One educator’s opinion: Good education research

Karl Hostetler, University of Nebraska, wrote recently on the topic: What makes good research? For him, it “is a matter not only of sound procedures but also of beneficial aims and results.”

This may sound logical, but recent definitions of good research, such as that articulated by No Child Left Behind legislation, defines good research as consisting of experimental studies that yield prescriptions for action. Hostetler states that this is too narrow a definition. Confining questions of good to methodology leaves out all non-experimental studies. It does not give adequate attention to the question of what good comes from educational policies and practices: how do they contribute to the well-being of students, teachers and the larger community?

In his essay, Hostetler proposes that researchers pay careful, ongoing attention to questions of human well-being. He believes there is no substitute for genuine ethical understanding of the ends we are trying to achieve. Good intentions do not guarantee good research. Researchers are expected to be knowledgeable about the processes of research, but we don’t seem to have the same expectations about their knowledge of human well-being  Well-being is a difficult concept.

Deborah Meier stresses education for citizenship; she believes that “it is essential that students learn to be observant, playful, skeptical, imaginative, respectful of evidence, able to communicate, caring and to possess a good work ethic.”

Hostetler writes that good things rarely come without some sort of trade-off or cost. At what point does the push for academic achievement justify cutting art, music and recess? People assume that the “basics” are reading, writing and arithmetic. These are important skills, but Plato argued that gymnastics and music are basic, stressing the fundamental value of movement and harmony for the body and soul.

Partnering with teachers

What are the costs of a teaching approach that increases the students’ success in reading? Researchers should question what is known about how a given approach affects different groups of students. If we do not address the effect on particular students, the research is incomplete. This points out why it is vital for research to be carried out in partnership with classroom teachers who can offer insights into the particulars of what happens in the classroom. Teachers have intimate knowledge of students and parents that researchers lack.

Hostetler believes that to engage in ethical thought and action one has to be committed to some basic ideas, such as respecting human dignity and the humanity of all persons. One cannot do science without certain basic commitments such as the respect for evidence and consistency in explanations.

In other words, he believes that good research requires moral theory. Knowledge about the way the world is cannot tell us what we ought to do. If children can learn the alphabet before entering school, it does not mean that they should. Researchers and educators have the obligation to raise questions when we see possible threats to students’ well-being.

Issues of well-being are too complex and important to be left to one small group to decide. Hostetler writes that we need a concerted and cooperative endeavor for moral education among researchers. He believes that we err with regard to well-being, not because we are bad, but because we overlook or misperceive something.

Ethical issues

This is not to say that all research should be focused on ethical issues. But all researchers need to have adequate awareness of and concern for these issues. They need to understand how their research may be related to well-being. The quest for well-being continually presents us with questions, possibilities and opposites to consider. We must consider whether this particular thing is good for these children, at this time, in this situation.

The answers to research questions do not end things but offer new circumstances to be explored. Pressure to produce results that can be directly applied to classroom teaching is not the only thing to be valued. Research that is wrong in its conclusions can still lead to progress. Educational researchers, Hostetler concludes, have a particular obligation to take a leading role in seeing that the research being done is truly good research. We need to think beyond questions of how we will study students or analyze school policies; we need to think about how we make life better for people. He believes that serving students’ well-being is the great calling of researchers and teachers.

“What Is ‘Good’ Research?”, Educational Researcher, Volume 34, Number 6, September 2005, pp. 16-21.

Published in ERN September 2005 Volume 18 Number 6

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