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The importance of research for education's future

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Education blog: Professor Kit Field discusses the importance of impartial research to improve education standards and the quality of teaching.

As the Dean of a School of Education, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why I think research is an important component of education studies and teacher development writes Professor Kit Field.

Research is not always a concept that practitioners, managers and policy makers respect. Too often it is seen as an academic activity conducted by others – to the profession, not with the profession.

But I believe it should be respected. In fact I'd say education professionals are always learning, finding out things, analysing information, adapting their behaviour according to information received, looking to improve and adapting to modern demands. All of this constitutes research - whether professionals want to call it that or not.

Let's briefly imagine the world of education without research:

1. On what would the learning and teaching experience be based without underpinning research?

If education is not based upon research and evidence, then it runs the risk of being based upon one or more of the following:

  • Dogma

  • Theory

  • Ideology

  • Convenience

  • Prejudice

Allow me to unpack these:

  • Education is a political football and can be used for propaganda and political purposes. I believe that there is a moral dimension to the profession – and to follow dogma blindly is wrong. Education should serve to liberate, and promote democracy and equality of opportunity.

  • Similarly ideology can be dangerous. Teachers have a social responsibility – to develop active citizens. To guide one’s practice around an ideology means that evidence can be selected to score political points. Following an ideological route restricts choice, which is the opposite to the real purpose of education.

  • Given that we have all been to school, we all have views on how and what we were taught. The trouble is that we were taught in an age gone by – new theories and technological advances have taken, and are taking, place. Basing our practice solely on our own learning experiences, without reflection, mean education runs the risk of being outdated and not being forward-looking.

  • Theories come and go and any single theory cannot operate in isolation. Learners and learning are complex and success is influenced by a multitude of factors, social backgrounds, family background, personality, age, gender, location etc etc. Theories needs to be combined, tested and challenged in order to allow us to adapt to suit local and personal environments.

  • Convenience and manageability are important, but the question is whose ‘convenience'? Teachers can occupy and even control pupils, as well as entertain them. But we have to ask if ‘learning’ takes place. Learning new things and new ways of behaving can be uncomfortable. It is not enough to base teaching and learning around convenience

Research enables all of the above to be challenged. Basing decisions upon evidence is morally sound.

Research can help teachers to understand what works and why, what the short and long-term implications are, provide a justification and rationale for decisions and actions, help to build a repertoire to help deal with the unexpected, identify problems, inform improvement and so forth.

2. What forms of research suit policy makers, planners and implementers of policy?

Some forms of evidence are more useful to some professionals than others. Large scale studies into pupil performance can help to identify trends and enable educational outcomes to be related to social and economic needs.

Policy makers want to see the big picture. On the other hand, practitioners want to know why some techniques work and others don't.

All professionals need to be able to trust the source of information – and strict research ethics provide that assurance.

Teaching does involves creative thinking and experimentation. Individuals and professional groups need to know what works and why.

Does a teacher's action lead to improved pupil performance, increased motivation, commitment, better behaviour – and the list goes on? All teachers reflect -we do that anyway – but research is more formal.

The profession as a whole needs access to a range of data/evidence types. Not everyone can, nor would want to, do everything.

However, these all need to be connected, and too often research is conducted in isolation of others. Let's not all duplicate effort, but combine to build on each others' findings.

3. How does research benefit the practitioner?

Practitioners have to comply to policy, but that does not mean following a prescribed formula. Teachers can adapt it to fit the individual needs of their own pupils.

But teachers are accountable. The public must have faith in the profession – and attitudes to education vary across many social groups - so the performance of teachers can be demonstrated through the publication of research findings.

Teachers project their own personality upon learning experiences. Sometimes this is intuitive and these decisions can either be successful or fail. Research methodologies give teachers the tools to analyse and make informed decisions about their practice.

Research helps teachers to share with colleagues. Too often research looks backwards and there are lessons to learn.

However, what I would prefer is invention and innovation. I'd like to invent new ways of learning. The risk is the recirculating old and stale ideas.

Research should be future oriented and designed to benefit learners rather than the researchers themselves.

I believe that this is the duty of academic professionals everywhere.