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

J.E. Fitzgerald
Assistant Director, Research and Curriculum Services, Queensland Department of Education


A great deal of "research" - giving the term its broad definition - is conducted throughout the Department of Education. It occurs in such diverse locations as classrooms, regional offices, seminar sessions, committee structures, and in the various Divisions and Branches of Head Office. The research activities of sections of Head Office sections is the predominant focus of G.F. Berkeley's paper. My response will concern itself for the most part with the program of Research Services Branch of Head Office. I make no attempt in this paper to address, in a systematic way, each specific proposition advanced by Mr Berkeley. I have endeavoured to respond to the general issues which he has raised. Further, it may be that what I have to say may better be described as a view of the issue from another perspective - the perspective of a researcher not a policy maker.

In February 1986 Christopher Skase, the Head of Universal and Telecasters, gave his recipe for success to an AMP Conference in the following terms:

"There is no middle ground in sport, life or business. There is a clear distinction - you win or you lose!"
The demise of Research Services Branches throughout Australia in the last decade might suggest to some that they have been judged to be losers. With the exception of the Queensland Education Department, Research Branches as separate entities have ceased to exist and their previous functions split in most cases between a policy advisory group attached to senior policy makers and evaluators integrated into functional areas such as demography, manpower, financial and curriculum sections. Such actions would tend to suggest that not only does the literature in the area generally agree that there is little direct relationships between research and policy making, but perhaps the actual policy makers do also. While the results of actions taken in other states is clear, namely Research Branches as such are disappearing, the reasons for such action are not documented. On the one hand it could reflect changing priorities and reallocation of resources in difficult economic times. Alternatively it could reflect G.F. Berkeley's call "to so organize research that much of it is usable ..." by embedding the research process in potentially better organizational structures.

Whatever problems exist with the research process in Queensland it is clear that few can be attributed either to the professionalism of the researchers or to the strength of the infra-structures in which they operate. In relation to qualifications and experience, as Berkeley says, research officers are increasingly better qualified and more experienced than they were 30 years ago. Clearly in the case of Queensland these attributes are exceptionally high. Further, Research Services Branch was the focus of reorganisation in the mid 70's when a strong management structure and staffing allocation were established. Since that time Research Services Branch has developed a service pattern where issues of definition of task and negotiation of timelines, procedures, and delivery of information have reached a useful maturity. It is important to highlight that this development and evolution has taken place within a particular Departmental organizational structure with its attendant strengths and limitations. Accordingly any reflections on this service group need to accommodate not only matters internal to the Branch but attributes of the organizational context in which the Branch is located.

The work program of Research Services Branch arises out of clearly established and meticulously-followed procedures of negotiation and authorization. There are three major sources of a research project or program.

The first source of research activity is Departmental committees. Departmental committees are a major vehicle through which the Department formulates and orchestrates its programs. By way of example, Research Services Branch is currently conducting evaluation studies for the Satellite Trial Implementation Committee, the Primary Curriculum Committee, the Religious Education Advisory Committee, the Gifted and Talented Committee, the Policy Advisory Committees for Distance Education and Senior Colleges, the Departmental P-10 Committee and the Departmental Computer Committee. The nature of specific evaluations [including such matters as purposes, design, level of detail, method of reporting and timelines] is formulated by the committee and the researchers. The usual procedure then followed is for the researcher to participate, in a formative way, in the business of the committee. As data becomes available on issues it is fed into the Committee, through the agenda, by way of brief written reports. At the conclusion of such studies the data is compiled, where appropriate, into a final report for publication and general distribution.

The second source from which requests for evaluation arises is senior officers of the Department, the Director-General, Assistant Directors-General, or Directors acting on behalf of their Divisions are the specific requesting officers. An analysis of studies requested during the past twelve years indicates that relatively few requests come from senior officers in comparison with those emanating from committees. Significant exceptions are major series of evaluation studies which were conducted during the mid to late 1970's on behalf of the Director of Preschool Education and the Director of Special Education.

