One of the newest members of our Research Divison reports back from his first BERA experience, held this year in Brighton, where he learnt more about how research can influence education policy and practice.
I’m a recent convert to education research (you can find out more about my background here), so this year’s BERA conference in Brighton was the perfect opportunity to find out about the latest research in this very active field. I attended many talks over the three days, covering a range of subjects. A strong theme I picked up was how research can influence education policy and practice.
Some presentations addressed this by using experimental designs. Comparing ‘experimental’ groups to ‘control’ groups should indicate whether an intervention had any effect. For example, I saw a fascinating study where some students were taught maths in mixed attainment groups, and others were taught in sets based on attainment. When the final results are available, they will provide valuable evidence for this important issue. But given the complexities involved in social research, there are concerns that experimental approaches might not always be possible or appropriate.
Others addressed the issue by producing detailed qualitative data and then deriving general lessons from it. I attended a number of talks taking this approach, on a wide range of topics. One such talk that really struck a chord carried out interviews with students from working-class backgrounds in higher education, asking what factors influenced their path through education. Positive experiences in Primary education and strong support from teachers at secondary school seemed vital. However, the question sometimes arose as to how findings could be scaled up; were they determined by the specific situation?
Throughout the conference, these broader questions popped up. How can detailed studies from individual students or schools be generalised? Given the unique context in which each school operates, would an intervention that works in one school work in others? How can the strong evidence base influence policies?
These questions interested me because of the parallels to my background, having spent nearly 10 years working in conservation research. In that field, I analysed datasets, looking for patterns, identifying relationships, and linking these to on-the-ground interventions. But in the wider field, there are also people managing sites, carrying out experiments, and summarising evidence. And it is vital that these different groups work together to provide a sound evidence base. But although the topic is very different, the parallels between research in education and conservation really struck me.
From my perspective, as in conservation, the most effective way to influence policy and practice is to bring together the diverse skills and interests in the wider field. We need detailed qualitative research that tells us about experiences of teachers and students. We need experiments to examine effects of interventions. We need analysis of big datasets to identify patterns and trends. And these should all feed into one another: qualitative work generates hypotheses for experiments, experiments provide data to see whether (and how) interventions work, and quantitative analysis identifies patterns for further examination.
Findings from research are often complex, so can be challenging to produce the type of strong, simple messages that make it easier to influence practice and policy. However, bringing these different approaches together should help us to deal with the complexity, showing how things work at multiple levels and ultimately strengthening the impact of research. It’s certainly not always easy to do this, but it can be an aspiration. Here at Cambridge Assessment, we have researchers from a range of backgrounds, bringing various skills to our research; I think this is a real strength. The diverse talks at BERA show that it is true of the wider field of education research as well. Bringing different strands of research together can surely only help research have an even bigger impact.
Dr Matthew Carroll
Research Officer, Cambridge Assessment
Matthew took the photo at the top of this page himself during his time in Brighton.