HIGHER EDUCATION: You can't sum it up in a soundbite

Debate about education will remain shallow unless we pay more attention to research, says Roger Murphy; Researchers should make their work more accessible: articles in journals should be complemented by more user-friendly accounts in the press
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Educational research is like "a bridge over troubled water". It can transcend the muddled and stormy swings in fashion and ideology in education. It can hold up a vision of how education can be better understood, developed and improved. Like the many beautiful bridges around the UK, good research incorporates creativity, inventiveness, inspiration, courage, attention to detail, scientific principles, and wisdom gained from previous experience. At its best, research can, like those same bridges, be admired for the achievement it represents, and it has practical importance for those who seek to improve the quality of educational opportunities that are available.

Educational researchers are not always popular with politicians and policy- makers, who are often frustrated by what they see as slow progress towards a solution to urgent problems. Good research can be driven by the needs of policy-makers, but it also has to be driven by a longer-term commitment to build up a body of knowledge and understanding of the highly complex nature of educational processes connected with human learning.

As with research in other academic areas, the practical implications of some studies cannot be known until the work is completed, analysed and related to existing theories. Innovative research may lead to unexpected findings, so the extent to which it will have practical consequences is not necessarily fully known until the work is completed. Research findings may also expose uncomfortable matters that some may wish to ignore or suppress. This is why dissemination is so crucial.

One of the strengths of the UK's research base is that many researchers work in higher education, where their work is not dictated solely by immediate policy issues.

In the last national research assessment exercise in 1992, 97 per cent of the education departments in the old universities were rated in the top three grades on a five-point scale, indicating a good measure of excellence in the assessment of their research. Of those departments, 62 per cent gained the top two grades of 4 or 5, indicating substantial areas of international expertise in their search.

Alongside these researchers are those who work in large educational research organisations, such as the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Scottish Council for Educational Research, and a host of other new universities striving to build up centres of educational research.

Given the strength of this research base, it is surprising we do not hear more about research findings in the public debate about education. Ministerial pronouncements, or debates in the House of Commons, rarely refer to research evidence, while newspaper and television reports on educational matters are more likely to quote the ubiquitous Rhodes Boyson.

At one level this is understandable. The media are driven to look for "soundbites"that allow a topical issue in education to be presented with immediate drama and controversy. Researchers, however, often wish to qualify pronouncements, and will point to remaining uncertainties and contradictory evidence. All of that is difficult to handle in a 15- second television interview or a short newspaper article.

The danger is that our public debates about education remain shallow and superficial. Policy can be formed simply on the views and prejudices of those in powerful positions.

If we are to make better use of research, politicians, and the public at large, must be prepared to grapple with the complexities of educational processes. Researchers can help by making their work more accessible. Articles in journals should be complemented by more user-friendly accounts in the press. Researchers must become better at writing press releases and make themselves available for radio and television interviews. One good model of popular dissemination can be seen in the work of the National Commission on Education, which released a volume of summaries of research evidence on various key topics along with its well-established report, Learning To Succeed.

Research during the past 25 years has revealed much about the nature of effective schools, the learning styles of individuals, the influences of background on school performance, the ways in which gender and racial stereotypes can be reinforced or challenged in schools. This research needs to be read, reflected on and built into discussions about the educational future of our nation.

The author is dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Nottingham and this year's president of the British Educational Research Association.