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Education research: a nebulous miasma of jumbled words and ideas

By Peter Ridd - posted Monday, 7 March 2005


I may not be a particularly outstanding physicist and I doubt whether any of my research will be earth-shattering, but I belong to a club that has made some remarkable advances over the last few centuries.

The Physics Club has brought us among many other things, electricity, telecommunications, aeroplanes, electronics, magnetic resonance imaging machines, cat-scans, X-rays, lasers and all its applications, and the worldwide web, and is behind just about every major technological advance. Certainly, we have a few black marks against us, like nuclear weapons, but overall it is an achievement of which one can be proud, even if one is not actually responsible for any of it.

Of course physics is not the only area of research that has advanced. Our computers get faster and better every year. Our cars are quieter, safer, cleaner and more economical, and generally we live longer, more active and healthier lives. There is no doubt that technology is advancing rapidly and this is all the product of research.

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This brings me to the sorry tale of educational research. Unlike the unarguable advances due to scientific research, it is hard to see any significant improvements due to educational research, and far worse, there is a good chance we are actually going backwards.

The current debate on literacy is evidence that it is difficult to tell if current educational theory has improved anything. From my perspective as a university lecturer, it is certain that the standard of mathematics of our first year students has gone down. This is not seeing the past through rose coloured glasses. There is no way that we can teach much of a course from the early 90’s. The students no longer have the prerequisite knowledge or training. Why do we tolerate going backwards? Would you tolerate your next computer being slower than your present computer? Is this a result of educational research?

In some areas, such as basic literacy, it is true that things have improved over the last century. But it is debateable as to how much of this is due to the fruits of educational research into better ways of teaching. Much of it is due to general changes in society such as longer schooling, better literacy of parents, and the simple fact that, with the demise of manual labour, almost all occupations now require some degree of literacy.

Education has improved in some other ways. For example we don’t educate girls automatically to be housewives and there has been a useful focus on trying to prevent bullying. But here again these improvements are far more due to societal changes than some fundamental breakthrough in educational research.

Where is the educational equivalent of the development of quantum mechanics that powered the electronics revolution? 2005 is the Einstein International Year of Physics and we are celebrating Einstein’s development of both relativity and quantum mechanics 100 years ago. It is almost unthinkable, even ridiculous, that we will ever have a similar celebration of an education breakthrough. What on earth would we celebrate?

Part of the problem with educational researchers is so many of them seem to have their heads in the clouds worrying about abstruse aspects of educational theory. To demonstrate this I decided to check the Australian Research Council (ARC) website.  The ARC is the major funding body for most research in Australia. ARC gives 100 word summaries of all the projects it funds and you can search by category to read the summaries of all the projects for a particular discipline. The summaries are supposed to be written in plain English and be able to be used for publicity purposes so it can be seen that the ARC is funding valuable and important research. I typed “education” for the classification code on the ARC searchable database and this was the summary for the first ARC funded project that was listed:

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The aim of the project is to investigate teachers' reflective practice in terms more complex than that which strives for personal growth and behavioural change. The project builds on and develops the prior work on post structural teacher reflection. It seeks to discover if, when and how the recognition of contradictory practices driven by conflicting ideologies can contribute to quality teaching. Overall the findings of the study will provide specific directions for teachers, teacher educators and other professionals on how reflective practice informed by post-structural analyses can contribute to a different, more socially aware understanding of teachers' work.

Although it is unfair to take a specific example and then make a generalisation, this summary nicely demonstrates why we are not getting value for money from educational researchers.

First, it is more or less incomprehensible. Perhaps this is done to make the “research” look more impressive. In physics we do this by putting in a few equations, but there is little chance of anything as exact and explicit as an equation in educational research. Besides, if you do not say anything clearly and explicitly, it is more difficult to be criticised. Arguing against this summary is like punching at a nebulous miasma of jumbled words and ideas. It’s hard to know where to start.

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Article edited by Maggie Dunphy.
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About the Author

Peter Ridd is a Reader in Physics at James Cook University specialising in Marine Physics. He is also a scientific adviser to the Australian Environment Foundation.

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