Education research for the broader public good

Six years ago John Willinsky* wrote that the value of education research will be judged not only by the degree to which it is “likely to be used in practice” or whether it can “help with the communication problem” between researchers and policymakers. Education research, he argued, will also be judged on its contribution to the quality of general public understanding. It will be judged on what it offers to the larger public conversation over why and how schools matter.

Education research can and should be much more than a source of practical suggestions for teachers, Willinsky said. It should serve as an intelligible source of public education and political deliberation.

Education research should offer the public a source of information that’s an alternative to the increasing corporate concentration within the media, he argued. It should play a more dynamic role in “leveling the informational playing field of an educational politics that is increasingly swayed by interest groups.”

Education research can help raise the level of public discussion surrounding state referendums on topics like bilingual education and affirmative action. It can provide touchstones for debates over mathematics standards, the impact of high-stakes testing, and voucher programs.

The subtext of Willinsky’s article was: It ain’t happening yet.

Is it happening in 2007 ?

The improved diffusion of research knowledge that Willinsky proposed is not about informing every voter on every educational issue. Rather, it’s about “whether the social sciences could do more to counter the dumbed-down politics often associated with mass media coverage of election ‘races.'”

Improving student achievement, reducing achievement gaps, and reallocating scarce resources (good teachers, well-equipped classrooms, and other educational opportunities) calls for more than translating the best research into the best practice, Willinsky noted. It requires the advocacy of dedicated leaders and interests groups, all of whom could be better informed by better access to the relevant research.

In his 2001 article Willinsky pointed out that the technologies used by educational researchers have been largely directed at data-gathering and analysis, with some attention given to supporting scholarly collaboration and publishing.

Willinsky argued for a much expanded model of research communication and outreach. It would be supported by what he envisioned as a website portal for public and professional engagement with the relevant research in the context of policy and practice.

Now, six years later, researchers and communicators have tools including blogs, RSS news feeds, podcasts, videocasts, and wikis, among other things. They can be incorporated into a communication strategy that will make research findings more broadly available and accessible in the public forum.

“The question is not whether everyone has access to computers,” Willinsky said. “Access to information resources will always be unequally distributed. The question is whether the Internet can do significantly better than print, as now appears to be the case, in helping more people gain access to research that can make a difference to their lives.”

Of course it can. And every day more researchers and communicators are taking up the challenge.

* Source: John Willinsky, “The Strategic Education Research Program and the Public Value of Research.” Educational Researcher, Vol. 30 No. 1, pp. 5-14, January/February 2001

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