been made by senior decision-makers. These have included politicians Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, who have referred to education academics as the “enemies of promise” with the implication that they are all ex-teachers who couldn’t hack it in the classroom.

A similar current of deficit ran through former prime minister Tony Blair’s reply to a question in March 2015 about the value of education research for policy, posed by ResearchED’s director, Tom Bennett. The gist of Blair’s response was that there was a need for quality research in education but that there wasn’t much to be found (see bit.ly/BlairResearch)

Interestingly, Blair made no attempt to define quality, even though this is the focus of the government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), versions of which have been running for more than 20 years. The relevance of Blair’s experience to education research today, given the substantial improvements in education research quality between the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise and the 2014 REF, is also highly questionable.

There are always two sides to every story and, as an education researcher, I have a different perspective to that of Tony Blair. Sometimes academics aren’t helpful to policymakers because we will tell them what they don’t want to hear.

This advice may include reasons why a policy – hastily put together on the urging of a minister, needing “an initiative” to draw attention away from problems they’ve failed to solve during their time in government – won’t work and may even cause harm.

The truth is, ministers’ rhetoric about the quality and usefulness of education research can be a very convenient sleight of hand that permits the dismissal of knowledgeable people who do not agree with them and who aren’t afraid to say it.

The pliability (or lack thereof) of academics in education research and the complexity of the procedures we are required to engage with have encouraged governments to seek “research” from other sources: commercial consultancies, market research organisations, thinktanks and professional services firms like Deloitte Access Economics and PwC.

However, work that does not have ethical approval, does not situate itself within some form of theoretical frame, and/or does not explicitly engage with important analytical procedures, like inter-rater and other forms of reliability, is not research.

Academics can do this type of work – through a consultancy, for example – but they can’t publish it. And, in a world where those same governments assess the quality of academic research predominantly on the basis of academic peer-reviewed publications, this is not the type of work that most academics are lining up for.

When one is not enough

Underlying much of the critique of research in education is the charge that it doesn’t tell stakeholders “what works”. My first objection to the “what works” mantra is that this is based on a very insular view of what is important in education.

My second objection is that it completely discounts the importance of researching what doesn’t work, particularly from the viewpoint of the largest stakeholder group: students.

Nonetheless, the value of research in education is increasingly being judged in relation to the “what works” agenda: if something works, then there must be evidence to prove that it works. If there isn’t evidence (perhaps because the research is not about what works but what doesn’t), then that research has no value.

This merry-go-round is affecting the nature of the dialogue between education researchers and some teachers – most commonly on social media, where demands are now being made for “a link to the research evidence” to justify an academic’s own views. However, these demands reflect poor understanding of how the research process works and what evidence is.

The reality – even in the much-lauded hard sciences – is that there are very few definitive research papers to which one can provide “a link”. The research evidence, when referred to by academics, is an accumulated body of knowledge. And, because there is generally evidence both for and against just about everything, the question becomes: where does the weight of the evidence lie?

Linking to one definitive piece of evidence is therefore almost impossible, and academics know it. We’ve been trained over many years to search and sift and sort to piece together a defensible assemblage of knowledge.

Academic research papers are an embodiment of this assemblage; we develop them by drawing in findings from previous studies, each finding representing a facet of a facet of a multi-faceted problem.

The seepage into schools of bad ideas – for which there has been no such assemblage – is now being used as an excuse to distrust education research.

Teachers are now being encouraged to “challenge” education researchers for “evidence” to support their views. That’s OK – if the request is accompanied by an understanding of the research process and how knowledge is accumulated.

But we are now living in a world where – as Gove put it last summer – people “have had enough of experts”. This attitude is leading to a dangerous ambivalence; an equalisation between different types of knowledge, and the final result may be that no form of knowledge is superior to another.

This is already happening, with expert knowledge being dismissed as just another point of view in a world where all points of view are equal. But they’re not.

Academics spend their lives reading research. They are walking repositories and have built up a depth of knowledge in their area of expertise. Their views are informed by a process of reading, assessing and weighing the research, which is then distilled and internalised and challenged and revised over time.

That’s why it is a con to “challenge” academics by asking them to link to a definitive piece of evidence to justify their position on an issue. Academics are reluctant to do this because they know that there is no silver bullet; each piece of the puzzle tells only part of the story and to provide only one piece is to open oneself to criticism for the inevitable partial explanation.

This is a no-win situation because their reluctance is then taken as proof of equivocation; the ultimate “gotcha” moment. For an instructive example of this dance in action, look no further than an exchange on climate science between Professor Brian Cox and Malcolm Roberts, a former mining engineer recently elected to the Australian senate (see bit.ly/CoxRoberts).

Culture of disrespect

Such exchanges are only experienced by academics who eschew the safety of the ivory tower to engage in public debate. It is a sad irony that those who are attempting to translate and communicate their research in accessible language and formats are effectively being punished for doing so.

Through social media, teachers can engage directly with world-leading researchers, and vice versa. I can talk with a headteacher of a special school in England and exchange ideas and learn about the differences between our systems of education. But if we allow a culture of distrust and disrespect to build, this will not possible and we will all be the poorer for it.

A stronger research grounding in initial teacher education would be a good way to build better understanding between classroom teachers and education researchers, as well as to increase teachers’ research literacy so that they can discern good and bad research.

However, when governments – and many in the teaching profession – are arguing for more focus on professional experience and less focus on “theory”, that seems an unlikely outcome. Until we address that, we have social media professional learning networks. Let’s do what we can to look after them.

Linda Graham is an associate professor in the faculty of education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia. Her research focuses on factors contributing to the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to students who are difficult to teach. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group, and is the editor of the Australian Educational Researcher, the official journal of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE). She tweets @drlindagraham