Monday, 7 March 2016

Education and research in the 'real world'

I've been thinking lately about perceptions and beliefs and how these can be tempered by the seas of economic and political change. Sometimes, the term the 'real world' is used to dismiss the realities of others' professional lives as being somehow deficient or incomplete. This is often the case when universities or schools are discussed by those in the 'real world' (ie a different professional or occupational one).

Some dismiss a university as an ivory tower, but, as Veith argues, it is neither immune from influences of the 'real world' nor separate from it, for it in turn, influences the 'real world'.

Those of us inside the 'tower' are feeling the effects of economic and social change. Neo-liberalism for example, is taking a stronger and stronger hold of thinking and practice. Some of the effects of this are larger and larger workloads (so we work weekends, nights, annual leave) and have larger and larger classes in the name of 'efficiency', or, perhaps, cost cutting.

Being research focused also has its problems when the research that might have a huge influence in say, 10 years' time, is not funded because because its ROI (return on investment) is not discernible quickly. Education is a victim of this thinking. Finding sources of funding for research in various aspects of this field is getting harder and harder, so that educational researchers throughout the country scramble to bid for less and less and from fewer and fewer granting bodies each year. The ROI on the effort it takes to write these bids can thus be zero.

And yet, the educational research undertaken in this country can be ground-breaking, and none more so than work carried out at the University of Waikato. Te Kotahitanga is one these. Professor Russell Bishop won the Paolo Freire Award for this work, and the positive effects of the programme are still being felt. The New Zealand educational research association, NZARE,  has also honoured its work.

This Te Kotahitanga research was longitudinal, involved a lot of schools, and resulted in a wide number of publications that have been hugely influential in New Zealand schools, and ultimately on Māori students' lives and careers. This research could only exist with external funding. Education does not have an immediate ROI. Nor does research into it. However, its effects, as indicated by Te Kotahitanga, can be profound. In the ECE sector, Professor Margaret Carr's work and Learning Stories is another example of both local and international influence.

So, as Veith argued about the American academic system, the ivory tower concept is as mythical as the unicorn. I would add the supposed divide between the 'real world' and universities is a myth too. The gradual squeezing of funding for research into aspects of education in New Zealand is turning educational itself itself into a unicorn. If ROI thinking persists, educational research will become a mythical beast and the field will be the worse for it.

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