The third source of activity relates to the unique function of the Branch and responsibilities allocated to it as a consequence. In this category we note the well-established programs relating to the periodic surveys at Years 5 to 7 Levels and the Year 7 October Testing Program. Also included is a monitoring brief on evaluation studies in other states and the maintenance of a test catalogue. In recent years the Director-General has, in conjunction with Directors-General from other States, re-activated a co-operative endeavour designed to ensure the installation of quality testing materials in classrooms throughout Australia. The program, entitled the Australian Co-Operative Assessment Program, depends heavily on the contribution of Research Services Branch. Directors-General are presently evaluating the impact of this program.

While there are many ways by which the activities of Research Services Branch may be analysed the above decision-making model indicates a point of importance: namely, that all research activities are authorised and monitored through relevant officers or groups - usually groups - within Departmental structures, There are no 'personal' projects, that is projects conceived and conducted by an officer out of the mainstream of decision making structures. The appropriate genesis and approval of all current projects - without any exception - can be vouched for.

The role of senior branch staff in this process is critical. Senior staff directly concerned with Branch administration under the direction of the Director, Curriculum Services, are the Assistant Director [Research and Curriculum Services], the Principal Education Officer I and two Principal Education Officers II. Three important functions are served by this group. The first is participation in research projects in accord with the specialised skills of the officers and the priority of the project in a Department context. The second is to ensure the relevance of Branch programs to client needs through appropriate linking discussions. The third function concerns priority setting and management. In the light of Berkeley's paper the latter two functions require some elaboration.

Rationalisation, consolidation and priority setting are critical functions in a circumstance where a relatively small and specialised service group is required to address the needs of a large number of clients requiring evaluation data, These data are located in complex circumstances and are difficult and time-consuming to extract, problematic in their analysis, end challenging to report appropriately. An across-the-board examination of Research Services Branch programs should reveal balanced attention to high priority Departmental tasks. Detailed attention to low priority issues is a waste of resources, as is lack of attention to key Departmental initiatives. Senior officers of the Division are constantly vigilant in this regard. In recent years there has been a dramatic shift in the pattern of curriculum initiatives undertaken by the Department. Senior Colleges, P-3 Schools, P-10 Curricula, 1-10 Maths and Computers in the Curriculum, are all emerging initiatives. They are uncharted territories and have critical implications for education. Appropriate evaluation services must be available to inform both policy and practice.

In the 70's, when Research Services Branch was in the early stages of developing a 'style' of addressing issues which were current then, experimental and quasi- experimental designs tended in general terms to characterise evaluation activity. Once an issue was designated as a focus for evaluation, a relatively well-defined procedure was set in train. Educational research and evaluation were in the process of aspiring to be "hard science". The key texts of researchers were Campbell and Stanley and Gage. Hamilton had not written beyond the numbers game, Eliot had not conducted the Ford Teaching Project and Stenhouse and Stake had not written on case studies. The agenda for the Conferences of Research Officers focused on multivariate analyses and at lunch-time discussions in the Research Branch of the Queensland Department the elegance of "quarter matrix rotation of eigen values" was explored. Reports were impressive, if not timely, and reflected the self imposition of the canons of the positivistic research paradigm.

Also evident in the research process at this time were the traditions of the small administrative unit from which Research Branch had grown and emerged as a separate and specialised group. These traditions encompassed concerns for the highest quality in all written communication, and a responsibility required of supervisory officers for details of data reported.

The explicit and tacit audience for research was, therefore, a somewhat problematic issue. An officer conducting a research project may well have had a number of audiences in mind when writing the report. These could include not only the client group but perhaps two or three supervisory officers anyone of whom could, and often did, request changes to the draft. In addition, the requirements of the scientific research paradigm, in which virtually all officers were trained, would have had its own influence. The resultant effect of all this was that occasionally, or often, the client was not getting the information required at a time when best use could be made of it.

