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Charles’ response to the academic discussants

A response to the Discussants on my piece on Educational Research:

The initial piece was reviewed in the Times Higher Education here:

Find the pdf here


I am grateful for the responses of the four discussants to my piece "The value of educational research", and for their courtesy in considering carefully my arguments. Dr Catherine Lewis and Dr Ko Po Yuk respond by reference to practical ways in which research and practitioners can be brought closer together so that teachers can improve themselves through classroom research and also learn from more experienced teachers. They explain the ways in students can benefit from this approach and how this can extend into wider public policy issues. Dr Lewis demonstrates the ways in which ‘lesson study’ can improve educational standards. Though I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to comment with any authority upon the advantages and disadvantages of this approach it certainly offers a gradual approach through which the quality of teaching can be steadily improved, based on practical experience, over time. This approach also enables examination, and where appropriate application, of alternative pedagogical methods, including whole-class teaching in comparison with one-to-one learning, use of ICT and other techniques. Dr Ko Po Yuk gives an extremely interesting account of the way in which the Chinese education system tries to bring together educational research and practice in a similar manner. Both Catherine Lewis and Dr Ko Po Yuk suggest a positive approach to improving educational quality through improving teacher quality, including through practical dialogue between researchers, teachers and policymakers. Interestingly, as they draw from experience in China and Japan, their focus is upon the ways in which a committed teaching profession can improve itself, rather than what a government can do, though these are not entirely unrelated. Dr Ko Po Yuk rightly highlights the cultural differences which make it difficult to imagine transferring this approach directly to the UK or similar places. When ideas such as ‘Advanced Skills Teachers’ or ‘peer review of lessons’ were suggested in the UK they were massively controversial in the teaching profession. The defensiveness of the UK teaching profession is sadly shared by many educational researchers. They often at one and the same time bemoan the fact that politicians and policymakers pay them no account whilst making it clear that they have in any case little to contribute to educational policymaking. Professors Marton and Morris reflect this outlook. Ference Marton’s research, centred on the method of phenomenonography, emphasises differences in learning experience for different individuals. He consequently suggests that questions about the means by which education takes place cannot, in principle, be answered or – to be fair to his position – cannot be answered outside a specific context of the educational end which is sought. While I understand the philosophical basis of this position, this line of thought tends to the view that it is not possible to assess the value of different techniques, for example from the point of view of maximising the educational attainments and achievements of a particular pupil or group of pupils. (By the way this, rather than social mobility, is in my view the fundamental purpose of education.) If Professor Marton’s argument were to be accepted in its entirety, it would eliminate the justification of large areas of educational research and the government funding which flows with that justification. Professor Paul Morris’s critique is less fundamental, but comes to similar conclusions. He correctly points out that these research problems are difficult and complicated, not susceptible to simplistic responses, and that no answers, for example on teaching methods, will be universal in character. However the fact that no educational research can provide a complete theory or answer, of the kind that scientists and mathematicians, for example, seek to provide does not mean that there is nothing useful to be said. Indeed every country in the world has its own education system, which derives from its own history and circumstances, and it is not necessary to adhere to PISA testing, or the like, to pose the question ‘Can we improve our education system, and if so how best should we do this?’. And in fact in most countries this is an intense discussion to which, in my opinion, education researchers ought to be able to contribute. Paul Morris may say that this type of question is nothing whatsoever to do with educational researchers, or that the only interesting question is how the word ‘improve’ is defined in the above question, but it remains a question that societies (not just governments, by the way) will often wish to try and answer. The question for education researchers throughout the world is whether they wish to play any role at all in trying to help answer such questions. If not, the question arises again: what is the justification of government funding for educational research? Rt Hon Charles Clarke

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