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Editorial: Improving educational practice: Some research agendas

The collection of articles in this issue can be seen to focus on various aspects of improving educational practice in schools. Both personal and institutional aspects are present, sometimes in the same article. An underlying theme is the need for more research on educational practice.

Johnson and Stevens focus on aspects of improving educational practice by researching strategies for helping teachers to examine the assumptions underlying their own practice. The assumption of this research is that assisting teachers in revealing and understanding the personal and ideological positioning of their own practice they will produce better teachers. This is seen as a political awaking rather than a technical skilling. They extend previous approaches to developing reflective practitioners by having teachers represent their practice visually as well as discursively, claiming that this allows representation of ideas not easily conveyed in words. They illustrate this with examples from their work with pre-service and in-service teachers.

This study does not extend to demonstration of consequential effects on teacher practice. However, it illustrates the importance of considering the extent to which teacher practice is framed by the (often unspoken and unrecognised) political and ideological assumptions of schools as systemic institutions. These aspects of teachers' taken-for-granted educational practice can be brought to the surface by explicitly challenging teachers to address the question of whose interests are served by any educational practice. Johnson and Stevens show that in-service teachers are more able than pre-service teachers to engage in such enquiry. However, they recognise that the dilemma for the beginning teacher is having to fit the system rather than to challenge it. For system managers, there is the dilemma of needing to develop system coherence as well as to encourage professional initiative. Teachers are not free agents but operate within systems of accountability and control. The degree of freedom to challenge and change practice in schools at a local level differs across cultures. In Australia, and particularly in Queensland with its school-based approach to curriculum and assessment, there is a recognition that educational practice improves when teachers are enlisted into the processes of change-but within defined parameters of accountability and control. It will be interesting to see, as this research unfolds, how these dilemmas are played out and whether the inevitable tensions can be resolved productively.

Clarke addresses another aspect of practice in schools-the role of the teaching principal in small schools. The lack of research on leadership in small schools is surprising, especially considering their prevalence-in Queensland almost one-third of schools are small schools. As Clarke suggests, there is a felt need among small school principals for more support and guidance for their role in view of the additional demands that the changing agendas of schooling are making on them and in view of the known importance of the principal's leadership in developing school effectiveness. The particular character of Queensland's small schools, and their differences both from large schools and from small schools elsewhere in the world, especially their typical remoteness and dispersion, makes it important to tailor the research to the circumstances.

The article explores the contribution to an emerging research focus being made by two programs: the Schools with Teaching Principals Project in Education Queensland schools; and a graduate certificate program in Small School Leadership developed jointly by Griffith University and Education Queensland. Clarke suggests that new understandings of the role of the principal in small schools are emerging from the opportunities that both programs provide for small school principals to share their experiences, practices, perspectives and needs. This could lead to a much-needed and vigorous research program in the future. An interesting possibility to contemplate is how this research might incorporate a critical stance to personal and professional underpinnings of small school leadership similar to that of Johnson and Stevens in the previous article. Vice versa, since many teachers, particularly primary school teachers, will be employed in small schools, studies of small school leadership are relevant in their preservice and inservice education. The possibility of inter-relationship between these two research programs should be explored.

Reilly, Chapman and O'Donoghue also point to a lack of research in an important area of educational practice, in this case the home schooling of children with disabilities. They report an estimate of the number of home-schooled children in Australia as over 20 000, though comparisons with the USA suggest that the potential need could be much higher. Clearly, in terms of current approaches and practices concerning educational provisions for children with disabilities, this is seen by many parents as an alternative to mainstreaming. In view of its increasing popularity, knowing more about its characteristics and challenges is clearly important. This article reports on six exploratory case studies of children in home schooling where the research question was 'how do parents manage the home schooling of their children with disabilities?'. One case study is reported in greater detail, although necessarily still rather abbreviated for purposes of this article. Analysis of all six cases led to eight propositions identifying a range of issues and conclusions. Clearly, more research is needed and this article provides some important pointers to the key issues needing to be addressed.

Forlin and Forlin examine the other side of educational provisions for students with disabilities, that is, the provision of an inclusive curriculum. Their background is the national move towards a focus on outcomes in framing syllabuses in which outcome statements serve as an organising framework for enacting school-based curriculum design and for assessing and reporting educational progress. Five major issues, characterised as a model of diversity, are identified. These major issues are explored in terms of existing ideas and practices and the key decisions that need to be made for an inclusive curriculum. In Queensland, the full suite of eight key learning area syllabuses will be available to schools in 2004 (with the completion of the English and Mathematics syllabuses in 2003). Schools will then have to make decisions about implementation, with the eight key learning area syllabuses forming the basis on which they construct the delivered and experienced curriculum for their students. This requires schools to address the range of issues that Forlin and Forlin have identified. In particular, schools need to determine how to plan for and teach towards the full range of intended learning outcomes, how to make provision for variable rates of progression in student learning, how to make fair and equitable provision for the learning needs of all students and how to assess and report the educational progress of individual students. Clearly, there is an urgent and growing need for research to support teacher practice in this area.

Woolacott offers a case study of an individual teacher of Year 7, focussing on explanations of practice in the teaching of reading. This study is opportune in the light of increasing concern for attention to the (further) development of literacy in the middle years of schooling. This study is an interesting example of how a case study of an individual teacher can elucidate the issues faced in the teaching of literacy and exemplify ways in which teachers can construct a defensible teaching approach. In this case the teacher was selective, eclectic and pragmatic, with a mix of attention to the three fundamental ways of approaching the teaching of reading-skills, psycholinguistic processes and social practices. All four components of the 'four resources model'-reader as code breaker, meaning maker, text user and text analyst-were highlighted at appropriate times. An important finding was the attention given by this teacher to affective aspects of reading, particularly through an emphasis on reading as fun-though accompanied by a narrow focus on fiction versus non-fiction. Woolacott rightly points to the need for more research on the affective dimensions of reading and learning to read. It seems quite reasonable to conclude that students who enjoy reading will continue to read and continue to learn to read, though the inter-relationships of enjoyment and capability are complex.

In summary, all of the articles in this issue point to the need for further research in the areas of educational practice identified and give pointers to the issues needing to be addressed and the forms of research that may be useful. These research agendas are worthy of widespread attention.

Graham Maxwell

Please cite as: Maxwell, G. (2002). Editorial: Improving educational practice: Some research agendas. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(1), 3-6. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/editorial18-1.html

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Created 12 Sep 2004. Last correction: 31 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/editorial18-1.html