This has all changed dramatically. As Berkeley points out the research issues are no less difficult and, if anything, are more complex. What has changed however is the nature of the research process applied to the educational issues, the development of greater skill in priority setting and in the procedures used in relating to clients.

The research process is now viewed more eclecticly. As far as research methodologies are concerned, the contention that the only true method is the scientific method has been well-explored and the relevance of a broad spectrum of methodologies to particular educational issues is widely accepted. Successive approximation of issues utilising appropriate methods now typifies most of the Research Services Branch's projects. Issues are usually opened out gradually and continuously in conjunction with the client groups

Most reporting is through brief specific reports to the client groups which address particular issues. Final reports codify accumulated knowledge and are distributed as widely as is considered useful. Where appropriate, computer data bases are compiled and can be accessed easily and quickly.

Attributes of the above can be illustrated by way of personal examples at the time of writing. Aspects of six recent research projects come immediately to mind. Any one of these is probably not of shattering proportion but each is grist to the mill, and, I would argue, a contribution of importance in a field where advances are difficult and hard-won.

The first, and probably the most minor of the experiences, concerned information requirements on the computer hardware end software holdings in four schools. The information was required in order to make an assessment of the capacity of these schools to participate in an experimental communication network. Information could have been obtained by telephone, As we know, however, schools have been surveyed from a number of sources on their computer holdings and further requests of this nature must, even among the more accommodating of Principals, be regarded with some despondency. Further, prior information on resources enables contact to be made and negotiations to be entered into with full knowledge of the school's resource strengths and deficiencies. The very large, and current, data file on computer holdings in schools was easily accessed by an officer of Research Services Branch and accurate information provided. It touches also on the use of the "immense data banks and information systems that are often the very bones of research" to which Berkeley refers.

The second example relates to Applied Studies Courses for students in Years 11 and 12 currently being developed to ensure greater relevance of courses to the changing characteristics of the student population at this level. A research officer and I had jointly collected data on the impact of these offerings in a limited number of schools. The research officer had continued on to collect data from a wider sample along semi-structured interview lines. Aspects of the development of courses were being undertaken by officers working in an international curriculum development forum involving Alaskans, Japanese, Hawaiians, New Zealanders and Canadians. On Friday 8 May, I was involved in an unexpected teleconference on this issue and reported on responses of schools to these trial courses. On Monday 11 May, the research officer had returned from the field and I indicated the status of international curriculum development work and the importance of her data to their deliberations. Within 48 hours a ten-page report on students', teachers' and administrators' perceptions of offerings had been prepared and faxed to facilitate deliberations. The report was an appropriate indication of trends, and curriculum developers were advised that fine-tuned analysis was to follow. The report was valuable in correcting certain misconceptions of the developers and in focusing further action on key points of intervention. Reporting was timely, based on good-quality data well-analysed and competently reported on, and facilitated further informed curriculum activity.

My third example is in the area of mathematics. Approximately eight weeks ago the Departmental P-19 Committee called for information on the progress of the trial of the Years 1-10 Maths Syllabus. Teachers of the trial syllabus at four primary and four secondary schools as well as Regional Maths Advisory Teachers were interviewed. The purpose of this aspect of the evaluation was to seek to identify issues emanating from the trial of the Maths Syllabus. This was done and a preliminary report prepared and discussed - the forum being myself, mathematics curriculum officers and the research team. The meeting was very profitable. It opened up the flow of information and generated a number of follow-up actions. These emerging issues have been described in a succinct and appropriately-written report and will form the basis of discussion at the next meeting of the Department P-10 Committee. Further action will be generated jointly through cross-fertilisation of the needs of the P-10 Committee and the tentative research design.

Fourth, a three day Language Arts seminar was held recently (18, 19, 20 May) for teachers in "network" schools throughout the State. Approximately 32 teachers along with three curriculum officers and one officer from Research Services Branch, were involved. The nature of teacher involvement through the network is that they are to generate with assistance insights, suggestions, papers and resources on agreed-upon areas of investigation in the Language Arts field. It became evident on Day One that the process was not achieving its potential. It was determined that the teachers had a need for better insights into the now well-documented and utilised action-research process. Three officers from Research Services Branch were then enlisted to enable four small workshop groups to address concepts and procedures from action research as they applied specifically to the issues they were investigating. My interactions with the groups on Wednesday 20 May indicated that the exercise was highly successful.

