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Response to the J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture delivered by G.F. Berkeley

Professor Glen Evans
Department of Education
University of Queensland


George Berkeley's address clearly underlined an important value position - that policy and practice can and should be informed by research findings. The paper is valuable in that it provides feedback to the educational research community on how well this has been done from a unique vantage point - from one who has perceived the need for, and has had a keen interest in, informing policy and practice with reliable research based knowledge, and who has been in a position to use such knowledge.

From this vantage point, the address provided an analysis of some of the studies which have been undertaken and of the organization of research in Queensland, and, to some extent, of educational research in general. It claimed many shortcomings: it is difficult to identify useful research results, or at least to demonstrate their usefulness; the costs of research seem to be too high for the apparent benefits; there seems to be little direct relationship between research and policy; there is a lack of research devoted to issues of current importance to educational policy makers; the research effort is too diffuse - there is a need for more focus and fewer individually chosen research topics within research establishments, and possibly between them; there is a need for more collaboration between researchers and policy workers; and there is need for better and more usable dissemination to policy makers and practitioners, including more on a face to face basis.

These are, at the least, challenging conclusions. The paper does of course quote exceptions. A diligent protagonist of educational research could, I believe, find many more exceptions to ameliorate the rather poor report card which Mr Berkeley has given us. That is not the purpose of this response. It is rather to use the analysis made in the paper in order to develop a framework for looking at the role of educational research that is somewhat wider then he has used.

Part of that framework involves a shift in perception. The paper depicts policy makers, teachers, and other practitioners as consumers of research, just as most of us are consumers of motor cars and sliced bread. I want to argue that they are also instigators and doers of research, and that educational researchers, conversely, also have a role as instigators of policy and practice. The research-development-dissemination model and the producer-consumer analogy, like garments made for other people, fit the educational enterprise only occasionally. I don't think Mr Berkeley would disagree with these assertions, but they are far from explicit in the paper.

The second way in which I would wish to expand the framework concerns what is taken to be the nature and use of educations research. The paper depicts research as being mainly concerned with informing end evaluating policy, and as being usable for decision making on issues at hand. Books, journal articles, and reports should be accessible for information which is more or less directly translatable to the present circumstances; commissioned end Departmental research should provide reliable information in time for it to be useful. Where there is a conflict between punctuality and thoroughness of scope, punctuality should be the most important, although not at the expense of accuracy and care. I believe that, for an important proportion of the research effort George Berkeley is right. There should be punctual, usable, research of this kind. It is essential, however, to remember that these are not the only kinds of educational research, or the only functions.

First, apart from improvements in the efficiency of educational practices and policies and helping to decide between alternatives under current ways of thinking, educational research itself ought to have an educative function. Its findings, concepts, and approaches should help change the policy maker and the practitioner as much as they help change particular policies and particular practices. There have been some successes in this aspect. Contemporary research on evaluation and assessment, for example, in Queensland as much as elsewhere, has considerably changed our viewpoints of how to judge a program or a student's achievements in school. Few policy makers would now even think of evaluating an educational program solely on a restricted range of conveniently measurable outcomes; Mr Berkeley's own analysis of educational research in the address reflects just this change in orientation. Few teachers any longer think that results on end of term tests are all there is to education. Further, teachers now have many of the skills and knowledge to teach for other desirable outcomes. Teachers and policy makers alike owe their skills and knowledge, in part, to the origin of the ideas they use in educational research. The challenge is to use research more comprehensively as a basis for, and as a process of, professional education and development.

Educational research has a second important function. It should be proactive. It should be able not only to inform decisions within a particular view of education, but it should be capable of changing the dominant viewpoint. 1he success of the Mt Gravatt reading scheme, for example, is not based only on a view of helping to improve reading as a way of coding written symbols into language - the dominant view of the past era. It is based on the knowledge won from research that experience in language use and in the kinds of events to be read about themselves facilitate the understanding of written language. Reading research has helped this kind of knowledge to be taken on as a viewpoint among teachers generally. It frequently happens, indeed, that we take on viewpoints about education without being aware of their precise origins in research.

Policy makers, teachers, and educational researchers are frequently reactive. Explicit policy is more frequently written as the response to an issue than as a guide to ensuring future benefits. Teachers often see a reason for changing their methods, or schools their organization, only when there is a critical situation. Educational researchers are exhorted to undertake research on such current issues - and so they should. But how can we benefit from the pro-active capacity of research? It is towards this end that Mr Berkeley's exhortation for collaboration could be more profitably applied. Queensland has in the past two decades seen many educational changes - in school based assessment, in the curriculum of pre-school, in the P-10 curriculum design in a variety of program changes at the school level, and in inservice and pre-service teacher education. Each of these could have benefited from collaboration between policy makers, practitioners, and researchers at the point of conception, or even before that when there were signs of change. Nor is the question always to evaluate how a particular program can be best implemented.

Sometimes the question should be concerned with the assumptions underlying the proposed action. Frequently these assumptions are value laden, but also frequently they are capable of analysis, assisted by previous research findings, of feasibility end likely utility. Researchers deserve a role in this analysis.

This response might end with a further example which illustrates this last point. One of the critical features determining school achievement is how students learn and what it is they choose to focus on in their learning. Yet, in spite of great advances in research, concern with learning processes seems to be remarkably absent from much curriculum development and inservice teacher education. It is perhaps time that this important dimension of educational activity was brought out as a dominating theme involving researchers, teachers, administrators, and policy makers in a joint effort of analysis and experimentation. Such a focus could well involve most segments of the profession. Mr Berkeley has enjoined us to greater collaboration and focus. Students' learning would be an excellent place to start.

Please cite as: Evans, G. (1987). Response to the J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture delivered by G.F. Berkeley. Queensland Researcher, 3(1), 36-39. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/evans.html


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