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Reflections on the impact of research on educational policy and practice

George F. Berkeley
Director-General of Education, Queensland 1983-1986
Delivered at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School, 11 March 1987.

Thank you Mr Chairman for your introduction and your invitation to give this J.A. Robinson memorial address to the Institute As a former President of the institute its objectives have always been close to my heart. I particularly applaud its role in acting as a meeting ground and as a vehicle for professional development for researchers from the universities, the CAE's, the State Department of Education, the non state school system and for teachers interested in research and its applications.

I am probably one of the few if not the only one here tonight who knew at first hand the man whose memory we honour tonight in this memorial. Col. J.A. Robinson, or Rox as he was known to students at the then Brisbane Teachers College at Kelvin Grove in the period of the 30's to 50's, was quite a character. Ramrod straight even in his seventies he brought to his task as Principal a military directness, and a black and white view of his responsibility of preparing young men and women to be Queensland teachers. We were of course in those days members of the department, junior employees in fact and consequently a quite different relationship existed between staff and students of the college than that which exists today. I well remember being upbraided by Rox for daring to bare my hairy forearms in a class taken by a female lecturer.

It is, however, not as a Principal of the College but as the Queensland Institute representative on the Australian Council for Educational Research from 1939 till 1954 that we remember James Alexander Robinson in this memorial lecture. The early principals of the college played a key role in the Institute and in the ACER for its first twenty-five years. Their efforts in developing educational research at the local level and at the national level through the fledgling ACER should not be forgotten.

A few years ago when I assumed the position of Director-General of Education a number of learned bodies and associations asked me to speak to them on the directions in which I thought education might be moving. Now that I have completed my term of office it seems I am being asked to give accounts of where education has gone in that period, I hope not too many people have the time or the energy to match my later reflections against my earlier prognostications, If one enters the field of prediction it is safer to ensure that your time lines extend well beyond your own allotted life span.

I have entitled this paper "Reflections on the impact of research on educational policy and practice". As a flyer advertising tonight's lecture stated I began my long career in the head office of the Department of Education in the old Research end Guidance Branch. In a paper I gave a couple of weeks ago to the R.A.I.P.A., I traced the growing importance of the research and planning arms of the Department as the Department's functions became more complex, There is no doubt that the servicing of a large department requires extensive backup by such specialist divisions, Whether all that such sections of a department do constitute research in its narrower sense is a different matter. At that state of my career, as opposed to the latter years, I was closely involved in conducting this type of research either at the behest of administrators or in an attempt to provide administrators with some hard data to help better inform their decisions on curriculum and on pedagogy or administrative policy issues, My experience therefore is both as a researcher and as a consumer of research. Let me hasten to add that the level of research in which I was personally involved in those days was relatively unsophisticated and leant heavily in the applied direction, It was concerned with asking relatively simple questions about some aspects of the system and collecting appropriate data in an attempt to answer those questions.

Some examples included:

What is happening to gifted children in our schools?

Which approaches to the teaching of reading are likely to lead to improved practices in our Primary schools?

What words should primary children learn to spell?

What are the educational implications of large numbers of children in our schools being born outside Australia?

How valid and reliable are our methods of setting and marking public examinations at the scholarship and junior levels?

The range of questions which need to be asked in 1987 as opposed to 1958 is much more complex. The ascertainment of what those questions are, their parameters of investigation and the process by which the answers need to be gathered and analysed is considerably more sophisticated today. The number, qualifications and experience of people engaged in educational research today at least in the Queensland State Department of Education is however considerably better than it was thirty years ago. Indeed a comparison of the numbers and quality of people engaged in research in departments, universities and CAE's would I believe considerably exceed those of the 50's. One question that this paper could pose may well be: given all that, is the impact commensurately improved? What indeed is the impact and where does it fall? Some cynics may well answer 'nothing' and 'hardly noticeable'. Others may charge that educational research is incestuous - being conducted, written about and read only by initiated members of a club that excludes for the most part those actually engaged in teaching or in determining policy,

Such accusations are not new. They reflect the age long gap between theorists and practitioners, between idealists and pragmatists, between academics and artisans, between those with time to think and those with hardly enough time to act, between those in the ivory tower and those in the firing line. They reflect also the frustration experienced by the researchers and practitioners because of the inability of either to translate the results of research immediately into practical use.

