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The power and impact of educational research: Where are you?

Dr Philip Deschamp
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WAIER is very proud to announce that Dr Philip Deschamp is the WAIER Fellowship recipient in 2006. He presented this address to Forum participants upon receiving the Fellowship award [ Details ] [ Presentation photo ].

Philip Deschamp
Marble seasons or yoyo crazes commence almost at once in schools across the State. Something must cause this. However, we can be certain that it is not the outcome of education research!

Education crazes (oops), seasons (oops), fashions (still oops), new and more effective teaching methods (that's better) also commence seeming at whim, but again something must cause this. However, we can be equally certain that this also is not the result of education research! How so? Let us consider some examples.


'Russian Reading' (uninterrupted, sustained, silent reading: USSR) swept into our secondary schools some years back. Almost all of them allotted 15 minutes each day to USSR. Why? Were they motivated as a result of research findings showing it to be beneficial? You would have to be teaching this stuff or studying it to believe that.

Years ago we meta-analysed the results of all of the available studies about the effectiveness of USSR and the verdict came out about even. One third said it helped, another third said it hindered and a third said it made no difference. The triumphant power of belief is such that one of the 'researchers' whose study produced a negative impact for USSR post-hypothesised that the experimental group had not regressed as far as they might have done had it not been for the power of USSR! Think about that thinking! It is quite amazing science.

Daily Phys Ed

Daily Phys Ed was (or even is) a similar phenomenon. It claimed backing from research. But you should see it. You would not want to copy it for your high school assignment.

So then why did these 'innovations' get off the ground? 'Well 15 minutes reading gives teachers a break and it might be good for the kids so let's do it. Everyone else is.' 'Getting the kids outside running around can't be bad for them either and it doesn't need much preparation. Most of the schools in the district are doing it.'

Direct Instruction

In many American states the use of direct instruction methods by teachers was mandatory. In WA it was seen as 'of the devil'. It treated teachers as robots and stultified their creativity. The fact that countless sound studies showed that it outperformed normal, teacher prepared lessons was ignored or treated as suspicious in itself. The fact that it worked with able kids, kids from non-mainstream cultures and those having difficulty learning cut no ice. 'We don't like it here and that's all there is to say about it.' Except in Special Ed schools. They used it because their meticulous record keeping showed that it worked.

Open Area Schools

Major WA initiatives in education have been often been undertaken without any research backing, or in defiance of the research results. Open Area schools is a classic example. We began building open area schools in WA at the same time that they were building walls back into them in the USA. They had found them noisier, distracting to students and producing lower standards of education.

WA also led Australia in researching the effectiveness of open area schools. Our research echoed the American findings but that had no impact at all. Could it be that they were less expensive?

Mt Pleasant Research School

Way back before most of us can remember there was a quaint idea in Western Australian education. We tried new ideas before implementing them. We had pilot schools which tested ideas and the outcome of the trials sometimes even affected whether the ideas were introduced to schools generally.

Mt Pleasant Primary School was a special research school where parents had agreed that new ideas could be tested. It was an exciting place to teach. Even then successful ideas did not always get up. A phonetic alphabet approach to teaching reading was shown to out perform traditional approaches to reading, even after allowing for the time needed to transfer back to traditional spelling. However it was not implemented because it was considered to be too radical for most parents.

The Research School went the way of Research Branch, but even when there was a Research Branch in the Department of Education major education initiatives costing tens of millions were initiated without any preliminary research. The selection of 'gifted' students ignored current research into the concept of intelligence. Archaic IQ tests were used that did not discriminate at the top end.

When one such block buster had become so big that it was being taken up by other states a project was undertaken in another state to see if it seemed to be helping kids. To everyone's relief the sums came out the right way up. Great science - post hoc testing of hypotheses!

Is it still happening?

Well how would I know? I'm blissfully playing in other paddocks but in one such paddock I get to see lots of returns seeking feedback about major initiatives. It always delights me when I see a return from a former senior Departmental officer well known for his keen mind and forthright opinions. I can usually guess fairly accurately what he will say because it typically goes something like: 'Show me somewhere in some other part of the world where this approach has been tried and shown to help kids. You can't? Then show me somewhere in another Australian state. You can't? Well show me where you have tested it in this State. You still can't? Well then, why are you implementing it in our schools?' I love this man.

Recently I was present with senior decision makers during discussions about an important initiative. The recommendation was made for a trial in at least one district before it was 'rolled out'. Unfortunately the initiative was too important to allow time for the trial! Am I missing something here?

Where then are the researchers?

You can't be a consultant unless someone consults you. You can't just hire yourself on to their team. Someone must hire you. Until people want your advice it is pretty useless.

Perhaps it is the same for researchers. We love doing research and if you are happy to see it as just a fun activity, go for it. But if you want your research to have an impact on kid's education (yes really!) then someone with potential influence must 'own' the project. They must be in a position to influence major decisions and be willing to do so if the results indicate this is needed.

But researchers and especially this group, the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research, have the status and individual credibility to educate the powerful into the dire consequences of ignoring the available research or of failing to undertake adequate research. You (or perhaps as a result of this surprising Fellowship, we) can lead debate on proposed or even announced initiatives and ask the hard questions (show me somewhere in the world ... questions).

We learn our education statistics, do path analyses of bewildering complexity, even learn to spell 'ethnographic', but if the kids in schools do not benefit is the game worth the candle?

Think for just one minute. Just maybe there are issues in today's schools that could do with some research of the rigour that you can provide. Or some decisions that are impacting on kids that you consider have not been adequately researched - or less naively - have had no research into their benefit to kids.

If you can't think of any, try working in the acronyms typically used to legitimise new ideas. Then as members of this prestigious group, ask where our voice has been during these debates?

Have we challenged decision makers regarding the evidence behind these initiatives? What's to lose? Maybe they would provide funding for such a study. More realistically however, WAIER might leverage participation in trialing future bright ideas.

Will they come to us? Maybe, if we show that we are interested and have a loud and public voice. This is my challenge to WAIER. Raise the practical impact on kids of your/our research. Be a force to be reckoned with in decisions about initiatives in education in WA.

Otherwise your research is academic (using the word pejoratively).

Please cite as: Deschamp, P. (2006). The power and impact of educational research: Where are you? Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2006.

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