Performance indicators were also the focus of recent attention. At the request of the Conference of Directors-General, a small group, including representation from Queensland, is to be convened at short notice to prepare a draft paper which might assist the Directors-General take an appropriate stance on the issue of international cooperation in this area. A group within Research Services Branch has been addressing the matter of coalescing indicators around key themes or issues from a range of studies. The purpose of this exercise is to enable policy makers to obtain insights into broad trends with a view to facilitating decision making. The matter of indicators clustered on an issue was also addressed by officers of Research Services Branch at the Queensland Institute of Senior Education Officers Annual Conference in June where the relationships between education and the world of work were explored empirically - data being derived from a range of studies undertaken in recent years by Research Services Branch.

Finally, in the week commencing 11 May, officers of Research Services Branch visited a school which had requested assistance in its endeavors to obtain better and more objective procedures and measures for monitoring its programs and performance. Research Services Branch has gained considerable experience in recent years in this process through co-operative work with the Western Australian Department of Education in school settings. This activity has the status of a formal project conducted under the auspices of Australian Go-operative Assessment Project.

Considerations are now being given to the provision of appropriate assistance and/or the inclusion of the school in the research network.

The purpose of the above examples is to provide some images of the nature and style of the work of Research Services Branch. It is to be noted that these are personal examples and provide insights into a restricted and random selection of activities. Many conclusions might be drawn from the descriptions and the prior analysis. In the context of this paper I would draw out the following for your consideration:

  1. Research Services Branch services a wide range of clients - many at various policy-advisory levels and some at practitioner level;

  2. Research Services Branch has reflectively evolved out of its own significant contexts and puts high value in current circumstances on achieving a good mix between speed in the provision of information and the professional conduct of the task;

  3. Research Services Branch is highly self-reflective and is continuously endeavouring to provide a balanced and consolidated service on priority issues;

  4. Research Services Branch is responsive to requests for assistance - assistance which is generally sought on short notice. Adjustments are then made to the nature and detail of the attention given to the various aspects of its program.

  5. Research Services Branch demonstrates a unique and specialised professional role in the educational enterprise and is able to respond well to the varied service requests which draw on this role;

  6. Research Services Branch's program is, currently, predominantly "evaluative" [providing information on a program or an emerging design] in nature;

  7. Research Services Branch engages in a wide variety of research activities.
To me the crux of the issue concerning the impact of research on educational policy and practice relates to what Berkeley refers to as the first stage in policy formulation, namely, problem identification or problem finding. A researcher addressing a trivial issue is wasting time. Further, ritualistically-applied, inappropriate research methodologies are also a waste of time. I believe that we have made substantial progress on this latter issue but I acknowledge the concern expressed in relation to the matter of the selection and delineation of research problems.

What then are priority problems and what are the processes by which they can be adequately identified and specified? It is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle questions relating to priorities from considerations of who is the client for the research. Berkeley cites examples of what he designates to be 'relatively simple' questioning: "What is happening to gifted children in our schools?', and 'What words should primary children learn to spell?" While acknowledging that designations of issues as being important are located in the contexts in which discussion occurs, it could be argued that the two questions above are, in systemic terms, complex, difficult and important.

It would appear that we know very little about what is happening to the gifted in our schools. Further, it would take a long and resource intensive study to yield meaningful data. Whether or not Bob Ansett is well-informed on the educational scene may be open to question, but the fact remains that as a major employer and high-profile businessman in Australia he says "Australian education was teaching for mediocrity and achieving it ... Those who achieved are not encouraged to get ahead." [Courier Mail 1.5.87 p.1]. Within the educational community the USA Report "Nation at Risk" echoes similar statements. In times of severe economic difficulty, and with unemployment circumstances and high retention rates as they are, the education of the gifted and of the burgeoning numbers of non-tertiary-bound students are complex and critical challenges.