Broudy writing in the 71st NSSE Yearbook referred to 'the embarrassing discrepancy between mountainous labour of educational research and its mouse-Like results'. In preparing for this presentation tonight I obtained a printout of the publications of the Department of Education or of other agencies is without worthwhile application. An extended research effort over the years has been that connected with the various processes of assessment. The early investigations commenced by Sam Rayner and continued by myself, Norm Alford and later by Barry McGaw and Dick Warry into the scholarship and Junior examinations, the IEA Mathematics Test study, Predictions of Success in Matriculation and University mathematics, the ambitious series of the Year 12 study - all had an effect on the build up towards the Radford Committee's deliberations that led to the abolition of public examinations and the introduction of moderated school based assessment. Following its introduction, the Schools Under Radford study and the funded Campbell study into the operation of Radford in the schools led to the review of school based assessment [ROSBA] and the subsequent modifications to school based assessment and the reporting of student achievement. Certainly these studies cumulatively impacted on both practice and policy. Their findings were the substance of the review. The pity is that there has not been further major research efforts into the use of, or alternatives to, ASAT and into the validity and the effect of the Tertiary Entrance Score procedures particularly given the increased competition for tertiary places and the public and political heat such competition causes, not to mention its effect upon Year 12 students and teachers. No issue impacts more on such a wide area of the educational community and the public generally than does this question of rank ordering of Year 12 candidates, Huge sums of money have been spent on the development of ASAT for use year by year. The mythology arising from data free observations of uninformed and prejudiced critics grows apace and receives credibility by frequent media airings and by seemingly authoritative statements by some who should know better. Yet as an administrator seeking to give informed advice to policy makers at the political level I was reduced mostly to best guessing level. Certainly there have been a number of studies into sex and subject bias but cohesive and coordinated research which could provide a sound basis for changed practice and new policy has been largely absent. No doubt some of the reasons for this include: the difficulty of the whole question of best ranking students, the lack of researchers with knowledge and interest in the area and the lack of funding at a national level for the large scale research needed to investigate such issues.

When I look back on my last ten years in two very senior administrative and policy related positions it is difficult for me to put my finger on any particular research effort that directly influenced the development of a major policy or a significant decision about practice. As one who maintained his level of professional reading fairly well I was no doubt influenced in my thinking by writings based on research. Certainly I relied heavily on data analysis and historical research in preparing Cabinet submissions or in organising briefs for the resource acquisition tasks that were also important parts of my responsibilities. I certainly used this type of research in order to maximise the accuracy of my prediction of events.

In recent years a key issue for educational administrators has been the necessity to demonstrate that increased inputs of money facilities and manpower into education have produced improved outputs or outcomes that are demonstrably related to the increased provisions, In other words what are the indicators of betterment that will convince Treasury and Finance people in a time of diminishing public resources that real benefits are accruing to our students of such an order that continuing funds will be made available.

As educators we have considerable difficulty in answering in a clear and unequivocal way such apparently reasonable questions. There is no need for me to spell out to this audience that the provision of such indicators is fraught with problems, that the control of the multitude of variables that affect human and particularly classroom performance is well nigh impossible to control, Nevertheless we should devote much more attention to such issues than we do.

A good example is research into the benefits or otherwise of reduced class size. Such reductions have required huge injections of recurrent and capital funds into education budgets. The research as to its benefits has for the most part been conducted overseas and is at worst contradictory and at best inconclusive. We have to rely largely on gut feelings and subjective evidence or common sense that small classes are 'a good thing'. My examination of local research reveals little attempt to provide better evidence of what we all profess to believe.

On the other hand much time, money and personal effort are being expended on investigations such as the following

"A Study of the Automaticity of Orthographic and Semantic Information Processing in Word Pair Judgements".

"Conceptual Antecedents and Motivational Tendencies Towards Co-operative Determinance of School/Community Harmonization".

I could go on in similar vein, but I must stress that I an, not arguing against research of this nature even if I can't understand the titles. I am advocating that there ere questions of priority and that researchers and those who counsel them should be aware of the need of their work being relevant to policy makers and practitioners if it is to have some result beyond their own academic satisfaction. The need for care, as Bob Vickery pointed out in his 1985 address to AARE to avoid becoming too locked in to the methodological issues of research to the detriment of the real focus is important, He also argued in that address, and I agree with him, that less sophisticated techniques of analysis and design may be more appropriate to use in investigations provided they are addressing the right questions.

To turn now more directly to the question of the impact of research on policy formulation, as I have mentioned, cynics would say the quick and correct answer to this is 'nil'. Certainly the literature in the area generally agrees that there is little direct relationship between research and policy making. I would like firstly to give my view of what I understand by policy formulation. A policy in the governmental sense is a statement about action to be taken in a particular set of circumstances or in reference to an area of behaviour. It may express the government's objectives in that area. Thus there could be, to take a topical illustration, a government or education department policy on the education of gifted and talented students. The need to formulate a policy in this area might come from increased interest perhaps as a result of research which demonstrates the gifted and talented suffer educational disadvantages resulting from existing educational practices,

The first stage in policy formulation is problem identification or problem finding. As a result of identifying a problem a program is developed which seeks to solve the problem. Research can both assist in identifying the nature of the problem and in providing evidence of the effectiveness of various options which might become pert of the policy developed to overcome the problem. To do this effectively research has to be both aware of and responsive to issues likely to arise in policy discussions.

