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 Capacity building resources

Educational Research and policy: epistemological perspectives


Aim of this resource
'What works'
Systematic reviews (web resources)
Generic issues
Large scale population studies
Case study
Stories and narratives
Action research
Philosophical enquiry
Re-imagining educational research



by Lesley Saunders, Senior Policy Adviser for Research, General Teaching Council for England and Visiting Professor, Institute of Education, London

There are many reasons to welcome this collection of materials and to applaud the support given by the Directorate of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) for the work which has led to its production.  The TLRP has been concerned with the question of how to demonstrate the ‘warrant’ of its wide range of research projects, not only to satisfy the complex but intrinsic obligations of educational research as a multidisciplinary field but also to fulfill the expectations of decision-makers in education – from classroom teachers to ministers of state – for assurance and practical guidance about what sorts of knowledge and evidence they can have legitimate confidence in. 

These are wholly defensible, indeed desirable, expectations on the part of those charged with either teaching or policy-making, given the amount of so-called research which is accessible and downloadable from the internet.  As Conor Galvin’s work has made plain (Galvin 2003, 2004, 2005) the opportunities (temptations, even) for policy and practice to be based on info-nuggets and evidence-lite, even downright misinformation, are growing all the time.  I have argued elsewhere (for example, Saunders 2004, 2007) that, however hedged about with theoretical and practical reservations and qualifications, the rationalist ideal in public decision-making is to be cherished.  The alternative is that public life would be dependent on revealed and/or idiosyncratic knowledge and there would be no bulwark even in principle against opportunism, corruption, ignorance, solipsism and collective amnesia. So the question of ‘warrant’, the assurance that the grounds of our belief are solid under our feet, is crucial to the continued and strengthened influence of educational research on education in an increasingly competitive knowledge market-place. 

To judge by the approaches that have been taken by different TLRP project teams to warranting their findings, this assurance may be thought rest on, for example, the protocols of peer review, on methodological propriety, on analytical cogency and/or on the utility and plausibility of the research findings and messages for non-research audiences.  The materials in this collection – and more especially the chapters to be published in the Journal of Philosophy of Education -- attempt to place these different approaches in a more general and theoretical context and, in so doing, to fulfill two rather different needs.  The first is to set out – for non-specialists – the underlying reasons why different kinds of research in education can and should be deployed as forms of trustworthy knowledge, together with the conditions under which they may be trusted.  This has entailed saying some very interesting and useful things along the way about the contexts, criteria, underpinning values, constraints and limitations, and the making of meanings, in educational research. The second need is to explicate some specialist topics and issues about the enduring concerns of ‘validity’, generalisability’, ‘truth’, ‘evidence’ and ‘knowledge’, in order to advance the collective professional understanding amongst what is a very diverse research community in education.

A sub-text for both these purposes was the felt need by several of the writers to take several steps back from the ‘what works’ discourse that, with the extended exchanges between its proponents and critics, has managed to colonise much educational research writing over the last ten years.  In the course of the stimulating discussions that went into the writing of the present papers, I suggested that this discourse – and perhaps particularly the ‘strong’ version of it – was not wholly nor deliberately created by policy-makers who, in my experience, continue to commission and to take more or less notice of a whole variety of qualitative and quantitative research studies.  In any case, I think it behoves us as scholars to treat the issue of policy ‘texts’ as highly problematic:  what a minister says in a speech which is going to be widely reported and whose main audience is not the one in the room is not necessarily to be taken as the worked-out and believed-in policy position that is being elaborated, negotiated, tinkered with, and woven into or interrupted by people’s behaviours and practices in a variety of textual and oral ‘spaces’.  In such spaces research has plenty of room for manoeuvre and influence.

