Who do you think you are talking to?

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

Working in solitude in a study may have been OK for St Jerome, but if we want our research to have impact I would suggest we should talk to a far broader audience.

 

“Why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” The question came from a colleague who was clearly feeling a certain amount of frustration and needed someone on whom she could vent her considerable angst. “We do all this work, spend time devising research instruments, collecting data, analysing what we’ve found and then writing reports and papers, but then it seems nobody bothers reading it.” She was clearly having a bad day.

I’m sure I did little to ease her blood pressure by my response and now I am feeling a little guilty about this. “Perhaps more people are reading your work than you know,” I suggested, trying gently to move towards what I really wanted to say. “Or perhaps there would be people who might be interested if they knew about the research.” The minute I uttered this last phrase I knew I should have kept quiet. The repost was wholly predictable and came at me exactly as I should have expected. “But the work is there for all to see, it is published in a well-respected international journal, what else am I supposed to do?”

It is the end of a busy term and I didn’t want to get too deep into a philosophical discussion about why teachers don’t read research papers, or why policy makers appear to ignore empirical studies, so I made a few sympathetic noises, assured my colleague that her work was respected or possibly even revered by those closest to her subject, then made my excuses and left. However, having been subjected to her exasperated outpourings I did go away and think a little more about what she said.

It does seem to me that the problem which my colleague articulated is not so much about the value or efficacy of the research, but is much more closely related to the ways in which it is communicated. As “academics” we are encouraged and indeed expected to publish research in high ranking academic peer reviewed and preferably international journals. These are the rules of engagement that have been established by those “elite researchers” whose concern is to maintain high academic standards and ensure the quality of educational research. This is a perfectly valid system and one to which those of us working in universities have long subscribed. Those who assess the quality and impact of research do so through a journal ranking system, and like so many lemmings we have followed  the leading researchers in the field, in a desperate race to be first over the edge of the cliff. This then is the academic game in which we are all involved.

Returning to the frustrations of my colleague I can therefore sympathise with her dilemma. She wishes to establish herself as an acknowledged authority and key researcher and writer in her field of expertise. In order to do so she has rightly recognised that she has to play the game according to the rules. But returning to her original question, “why isn’t anyone interested in educational research these days?” I would suggest that perhaps she is too concerned with her own status as a researcher and needs to focus more on why educational research may have value. As someone who claims to undertake research because I want to improve the lives of children and their families and teachers, I recognise that this is not going to be achieved unless I can discuss my work directly with them. Publishing papers in journals or presenting my research at an international conference undoubtedly has a place. But the individuals for whom I claim motivation for my work are not going to access either of these outlets. Perhaps as researchers we should spend more time engaging with those whose lives we would hope to improve through our investigations, and less talking to our peers. Maybe we should be exploring ways of disseminating our work that reaches an audience other than our colleagues who are engaged in similar areas of research.

What I am suggesting will not, of course, gain points in the competition for promotion in academic institutions, neither will it attract a great deal of respect from the “elite researchers”, but it might mean that a wider audience expresses interest in research and even informs us about how me should improve and progress our work. Maybe we should be writing in plain English (or whatever other language is most accessible), and publishing in magazines, on websites or through other media that can be readily accessed by those who do not wish to wade through reams of literature, methodological discourse, statistical analysis or academic pontificating. Perhaps a more polymorphous approach whereby we make our work available to a wide range of parties that might include academic researchers, teachers, parents and children will enable research to reach a broader audience and command greater respect.

What is that scream I hear from the editorial board of that highly ranked journal? – Populist nonsense I hear them shout. Yes, that may be true, but I believe that unless we change our ways we are destined to become even more of an irrelevance in the eyes of teachers, policy makers, families and children. Those of you who disagree do carry on talking amongst yourselves!

 

10 thoughts on “Who do you think you are talking to?

  1. Hi Richard – I fully agree with everything you have said here. We do need to get better at communicating what we learn through our research to those who are impacted by it through creative means. But the other side of this is that teachers as professionals need to meet us in the middle. Teachers all over the world consider themselves to be part of a profession, but being part of a profession means that you take responsibility for being current in your field. Quite honestly, that is not always the case. Teachers sometimes complain that this or that organization has not provided them with adequate means to stay current, as if they are helpless. My answer to those people is that as professionals it is their own responsibility to seek out knowledge and to engage with research. This is how other professions operate. Would they want to cross a bridge built by an engineer who was not current in the research? Would they want a surgeon who had not read a journal article in 15 years to operate on them? The answer is no, and similarly as a parent and someone who cares about education I want teachers to meet those same professional standards. Interestingly, the Alberta Teachers’ Association here has the same point of view, although with varying levels of compliance from their membership 🙂

    • Some very good points made here Tim. I guess as professionals we all share a responsibility and not all of us fulfil our obligations. I do however, feel that we are a little guilty as professionals of building something of a mystique around research. I am also interested in finding better ways of sharing our work with parents and children, most of whom we cannot expect to take a professional view of research in the same way that we would hope of teachers. Much food for thought here I think.