Let me list some of the key issues of the day:

assessment of students
alienation of students
selection for tertiary education
disadvantage and its effect
equity and/or equality
subject overlap and overload
teacher selection and assessment
teacher and/or school effectiveness
and see if you can as quickly match that listing with significant research effort.

A number of factors mitigate against cohesive and co-ordinated research effort. Much research is done by students for higher degrees following their interests rather than seeking to solve broader problems. Similarly university and other tertiary staff work within their own interests rather than to a particular pattern. The late Bill Radford in that seminal paper published in 1964, A Field for Many Tillings, discussed this issue at some length. There were he said 'relatively few evidences of a consistent and continuing study of a particular problem or range of related problems over period of years .... there is an absence of .... studies which indicate that the research program is directed to the solution or the illumination of a problem or a group of problems'.

This problem of the sixties remains the problem of the eighties. I believe it is time for all institutions with a research capacity to examine their operations, limit their range and choose a few targets for their research effort that will greatly increase their impact and indeed the cumulative wisdom and experience of their staff.

Even where research is meaningful in terms of practice its dissemination still poses great problems. How much wastes away between the blue covers of bound theses or escapes only to be further hidden within the pages of a little read research journal. Coordinated research followed up by a well designed publication and dissemination program aimed at the more widely distributed educational press might have more chance of impact. Nevertheless we are all aware of the mass of printed material, even in the popular press, that doesn't get read! What of personal contact or dialogue between researchers and practitioners. I have no recollection in the latter years of my career of any researcher seeking me out as an administrator to inform me of the implications of his research or even of asking me, who, in my organisation, might it be important for him to talk to so that the results of his hard work might perhaps bear some fruit.

I may appear to have been unduly pessimistic in this paper. If so, it is because I believe that research can play a much more positive role in modifying pedagogical practice and in developing educational policy than it does at present. The administrator believe me, needs all the help that he can get but that help must be in a reasonably ready and usable form. To make this connexion between researcher and administrator more functional there must be some changes on the part of both parties.

I believe the researcher needs to sacrifice some of his independence - his view that the whole research process is conducted independently of outsiders. He needs to ensure at least at times as Helen Hocking says that the questions he addresses are related to problems of concern to policy makers. This requires dialogue between the researchers and the administrators.

In this context I must applaud the recent efforts of the Australian Council for Educational Research led by Dr Barry McGaw. In planning the Council's future program he has engaged in a wide process of consultation with clients and stakeholders. A three year research and development program for a number of themes developed through this consultative process is now in preparation. In this way the ACER will hopefully be more identified by its clients and users end those called upon to support it financially and by using its services will feel some ownership. The theme approach also will focus the future program and avoid too broad a range of effort which previously resulted from responding to disparate and unconnected demands.

There are of course a number of factors which will inhibit improvement in the connexion between research and practice. The lack of a major funding source for educational research such as the former ERDC limits the opportunity for major planned and cohesive research efforts. Reduction in specific purpose programs in the Schools Commission area has also Limited the availability of funds for innovative trials or evaluation studies of school practices. The reduced turnover in tertiary staff has stemmed the flow of young and enthusiastic academics seeking to make a name for themselves as researchers. The tendency in a number of State Departments to reduce Head Office support staff and to concentrate on staffing schools is short sighted and detrimental to the quality of decision making coming from these Departmental as well as reducing the opportunity for training in research. The tough economic times also limit the opportunities for would-be researchers to gain experience in overseas institutions.

While these restricting conditions operate there are a number of pluses that should facilitate the extension of research work and its utilization. Modern technology provides in a much more accessible fashion immense data banks and information systems that are often the very bones of research, The emphasis on effective use of resources calls for investigations into current policies and practices.

The task then for the future is to so organize research that much of it is usable or potentially usable or at least relevant, If such utility can be demonstrated the chances of administrators and policy makers allocating resources for research and seeking to examine the results of research must be increased.

The need for improved practices in educations is self-evident. As public policy issues become even more complex and vested interest pressure groups become more active the need for hard date on which to base decisions or determine policy and practice options becomes more pressing,

To meet this need research needs to be alive and well. Let us do all we can to make it so.

Please cite as: Berkeley, G. F. (1987). Reflections on the impact of research on educational policy and practice. Queensland Researcher, 3(1), 7-18. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/berkeley.html

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Created 19 Mar 2008. Last revision: 19 Mar 2008.
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