In a similar way the issue of spelling, particularly when seen in the context of the skill of the school leaver as described by the employer, must be a major concern for educators. As with most educational issues there are no easy answers to the teaching of spelling and the remediation of difficulties. Research and debate continue in such areas as:

On the matter of lists, Rindsland has engaged in substantial analyses of children's written communication through sophisticated computer programs. From these analyses he has formulated word lists for teaching based on the evidence that the words listed were words of high-frequency usage at the levels he specified. No similar [i.e. in terms of the extent of the sample analysed and the purported validity of the study] base has been established in Australia and the lists utilised in Australia are either based on limited survey data [many of which are dated], judgment samples, high-frequency words occurring in reading texts which are dubiously correlated with words used in writing], vocabulary development related to spelling activities [probably overlapping sets], word lists in commercial texts written for USA students - the cultural mismatch being a cause for concern, or, finally, clustering of words to illustrate phonemic/graphic principles. How important is this cluster of issues? Clearly it concerns employers and parents if importance is measured by letters to the editor.

The vexing question of subject overlap is cited by Berkeley as a priority problem. In recent years many analyses of overlap in the curriculum have been undertaken. Some of these were reasonably detailed but had little impact on redressing the problem. There are, no doubt, many reasons for lack of remediating action. It could be said, however, that in the circumstances in which the analyses were conducted, the task of following through and achieving worthwhile results may well have not been cost-effective. It can be argued that, in the present Queensland context, the issues identified in relation to curriculum overlap are simply one set of indicators of a general cluster of problems. These inter-related problems probably need to be addressed on a broad front if change is to be effective - even on any one component part. Currently the Department is doing just that. It is engaged in a re-conceptualisation of its curriculum from first principles. In so doing it will be a relatively easy task to avoid unnecessary content overlap. Importantly, however, it will enable joint consideration of other critical considerations including purpose, scope, continuity, assessment, relevance, integration and balance in the curriculum. It would seem that this constitutes a major research program of first order importance to the Department.

As a research task the domain of the problems is clear. Audiences and clients for data are also clearly evident. Receptivity to data by clients is high. The climate for the research task is excellent. Climate for research data can range from "no-interest" through "receptive" to "positively encouraging" and "positively demanding". In the context of present curriculum renewal the decision makers, the researchers and the developers perform overlapping functions in a known time-frame on a focused task. In such a circumstance the climate for appropriate research data may best be described as "positively demanding". Further, the circumstances enable all issues to be seen in relative perspective. Such issues include spelling, the gifted, the non-tertiary-bound student, the place of computers in the curriculum, assessment procedures in new curriculum structures and changed in institutional provisions. Overall priorities can then be set for the research program.

Clearly, any research program will be able to address a relatively small number of priority issues no matter how well it is conceptualised and managed. It is a deep and continuous concern of officers in Research Services Branch to delimit the research program to a small number of high-priority targets. In Berkeley's words "Limit the range of choice to a few targets". In practice this is exceedingly difficult. An organisational service group, particularly one that deals in information brokerage, is particularly vulnerable to requests for service which cannot be refused. "Defence or informer" studies often assume a relatively urgent status and a very high priority in this regard. Key decision makers often require accountability date on specific issues or programs at short notice. These studies generally proceed and the base of the research program broadens. While all are aware of the problems resulting from such action, in practice, it is a matter of adjusting the program to accommodate changing requirements.

As indicated at the outset, the above is as much a view of the issue from another perspective as it is a response to the particulars of G.F Berkeley's argument. In this regard many of the specific points made by Mr Berkeley remain unexplored and deserve treatment in other forums.

Please cite as: Fitzgerald, J. E. (1987). Response to the J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture delivered by G.F. Berkeley. Queensland Researcher, 3(1), 23-35. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/fitzgerald.html


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