The unanswered questions of educational research

One of my favourite parts of my job is the opportunity to read a range of different educational scholarship, and the chance readings that I sometimes encounter. Earlier this week I came across a reference to an unpublished paper written by John Hattie in 2002 in which he outlined major strategic directions for educational research in New Zealand. While I didn’t find the actual paper, I did find a summary of his suggestions (available at the end of this document). It was a fascinating read, not least because many of the questions or gaps that Hattie identified persist nearly 20 years later. 

Below, I explore some of key questions and areas raised and what these mean for education research moving forward. 

Teaching standards, attracting and retaining teachers, professional pathways and raising the status of teaching. These issues are frequent points of discussion in New Zealand, and currently we have limited empirical evidence to truly understand what is happening or how to develop solutions. How should we approach our continuing teacher shortage, particularly in subjects such as maths, science and Te Reo? How can we improve the status of teaching? What would it take to raise the average GPA of students entering Faculties of Education so that they are not so far behind all other Faculties (at least as is the case at the University of Auckland)?  How could we structure new career pathways for teachers so that we are no penalising (from a financial perspective) our most effective practitioners who want to remain in the classroom rather than advance into managerial and administration roles? What is it that motivates people to consider a career in teaching and what are the barriers? How can we retain more teachers after their first few years in the classroom? How could we offer greater flexibility to teachers to work across different contexts, such as in a school and at the university or at another business or organisation? This final point was something that Hattie particularly picked up on. And from conversations I’ve had with a range of people in education in New Zealand, is something that would be particularly attractive to some teachers. 

What are the “best” teaching practices and how should these be communicated? In many ways there has been considerable progress made over the past two decades in answering this first question, although admittedly there are a range of opinions as to how to conceptualise and measure “best”. What remains largely unanswered, and something that The Education Hub continues to grapple with, is how best to communicate what we know about effective practice (broadly conceptualised) so as to build capacity across the teaching profession and drive improvement at scale.  

What actually is happening in NZ classrooms? This is the very question I asked several weeks ago.  Much of the research on what is happening in schools is small scale and often focused on [teacher and sometimes student] perceptions. While valuable, it does mean that we have little understanding of the diversity of pedagogy, curriculum design and implementation, or assessment practices across New Zealand’s schools, or the relationship between what is happening at the classroom level and outcomes for students. Consequently, too many decisions at all levels of the education system are made on assumption, anecdote or personal ideology, rather than evidence. Hattie further connects this question to the issue of student transience (something that is all too common in our school system), understanding the effects of the decile system, and the increasing bureaucracy faced by teachers and schools (I’m sure most teachers would argue that bureaucracy is even greater now than it was in 2002!). 

The opportunities and impact of partnerships and collaborations. This has been an area of focus for a number of schools across New Zealand in recent years. However, currently, not a lot is known about what these partnerships look like or the impact they are having. As a result, decisions on whether to extend them to new schools or contexts or how they could be improved are challenging to make. 

Curriculum issues. Interesting, the issues Hattie identifies are the opposite of those currently being discussed by certain groups involved in New Zealand education. Hattie, writing prior to the release of the current New Zealand Curriculum, was concerned with how to simplify an overcrowded curriculum, which he believed focused predominantly on subject content knowledge. He was interested in the notion of interdisciplinarity and an integrated curriculum, a current interest for many New Zealand schools, and an area that is certainly under researched. While the specific nature of curriculum discussions may have changed since Hattie wrote this paper, it strikes me that a fundamental curriculum issue has not; that there is very little empirical evidence about effective curriculum design or implementation. Currently, much of the curriculum scholarship remains theoretical in nature, or if empirical, largely small scale and not directly linked to student outcomes. 

Hattie ends with two hugely important questions. The first was, what is the purpose of education? Hattie suggests that we were yet to have a deep and considered national conversation about the purpose of education. As I’ve previously argued, I agree. Every decision we make in education stems from our answer to this question. And yet too often we engage in reform without first deeply interrogating our response to this question or building consensus as to the answer with those involved in the design and implementation of the reform.   

Hattie’s second question was, how do we address the tail? Most data would suggest that we’ve made very little progress overall towards addressing the inequities in our education system over the past two decades. While there have been individual examples of success – at a classroom, school or programme level – of reducing the gap between our highest and lowest performing students and the impact of socio economic status on achievement, progress has not been achieved at scale or with any degree of sustainability. 

So, what does all of this means? Hattie wrote this list as an agenda for research. And it’s true that research could play a more vital role in the improvement of New Zealand’s education system. But several things are needed for that to happen. It is necessary to ensure that: (1) the nature of the research that is occurring (while always remaining diverse) is addressing the questions and issues that really matter; (2) that the research is high quality and robust, providing, among other things, data that are representative of what is happening across the education system; (3) the amount of funding for educational research as well as what that funding is spent on is examined; and (4) that research is not only conducted but also communicated in a way so that it routinely and meaningfully influences policy and practice (as well as the ongoing research agenda). 

This requires far greater collaboration and cooperation than currently is occurring. There is a need for more large scale and ambitious research projects, which bring together diverse academics from education as well as other fields. We need more research that explores the relationship between on the one hand policy decisions and elements of practice – pedagogy, school leadership and school culture, curriculum design, and assessment – and on the other outcomes for students. We need to build true research practice partnerships (RPPs) that enable practice-oriented research, which occurs in collaboration with teachers. And we need to develop a greater focus on education implementation, understanding what it takes to effectively implement effective education in different ways and in different contexts. If we want meaningful change in education, we need to ensure that that change is informed by strong evidence and that there is ongoing research occurring alongside reform initiatives which monitors and iteratively improves the nature of the changes being made.