Educational Research: Too much, too little, too often?

As the concept of research-based practice grows in stature within the teaching community in the UK, and to some extent amongst policy-makers too (when it suits them), the relationship between academics and teachers has regularly come under the spotlight. ResearchEd 2013 is possibly the most prominent recent example with ResearchEd Midlands on the horizon.

I thought it might just be useful to take a moment to consider if any individual working on this part-time, whether a teacher reading late into the night, a teacher educator preparing sessions for their trainees, or SLT looking for the magic bullet, can get any kind of effective handle on the whole picture.

I’m a science teacher. Here is Keith Taber’s list of some journals specialising in science education. Keith Taber works at Cambridge University; he is a cheese of the large variety in science education so if his name is not familiar, perhaps I can rest my case in terms of teachers having an overview of academic research.

I think the length of this list is a symptom of a fundamental problem in educational research. There are a lot of journals because there are a lot of small research projects and they all need publishing because that’s the way you demonstrate your credentials in academia. Having a very high profile journal cherry-picking the best of the rest would help – Nature, The Lancet, or the BMJ being prime examples in science and medicine – but I think the problem is more fundamental than just a communication problem. Young people can be slippery little beggars at the best of times, and teachers are worse; trying to get the kind of validity and reliability that you get from lab rats is futile. Therefore good research often needs very large sample sizes. Large sample sizes in education research are massively expensive and time-consuming (not quite LHC but £100,000s). We desperately need to replace a large number of small research projects with a small number of large ones. There are subtleties to this, with small projects helping to select the big ones, but that’s the shift that just might start to yield results that just might make evidence-based practice a convincing reality. There is a shift in this direction, although the emphasis on RCTs good, everything else bad, shows a limited understanding of the issues in educational research, but it’s still just a few flagship projects; the majority of academics are working on tiny little projects which, however good, will produce insignificant results to be buried behind a paywall in an obscure journal.

Can we please fix this?

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