Forget the evidence - a real debate with the public is what we need

Educational research is meaningless and out of touch because it is completely divorced from wider social concerns, argues Dennis Hayes

September 18, 2008

The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association (Bera) has prestige, but it now holds back educational thinking. It's pleasant enough going there, and a colleague told me it was more interesting this year than previous years - when he just gave his paper and left "because educational research is so boring".

At Bera, as elsewhere, the fundamental reason for this is the failure to see the value and place of debate. Research, like information, can be relevant or meaningful only if the need for it grows out of rigorous open debate in society; that is, debate outside the academy. In a vacuum, educationists lose their way and start dreaming up or "conceptualising spaces" (to use a phrase from a Bera keynote). Worse still, they talk about providing therapeutic "safe spaces" for discussion in an effort to feel better about their social and political isolation.

Some academics have even developed "third-space theory" and imagine that they can "write" into existence a connection between practitioners and theorists. It shows what a disengaged and fantasy world the academy has become.

Conceptualising spaces just won't work. Without public debate, the encouragement of "research", even in the politicised form of seeking out "evidence" or an "evidence base" for various policies, is an arid exercise. Failure to recognise this - which is a major theoretical failing on the part of Bera and of every education department in every university for which the Bera conference sets the standard - means that they put the cart before the horse and assume that research will lead to debate and even influence policy. This assumption means that educationists sequester themselves from any influence with politicians and ordinary people.

In Oxford this year, Bill Rammell, the Universities Secretary, said that he receives stacks of academic papers criticising Labour policies. However, he said that he could easily ignore them because they did not come out of any debate and therefore had no social force behind them.

Ignoring what doesn't fit your policies is what "evidence-based" education means to politicians and their allies in education. You simply select the "evidence" that fits your policies. The cry "where's your evidence?" means "I don't agree with you".

This is a culpable failure, and it is reflected at Bera and every other academic conference by the structural avoidance of debate. Most academics will have experienced something similar to the McDonaldisation of research presentation that Bera promotes. Four papers presented in 90 minutes by individuals or teams of researchers numbering up to ten per paper. There is no time for questions, just the polite etiquette of saying: "That's very interesting. Could you say a little more about it?" This format is undemocratic and shows contempt for your audience who, if any of them even bother to go to hear other papers, are passive recipients of research. It is no excuse to say that there are lots of papers that have to be presented, or that other formats are also part of Bera, because they also exhibit the avoidance of debate in different ways, such as leaving little time for questions.

When there was debate in wider society and social institutions - such as trade unions and political parties - that contested received ideas, research took place with a social framework, or web of meaning, that ensured its relevance. That social discourse no longer exists, and in that situation research becomes arbitrary and undisciplined. Its importance, if any, will be accidental.

It is time to make what Bera does more public because the obsession with research and "evidence" is a major theoretical and social problem that will continue to paralyse educational thought. Bera, the mini-Beras and "Beras at home" have created a climate in which you can't put forward your ideas and arguments unless you have "research" to back them up. The politicised reason for this, which really damages education, is the idea that you can't do anything different or experiment in the classroom unless you have an evidence base or are engaged in "action research". It stops experimentation. Teachers and lecturers who are not active researchers get another message from the researchers, of course, that they are not up to scratch unless they are researching.

The overall effect is to silence debate and undermine the academic freedom to say what you think, whatever the research says. It also chastises the public, who learn that saying what you think based on experience and intelligence is a poor substitute for research.

The old divide between "free speech" for the opinionated masses and "academic freedom" as a privilege for the clever has been replaced by a more damaging divide between the research elite and those who have no "evidence" for what they say. The irony is that it's the research elite who are undermining thinking and meaningful research.

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