Questioning educational research.

There are lots of questions that should be asked of educational research:

Why are there so few longitudinal studies? There are a number of obvious answers to this question. Cost is the most important. Who wants to pay for research that will only arrive at a conclusion in five or six years’ time? The ways in which research is funded and the ways in which academics are measured against their research outputs requires that we have something to show for our efforts next year – not in four years’ time. And with educational policy seemingly at the mercy of the latest political whim, it seems unlikely that funding for educational research is going to be gained for projects that will last longer than the next parliament.

Is innovation really the key? Many of the research funding bodies seem to want research methods that are innovative. This pushes ‘novelty’ higher up the agenda that it might otherwise be. Some commentators have remarked about the plethora of research methods (particularly in the social sciences). And yet with so much innovative research happening, the educational status quo seems quite resistant to change. You just have to read some of John Dewey’s writing from 1910 to see that he was making the same comments about the problems with education as writers are making today. The sciences do not seem to be so obsessed with innovative methodologies – rather they want outcomes that make a difference.

Why are there so few educational research papers that report negative results? I was at a meeting several years ago where the editors of four prominent journals were sitting on a discussion panel. They all admitted that they would rather publish papers with positive results than papers with negative results. This paints a rather unrealistic picture of the state of educational research, as the casual observer of the literature will assume that every intervention that has ever been tried has ended up with a positive result. So much for Thomas Edison and his 10,000 ways to make a light bulb that doesn’t work.

Why the persistence of the quants. vs. quals divide? Many researchers still describe themselves as either ‘strictly qualitative’ or ‘strictly quantitative’ in approach. I forwarded a paper to a colleague a while ago, and his reply was that the “only data in the paper were the page numbers!”.

In terms of ‘what type of researcher are you?’, I think we can sum it up with your responses to the following two statements:

There are 10 sorts of quantitative researchers: those who understand binary and those who do not.

There are two sorts of qualitative researchers: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.

Further reading

Krupat, E. (2010). A call for more RCTs (Research that is Conceptual and Thoughtful). Medical Education,44, 852–855.

Wiles, R., Crow, G. and Pain, H. (2011) Innovation in qualitative research methods: a narrative view. Qualitative Research, 11(5): 587 – 604.


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