Educational Research – Why Should We Bother?

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March 17, 2015 by dragonflytraining

Author: Alessio Bernardelli, @asober

Originally posted January, 2015

This post is a couple of weeks overdue, as it is an attempt to summarise my recent visit to the ASE Conference in Reading. The title of the post might startle you a little bit, but it makes sense, because I determined to attend a workshop called “From Good to Outstanding” and when I stepped in it became very clear it was going to mainly deal with Educational Research. If you consider that the next workshop/seminar I went to was “ResearchEd” the title is put in focus :-)

From Good to Outstanding

This first workshop was led by Katy Bloom from Leeds Trinity University and made some really interesting links between educational research and classroom practice. The main theme of the workshop was an outline of Hattie’s extensive study of interventions and the measure of their effectiveness. Interestingly, in his book, Visible Learning, Hattie claims that almost any intervention a teacher makes in their classes has a positive impact on learners’ progress, with only few types of intervention presumably having a negative impact. This immediately raises some questions that I will explore later on and, although I bought the book, this is just a summary of what was presented at the workshop, not a detailed analysis of the book and its findings.

In light of most interventions having a positive impact, Hattie chooses to give higher status, as it were, to interventions that scored 0.4 or above in his scale of effectiveness (paraphrasing here and not using the same terminology used in the workshop I believe). An interesting exercise we did during the workshop was to put the interventions in the image below in order of effectiveness. What you see in the photo is the order my group chose and because I was delivering a workshop on Mind Mapping in the afternoon I told everyone that concept mapping had to be at the top and that was non-negotiable ;-)

Teacher Training UK

I am not going to reveal the order Hattie gives, because I don’t want to spoil your fun, if you will at some point read the book, or attend this event, but you could still have fun telling me off for my group’s choice of the order.

What’s the problem with Educational Research?

I don’t have a problem with the exercise of educational research per se, but for some time I have been largely skeptical of the validity of some of its findings and claims. At this point I should put the previous statement in the right context. My first complaint is towards the abuse of the findings rather than the findings themselves. Educational research papers usually acknowledge quite adequately the limitations of the conditions of the research and the samples studied, for example the recent Sutton Trust report that made it to the national news uses terms like, limited and moderate when describing the evidence supporting their findings, yet the news presented such findings almost as well established facts and to the eyes of the public and sadly many decision makers in schools educational research, just because it shares the same name as scientific research, gains the same status as a well established scientific theory (e.g. the theory of relativity). This was the case with VAK which was later disregarded by educational researchers as being over simplistic and not supported by strong evidence.

So, although educational research is often quite balanced and honest in its findings, what gets cascaded down is in many cases a tendency to treat such findings as dogmatic. “Where is the educational research that supports your teaching strategies” is a phrase I have heard many times, as if I should base my teaching practice only on the educational research available without any actual observation of what my classes and real pupils respond to! In that sense, I believe teachers are best placed to conduct their own research and reflective practice is something every teacher should be engaged in as a minimum requirement to be a teacher. In fairness, the latter was emphasised in the workshop led by Katy Bloom and she did give, in my opinion, a balanced and accurate overview of educational research.

I know Educational Research is in the realm of Social Science and we cannot expect its methodology to achieve the same validity and rigour as scientific research, but my other complaint around Educational Research is that there are just too many factors that play a part in the outcomes we can observe in a trial. There are many natural limitations in running trials with real people (both reliant on teachers doing what they are supposed to do and learners responding to the researched intervention etc…). I believe there are just too many variables involved in the lives of 11-18 year olds and below to allow an accurate analysis of the intervention. In addition, so many other things are done with and to kids in school during their education that it is highly improbable that a study could pin down and be able to claim with absolute certainty that its intervention is what caused the desired change.

I could go on ad infinitum and keep going round in circles, but I don’t want the reader to think I am against educational research. Far from it and quite the opposite. However, I am very much in favour of using its findings with a pinch of salt and accompanying  them with the necessary warnings, so that the people who can make good use of the research in their classrooms do not become overly reliant on it, nor dogmatic about it. It all comes back to the important practice of reflective practice, because at the end of the day we deal with real people who have a multitude of issues affecting their lives and individual teachers need to respond to individuals with individual needs through individual interventions (what a mouthful, eh?).

ResearchEd

My overdose of Educational Research was complete when I attended the second workshop on the topic by Alom Shaha and Tom Bennet, both big promoters and fans of Educational Research. Alom started by sharing his frustration at how difficult it is to access the educational research that could be useful in his teaching (and rightly so). In particular, he explained how reading about research into practical work in science education changed his practice for the better.

If I remember correctly, research into practical activities in science seems to suggest that practical work is not significantly contributing to scientific knowledge and understanding in learners. That view was attacked almost immediately by the audience and Alom’s initial invitation to initiate a discussion was definitely accepted at this point.

Alom explained that dissolving sugar in water doesn’t add anything to the scientific knowledge and understanding of children in a science practical lesson, but it is rather an excuse for the kids to muck about and for the teachers to have an easy lesson. I agree with that and you could send your kids home with the homework to make themselves a cup of tea with sugar, if you wanted them to “learn” that sugar dissolves faster in hot water. It really is a waste of time.

But if the problems found by research into practical work in science are about the quality of the practical activities a large number of teachers conduct in their lessons, the research has identified a lack of effective and meaningful practical activities, rather than that it is not effective to run practical lessons in science classes. I must stress that from Alom’s talk I understood that this is what he meant, although I had the feeling many from the audience misunderstood him and thought he was saying we should do away with practical science, which was unfortunate, as it span the discussion in a direction that moved slightly away from the original purpose of the workshop, I believe.

Tom Bennet was next and he explained how ResearchEd, that he founded, is seeking to create a network of educators interested in discussing educational research issues. There is an annual conference that you can attend to find out more about educational research and how it could help you in your teaching practice.

So, why bother?

My view on Educational Research is that it is important and that we need to hold informed discussions on it. There is nothing wrong in trialling some strategies identified by educational research as effective, it is actually really useful to be up to date with research. But I believe reflective practice is more important than following claims made by research without testing them for yourself and with your students. If it doesn’t work for you, you need to find something that does, or you will not help your learners to make progress and that is what a teacher is paid for.

To View courses delivered by Alessio for Dragonfly Training please click below:

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