As a researcher in education for the better part of 12 years since commencing my PhD, I am increasingly intrigued (fatigued?) by debates over what constitutes “good” education research.

Seldom do criticisms of education research focus on the specific elements that – taken together in different ways for different purposes – help to formulate studies capable of making a contribution to knowledge in this vast field. Rather, attacks tend to centre on topics, perspectives and philosophies that are considered by some to be esoteric, indulgent and, it seems, irrelevant to “the stuff WE think is important”.

I’ll get to the “WE” later.

Now this blog post is not a blind defence of any or all pieces of research related to education. Sure, if I thought that way, then every manuscript submitted to the two journals I edit would be accepted, but they’re not.

This post offers instead an observation; one that I have found myself making lately when reading the various spirited critiques (some of which are pretty mean-spirited) of education research.

During these paroxysmal bouts, occasionally spattered with snide invective, it seems to me that there’s a bit of a pattern. The only “good” research in education is that which relates to student achievement and “what (supposedly) works” to raise it, preferably accompanied with an effect size of 0.40 and higher.

But, is that all education research is (or should be) about?

I think not. To me, it is fascinating that the largest stakeholder groups in education are students and parents, yet these groups have the least representation. Moreover, their voices tend to be sidelined. Drowned out by the views of educators, academics, politicians, lobbyists, think-tankers and journalists.

Students and parents are interested in much more than “what works” to increase achievement or control classroom behaviour; they’re also concerned with what doesn’t work (for them and/or their child). They also tend to be interested in the emotional/relational aspects of schooling; how they (or their child if we’re talking about parents) feel in school and what they experience while they are there.

Achievement is important, yes, but if kids have no friends or would prefer to stick pins in their eyes rather than spend another day in school, academic achievement quickly slides down the list of priorities relative to the very real problems these students (and their parents) face.

That’s what I mean about the “WE”. When commentators make confident pronouncements of what is and is not of value in education research, they tend not to think about their own situatedness; their own subjectivity. That’s where the much-maligned “posts” (poststructuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc) can be of help and the question of subjectivity or standpoint is central to this approach…

Anyway, I have some questions for the detractors of all things post to consider (note, I’m not asking for a verbal jousting match, I’m asking folks to think about them).

Some questions

Whilst it is possible to find some examples of research in education that leaves one jealously wondering what the hell the author was on when they wrote it, does this mean that:

  • this is the only type of research that this particular author does,
  • this piece of work has no value, and/or
  • because such examples can be found, all education research can or should be characterised by it?

See, the thing is, sometimes work that seems esoteric, indulgent and irrelevant to some can be of value to the author herself.

The intellectual gymnastics they have endured in the writing of that torturous piece can sometimes be the catalyst for a new approach to empirical analysis. What some see as theoretical dilettantism may actually be a way of sidling up to a research problem and finding or creating a lens through which to view it differently. This is what Foucault (my favourite “post”) meant when he talked about making the familiar strange.

This is the way I tend to use poststructural theory these days. I spent three glorious doctoral years down a theoretical rabbit hole and emerged with a mind that just doesn’t deal in absolutes.

I’m grateful for that intellectual training. I no longer revel in the dense and complex prose for which I was once famous (among my family members at least) but, make no mistake, the same foundational concepts underpin my thinking and my work, even if I now break a few rules (e.g., using measures like the Achenbach CBCL would have been anathema to my younger, better looking self).

But because I believe I benefitted from reading Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Butler (among others) and because this reading enabled me to think in ways I never previously thought possible, I cannot begrudge my colleagues the same opportunity.

By the way, very few of my researcher colleagues are “one trick ponies” – something I was once accused of being. None use Derrida’s concept of differánce, for example, to try and work out how best to teach children to read; although that is sometimes the “straw-man” I suspect is being forwarded when education research is criticised.

Incidentally, while we’re here, education research is irreducible to “ITE”. Just because someone writes a paper using literary theory and poetry to analyse a referral to a behaviour support program – as I once did – it doesn’t mean that this is what they’re teaching their teacher education students.

Ultimately, I’m saying that examples of education research should be judged on what each is claiming to be. We might not like some of them but, then again, “WE” is more than just you and me.