With all the noise about educational research reverberating around Twitter, other social media and the real world currently, we invited a real-life educational researcher – Phil Wood from the University of Leicester aka @geogphil on Twitter – for his views on what is a far more complex topic than some would have us believe. This is part one of his fascinating and insightful response:
Thinking About Educational Research Pt I
The last few weeks have seen a renewed interest in the nature and value of educational research. The speech given by Ben Goldacre at Bethnal Green Academy outlining the potential for the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in education has led to a great deal of debate across social media networks concerning how we should use research to improve classroom practice, with some individuals asserting that we need more ‘decent’ research evidence in education. I would argue, however, that before we begin to answer questions about the validity of RCTs (which are already used in educational research – they are nothing new, e.g. Torgerson, 2009; Horner et al, 2009) or measure their potential against other forms of educational research, we need to ask some fundamental questions about research and its uses in education.
I will argue here that we need to ask three fundamental (but not exhaustive) questions, which should underlie our engagement with, or development of research within the context of education.
1) What do we mean by ‘educational research’?
There appears to be a tendency amongst practitioners (if some of the recent Twitter traffic is a useful benchmark) to see educational research as an activity synonymous with improving classroom practice. This is not surprising given that the majority of contact with research will be focused on a search for ideas and insights (seemingly also solutions) to improve pedagogy. However, this is also a very narrow view of what is meant by ‘educational research’ that covers a wide spectrum of interests – philosophical, sociological, psychological, policy-focused, and leadership/management-focused to name just some. In addition, these different interests span informal and formal education, and foundation level to post-graduate and beyond. Education research is a huge, multifaceted endeavour. This might seem obvious, but it is an important point. From politicians and critics, there is the common critique of educational research which follows the line of ‘x% of educational research is wrong/useless/pseudo-science’. This form of comment is interesting as to make any robust statement about the quality of research across the wide spectrum of interests would require an impossible task, after all, to remain conversant with even a small element of the literature is a full-time job. In addition, often such comments are not illustrated with any rigorous commentary stipulating, fro example, the basis on which such comments are based or the amount or type of evidence used to come to this view. You can’t demand academic rigour and then eschew it for your own purposes. One example of this polemic-style critique is the oft quoted status of VAK, which some attribute to educational research. However, VAK emerged from NLP and the edges of psychology, and it was educational researchers who were early in questioning its utility whilst it was still very popular in schools. A similar case was that of the critique of learning styles.
I am not trying to suggest that ALL education research is of high quality, and a constant flow of academic insight and nourishment. As with all fields if it of course very variable but educational research is engaged in a very wide range of pursuits, and provides a huge body of evidence, including in the area of pedagogy. But as well as covering so many areas of knowledge, education research also spans a number of worldviews.
2) What is the ‘worldview’ of the researcher?
Cresswell (2009) (if you really want to get a clear and critical view of educational research I would suggest this should be essential reading) highlights the fact that in much of the research we read, the philosophical basis on which arguments rest remain implicit. However, if we are to begin to gain a deep understanding of the research we read – and to engage with it critically – it is important that we understand the epistemological beliefs of the researcher(s), what Cresswell calls their ‘worldview’. He defines an individual’s worldview as ‘a basic set of beliefs that guide action’ (Guba, 1990, 17 quoted in Cresswell, 2009, 6). There are different worldviews, and different ways of engaging with them (e.g. Fuller, 2002; Benton and Craib, 2011) but a clear and simple typology comes from Cresswell himself:
– post-positivism: positivism was based on the foundation that we can attain an ‘absolute’ truth about knowledge. Post-positivism accepts that this is not possible, but retains a central belief in the coupling of causes and effects. This leads to the use of ‘experimental ‘ approaches that are deductive in nature, attempting to verify theories concerning the objective reality which exists around us. Where data does not support theory, the latter can be changed/altered to aid greater clarity in understanding the world. Much quantitative research is linked to this worldview
– social constructivism: social constructivists do not accept the idea of an objective social reality which exists outside of ourselves. Instead, humans as subjective agents create their realities, leading to researchers attempting to understand the complexity of human life as opposed to narrowing a focus to a small number of chosen ‘variables’. The focus of this form of research is to interpret social, cultural, historical processes in their emerging complexity. As such, this form of research is often qualitative and small-scale, and rather than evaluating theory deductively, creates inductive theories from the observations made.
– participatory: growing out of the work of those such as Marx, Adorno and Freire, participatory research started out by focusing on marginalised groups and a belief in social justice. There is a belief that social constructivism does not go far enough as it does not include an explicit view for taking action. The participatory worldview sees research as being entwined with political activity (in its widest sense, i.e. not restricted to party politics, but including community action etc.) and therefore sees action as central, not merely measurement and evaluation.
– pragmatic: based on the worldviews of those such as Dewey, pragmatic research is focused on application, considering and enacting what works. ‘Truth’ is seen as what works at a particular point in time and does not rely on a single epistemological position. As a result, researchers emphasise the research issue/problem and use whichever methods they believe will give them useful insights. As a consequence, mixed methods (combined use of quantitative and qualitative methods) are often used. This is not an excuse to be uncritical in approaches, however. It is not a laissez faire pursuit, but requires careful thought and planning to ensure coherence and rigour in both approach and analysis.