I think it is arguable that educational research production, dissemination and engagement has developed considerably over the ten years or so since the Hargreaves and Hillage challenges – which were thrown down as much to the ‘users’, funders and commissioners as to the producers of research, and to which the TLRP was itself a response, unprecedented in scope and scale.  Moreover, there are large numbers of researchers working in government and other national policy organisations in education (as well as in the private sector), and an increasing proportion of teachers are becoming research-active – educational research is no longer (if it ever was) the prerogative of universities.  We can no longer (if we ever could) construct ‘the Other’ with confidence that we know wherein the defining differences between research and policy and practice lie.

Of course, many problems continue to wrong-foot the relationship between research and policy, among them:

  • the misdiagnosis of what research can deliver for policy (probably both less and more than may be claimed by either side on any given occasion);
  • the very different ‘discourse communities’ of policy and research, where even what counts as an askable question may not be held in common;
  • the lack of opportunities for encounters and conversations between policy-makers and researchers in which meanings might be co-constructed;
  • different timelines and timescales:  for example, the rate of ‘policy turnover’ (in terms of substance and/or personnel) compared with the time it takes to set up, undertake, complete and report a research study;  or the point in the policy cycle at which research is expected to make a particular kind of contribution;
  • the proliferation of research outputs in journals, books, websites, with which other researchers (let alone policy-makers) cannot keep up to date: ‘selectivity’ must be a relative term;
  • different or unclear criteria for what can count as evidence.

It is this last issue with which these materials are most concerned, of course, but it proved difficult to exclude entirely from consideration the way other factors impinge on the central epistemological issues, just as it seemed impossible to talk about ‘policy’ without thinking ‘politics’.  But my impression is that decision-makers remain hungry for evidence and ideas: when conditions are right, research can deepen, open up or even disrupt current policy thinking, and be welcomed for doing so.

Two things in particular therefore strike me about this collection: one is the sense I get (and I hope readers will too) of educational research, in its fullest and deepest exemplification, being practised as an art and a craft as well as a science.  Since I regard both teaching and policy-making in this light too, it suggests to me that there can be meetings of minds in imaginative as well as rational ways and spaces.  The trope or turn towards ‘storying’ in research, which many of the writers discuss, therefore seems to me to be very important to emphasise:  narrative feels like an innate human need and capacity which we (quasi-)intuitively bring to bear even on the most unadorned numerical datasets.  If a story is trustworthy and recognisable, there is an immediate generalisability to be derived from the very act of recognition.  Moreover, part of the ‘storying’ impulse is to complicate simple notions of ‘cause-and-effect’, to make patent the contingent and contextual, and to reveal the intentions, beliefs, values and attitudes, as well as the actions, of the different characters/agents.  In the human and social sciences, it cannot be scientific to ignore them.

The second thing that struck me may be less immediately obvious to readers, although I was delightedly able to witness it in our meetings, and this is the power of the encounter – the dialogic way in which knowledge and understanding are created and developed, and become common property through principled debate.  I think one result of this can fairly be described as the ‘philosophical composure’ which a member of the group commended as being one of the affordances – or shall we say gifts? – of philosophy which all educationists should hope to receive. The moral for me is plain: much more attention and resource needs to be devoted to creating occasions for encounters between researchers and policy-makers within a discursive and ethically-attuned public space.  I hope these papers prompt such thoughts in others too.


GALVIN, C. (2005). ‘But all the wrong people are here… : wired networks , social capital and the making of public policy in a digital age.’  British Educational Research Association Executive Away-Days, 10-11 February.

GALVIN, C. (2004). ‘The making of public policy in a digital age: some reflections on changing practice’.  Paper presented at Market Research Society Conference ‘Social Policy Research in the Information Age’, London, 17 February.

GALVIN, C. (2003)..  ‘The new public life; wired communities and the creation of education policy in a digital age.British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Edinburgh, 10-13 September.

SAUNDERS, L. (2004).  Grounding the Democratic Imagination:  Developing the Relationship between Research and Policy in Education.  Professorial Lecture.  London: Institute of Education.

SAUNDERS, L. (forthcoming, 2007). (Ed) Educational Research and Policy-making:
Exploring the Border Country Between Research and PolicyLondon:  Routledge.



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