  2. Here here Richard!

    As researchers, we need to be smarter about dissemination. As a rule of thumb: whilst my work may be published in a prestigious international research journals – I make it point it either publish/present in “practitioner” publications/events. This way I have considered its addition to the body of knowledge, but also initiated a dialogue on its application for further research. I think TEDTalks has helped shift academic research into the realm of application too! Using technology & social media is another way to ‘spread the word’ (so to speak). [A few hints for your colleague]

    As an undergrad, many moons ago, I read research to complete assignments. As a post grad student – to deepen my understanding & criticality of the topic under discussion. As a teacher, I am interested in research to edify my pedagogical philosophy & approach. As a policy maker & strategic developer, I find research adds kudos to the proposals I put forward. As a leader, research gives me clarity. As an aunt, research helps me to be confident that the next generation of my family are truly getting the best learning opportunities available to them. As a visionary, research provides me with hope of a better tomorrow!

    Maybe the solution lies in knowing our identity & purpose?

  3. Hi Anita,
    You make a good point here. Maybe too many of us are limited in what we see as our identity. Like you I wear many hats – researcher, teacher, father, husband grandfather etc. Trying to view the world from the perspective of those identities with which we are less familiar may be the greatest challenge.

  4. Hi Richard,
    As someone who was happily a practitioner/researcher for most of my research-active life, I can’t stress the importance of engaging with families, teachers and children. Actually testing out your theories and ideas in the crucible of the workplace, being challenged by practitioners and parents, and talking in places – parent group meetings, school INSET, etc – where you can make a difference there and then…it’s so important.

    Now as a full time academic I don’t have the ‘street credibility’ that used to come with my then-role. When people now say, when did you last work directly with children, I can no longer say earlier this week.

    But I’ve found that teaching and engaging with students and testing out ideas in the classroom to be of great help. One of the journal articles that I had published this year was shaped in no small part by discussions with an MA group in Lincoln and a group of first year undergraduates on campus. Without their challenging perspectives, my arguments would have been less fully-developed (and to be honest, pretty trite). So I think that researchers in education must not lose sight of the importance of teaching too.

  5. Hi David,
    Yes, that aspect of maintaining credibility is probably more important for educational researchers than it is for many others. Keeping links seems to me to be of fundamental importance and maybe we should be looking for new ways to communicate our work to practitioners and families. Better still we should be increasing the opportunities that they have to participate in research other than as the subjects of our investigations.

  6. Some important points are made here, reminding me of Andy Hargreaves’ TTA speech a couple of decades ago. Yet in the UK, notwithstanding TLRP and Goldacre, we do not seem to have progressed a great deal over those years in bridging a perceived research:practice divide in education. Maybe the key is to work in stronger research partnership with our school colleagues. Our role in universities could shift towards sharing our skills more to support colleagues in schools to take a greater role themselves in creating new knowledge to take the field forwards. At the University of Northampton, we are currently working with our school colleagues to develop Schools’ Research Partnerships. It is not easy because school colleagues are busy people but there is a flurry of excitement among our partner teachers when they realise that research can help them to develop not only their own, but others’ understanding of the valuable work they do. Now that’s worth talking about!

  7. Hi Jane,
    Yes I agree partnerships of this nature are important. I also think we need to go beyond partnerships with teachers to involve families who have traditionally been the subjects of research with little effort to give them any authority. As researchers we are often in positions of power. We need to use this wisely.

  8. Richard – i think here in India, – we need to begin with a more fundamental question – will teaching practices ever be based on research ?
    There is a huge responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the first cohort of the MA India course and the following cohorts … our studies have paved the way for a sliver of a chance of a revolution toward policies and practices that are impacted with systematic research.
    India desperately needs more research in education, that is accessible to teachers , that finds its way into teacher training not just in special education but general education as well.
    i would like to think we have the opportunity here to be pioneer education researchers and bring about the changes we want to see in the quality of education and lives of our children.

  9. Hi Shweta,
    Yesd, a huge responsibility. But it is one that you share with others and in which I hope you will feel well supported. I have every confidence that you and your fellow students will be making a significant contribution to the futures of children and their families.

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