Researchers told to wake up and smell the cogency

Education scholars must showcase work or face obscurity, says Bera head. Matthew Reisz writes

July 28, 2011

Educational researchers must stop "sticking their heads in the sand" and wake up to the fact that most people would not notice if their work ceased tomorrow.

The stark warning was issued by John Gardner, president of the British Educational Research Association and professor of education at Queen's University Belfast, as he issued a rallying cry for his peers to improve the visibility of their work.

"We see a community struggling to have its voice heard, never mind its message understood," Professor Gardner said in his recently published presidential address.

"Would the general public notice if there was no educational research? As president of Bera, I confess I'm not sure they would."

Common criticisms are that much research is "too distant from what matters", "too progressive" or simply "impenetrable", he said.

A striking example was the reception given to the 600-page Cambridge Primary Review of 2009, which Professor Gardner considered "a real magnum opus" but which was rejected by a government minister as "simply not up to speed" on the very day it was published. Surely, "three years' work of so many educational researchers deserved a thorough reading rather than instant dismissal", he said in his address.

"We know far more about early learning and the process of learning to read than we did 20 years ago," Professor Gardner said. "Educational research is slowly but surely chipping away at the problems of educational processes and outcomes."

Yet many of the challenges are "seriously complex", and researchers need to find a means of communicating the complexity in ways that do not come across as "prevaricating or talking around issues".

Professor Gardner's lecture, published in the British Educational Research Journal, urged researchers to remember that the "government and the media have similar tendencies to oversimplify, to want to assign blame and to neglect what is important in the longer term".

Researchers also need "to develop our potential audiences' awareness of the fact that there are no simple and widely applicable solutions to challenges and problems in education".

Calling for educational research to be "accessible, relevant, persuasive, credible and authoritative", Professor Gardner said that vivid storytelling, "untrammelled by the usual elaborations of academic writing", could be highly effective.

What tended to alienate readers were "paragraphs on ontology, epistemology and some appropriate pseudo-theory...shoehorned into the text" with a long list of references.

Although convinced that educational research can make "a high-quality impact on our society", and that governments are unwise to "miss the benefits of the often disruptive and potentially transformational message of educational research", Professor Gardner concluded that "sticking our collective head in the sand and assuming that society will somehow appreciate our relevance and efforts is not the way forward.

"It is incumbent on all of us to make sure we make (our research) as visible as possible."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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