Issues in Educational Research Vol 1, 1991: Stanley Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 1991, v-vi.

On the importance of educational research

1990 WAIER Research Forum Opening Address

Professor Gordon V. Stanley
Chief Executive Officer
Western Australian Office of Higher Education

The PM's call for a smarter Australia as a response to the need for a more competitive and successful economy is not atypical. Historically at each point of rapid social and economic change there is a focus on the educational system. Immediately post-World War II there was a demand for higher levels of education as a way of producing a more productive work force. Once again the call is clear and there seems to be general agreement that there should be increased participation. Moreover in the massive exercise of national economic and award restructuring that is occurring there is a central emphasis being placed on education and training.

In the context of all this change there has been a very successful lobby for increasing the research infrastructure for science, medicine, and technology. Unfortunately at the same time there appears to be a total neglect of the need for better funded educational research. Ever since the demise of the Education Research and Development Committee (ERDC) there has not been a national funding source directed specifically at educational research. While the ARC funds education research, in practice very few projects have been funded to people from education faculties.

Despite this, there is evidence that a good deal of thoughtful and worthwhile educational research is being conducted, albeit in less than optimal circumstances and with limited resources. Over the years the State Institutes of Educational Research have provided an important forum for the encouragement and development of educational research. Your program for this forum indicates that the WA Institute For Educational Research plays an important role in ensuring that there is a lively and active research presence in WA.

Research in education is vital if the education community is to rise to the challenges brought by increased participation and equity in the context of microeconomic reform and award re-structuring. Educational research is intellectually demanding and at times very frustrating. The frustration comes from the fact that everyone has certain expectations about your outcomes and if expectations are not met there is a tendency to 'shoot the messenger'. I talk figuratively, though at times the aggression and invective can be a rather unsettling experience for the recipient.

In the absence of good research, opinion and superstition prevail. Of course even in the presence of good educational research the same conditions can apply. While some outcomes are not what people wish to hear, there is a greater likelihood of change to the extent that sound data are available. For example, it is much harder for one to assert that educational standards are falling, if there are good comparative data available which refute this.

Of course the education researcher cannot guarantee the outcome when she or he commences the study. Recently a group in my former Department at the University of Melbourne was engaged in a project on teacher stress in Victoria. It was a project which had considerable interest for all parties, the employer, the employees, the unions and Workcare. Each party had different vested interests in the outcome. This created considerable stress on the research team, but eventually the outcome was a reasonably well designed study. Much of the pressure was taken off by the not surprising result that they were dealing with a complex multidimensional analysis problem. The solution did not yield simplistic general policy oriented outcomes like teachers claiming stress related illness were always faking or that the problem could be solved by reducing class size. This is not to say that there were no useful outcomes, but simply to indicate that many of the fears of the stakeholders were unjustified in that the whole problem could not be sheeted home to a single cause or responsible agent.

Some people become discouraged by the fact that educational research is complex and at times rather messy. Others find in the same complexity and messiness an intellectual challenge and an opportunity to combine creativity and methodological rigour. Rarely does one have adequate control over the variables of greatest influence. Many outcomes are in principle flawed before you start. However by persevering with a problem and attacking it from a number of angles there is an accumulation of knowledge which can be more illuminating than can be obtained by a 'oneshot' approach.

It is good to see the diversity of topics being addressed in this forum, ranging from application of technology to evaluation. Sometimes the sheer diversity of topics being tackled by educational researchers reinforces the view that research in the field is being dissipated over too many fronts. However this is understandable in the absence of large program funding comparable to that expended by health and science ministries. It is vital that educational researchers continue to ensure that issues of relevance and importance are not being neglected. In my judgement the topics to be discussed this weekend indicate that there is a vigorous local research community ready to assist in the process of change confronting education. I take much pleasure in opening your forum and wishing you well for its success.

Please cite as: Stanley, G. V. (1991). On the importance of educational research. 1990 WAIER Research Forum Opening Address. Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), v-vi.

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