Much of my own research is conducted through participatory and pragmatic worldviews, but it would be wrong of me to assume that any research conducted through either of the other two remaining worldviews must by definition be ‘wrong’. It is by building knowledge and understanding through the various worldviews, leading to critical engagement and discussion, that we can hope to develop a deeper, broader and clearer understanding of all facets of education. This is why in reading Ben Goldacre’s speech, I felt that what appeared to be a post-positivist view needs to be engaged with. I need to spend time understanding the underlying principles and methodology before deciding if I believe this approach to research to have a great deal of potential or not. But to gain an understanding doesn’t happen quickly, which brings me to the third question.
3) Is educational research a rapid process?
In a blog post elsewhere, I’ve talked about the work of Virilio (2006), Eriksen (2001) and Kahneman (2012). These are linked to looking at the potential pitfalls of an accelerating social environment in which we constantly find ourselves. We begin to have general expectations of rapid and transformational change and impact. Consequently there has been an acceleration in policy generation and in the timespans we give ourselves for making and enacting decisions, all of which lead to what Eriksen outlines as the move towards a ubiquitous ‘fast time’. Kahneman demonstrates (within financial settings, but I think the general case holds elsewhere) that this leads to poorly considered, emotive, short-term thinking. I think we can see this increasingly in education, particularly since the advent of New Labour’s ‘deliverology’ agenda. Over a number of years, schools and teachers, under pressure to secure ever higher target levels have been exposed to an accelerating number of ideas and initiatives, VAK and personalised learning being just two examples. I think this has tended to lead to a consumerist approach towards educational research where the headline ideas or figures become the centre of attention, parachuting in bullet-pointed conclusions as a rapid solution to classroom issues
However, this is not how the vast majority of educational research is developed and written.
Research which is rigorous, trustworthy and well written is a slow process. It takes a huge amount of effort and time. For example, I am part of a Lesson Study Research Group at University of Leicester. We have now been engaged with Lesson Study for 18 months. We have a database of nearly 300 publications focus on Lesson Study itself, let alone wider issues of pedagogy. This does not include grey data, which we are now also beginning to collate. We are involved in a number of small-scale research projects in primary and secondary schools, a sixth form college, and we are also using the approach in our own Masters level teaching. And we would all admit that we have only just scratched the surface. We are only now seeing interesting and significant results and we are just beginning to write. In six months of intensive work a colleague has managed to lead the writing of two papers which are in the process of being submitted. But there are caveats and there are many further questions we need to consider. At a recent conference I likened our position as being like that of standing on a boat on a foggy day looking towards the coast. We can see small glimpses of the shore, we can extrapolate between these to get a good general view of the landscape, but we can’t see it in detail or fine focus. And perhaps the fog will never completely clear! But to understand and engage with our research requires not only that we take our time, question what we write and try to be as honest as possible to the views of those we write about, it also requires that those reading it do likewise. For making use of educational research requires the reader to take time to read, to understand and to question the inevitable shortcomings of all research – particularly in relation to their own context. No research will provide overarching, quick, insightful solutions to practical issues – to suggest that it should is to misread the intentions and function of research. Research can only ever be a roadmap, not an immersive, virtual environment.
The recent debate about educational research is of great importance, but some of the wilder suggestions that educational research is of poor quality, is too ‘small-scale’, is not useful for practitioners is to misunderstand the nature and potential utility of research. As stated earlier, there is obviously poor research that makes it to publication, but this is not unique to education. What’s more, some research appears somewhat esoteric, but I would champion such work – I’m not a utilitarian. To better understand education in its widest sense should be something we all treasure. But as practitioners (and I count myself in this category as, against popular rumour, many academics do actually teach, a lot) we cannot expect research to play our role as professionals for us. It can enlighten, suggest, support, question, but as with any sets of ideas or perspectives, to expect to take a ready made solution from a peg and apply it uncritically is in itself a measure of poor practice. But to engage critically with research requires teachers to understand the research process themselves, and slow down the rate of change to allow critical reflection and engagement.
Benton, T. & Craib, I. (2011) Philosophy of Social Science: the philosophical foundations of social thought (2nd ed.). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cresswell, J. W. (2009) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. London: Sage.
Eriksen, T.H. (2001) Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.
Fuller, S. (2002) Social Epistemology. (2nd ed.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Guba, E.G. (1990) ‘The alternative paradigm dialog’ in E.G. Guba (Ed.), The paradigm dialog (pp.17-30). Newbury Park CA: Sage.
Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
Horner, R.H.; Sugai, G.; Smolkowski, K.; Eber, L.; Nakasato, J.; Todd, A.W. & Esperanza, J. (2009) ‘A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Effectiveness Trail Assessing School-Wide Positive Behavior Support in Elementary Schools’ Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 11(3), 133-144.
Torgerson, C.J. (2009) ‘Randomised controlled trials in education research: a case study of an individually randomized pragmatic trial’ Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 37(4), 313-321.
Virilio, P. (2006) Speed and Politics. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).