Invest in Research

25 Sep

“Documentation. Have you documented it?” I could see the shiver that ran down their spines as they looked at their boss, the head teacher. She refused to make eye contact, at first, then relented. “No, we do not have documentation for all the things that happen in a classroom”

“Of course not, not for everything”, I hastily added. “But this was good work done by you, don’t you have a record of it?”

“No, we don’t need to. Everybody knows, and now all the other teachers are doing it in their classes too”

There were a million questions bubbling out of me.. How did you know that this new intervention, this new thing that you have tried actually worked? Have you tracked the results before and after? Did you compare it to an equivalent group where the intervention was not given? Did you check to see if the improved results are not because of other circumstances?

If you are so sure that this is  good technique, then why are you not writing it up systematically? How do you know other teachers will use it the right way? Why not share it with other schools and teachers?

All this and so much more to ask – hidden behind the simple word – documentation.

What I really meant was research.

There is so much that is done in our classrooms that does not get documented. To the detriment of research.

This is why we know so very little about what happens in our classrooms and must depend on research done in other countries. But it is entirely possible that the Indian way of learning is different in some significant ways from what is indicated in research conducted in Europe and America. It is highly likely that learning outcomes and processes are dependent upon the structure of education and on the facilities available. For example, a teacher may achieve wonderful results in peer learning pedagogies in a country where team work is the social norm, where all children walk to school in safe traffic free zones and where they have public libraries with helpful assistants who allow students to work there. The research done on this technique will show wonderful results. Try to map this to an Indian school – it may not work. Or it may. It may work where children are able to whatsapp each other in the metros, or it may work best in a small rural community. We will never really know unless we try it out, again and again, in the same way and document the results.

We have two ways of doing this – either one goes down the route of the massive RCT trials that have been conducted in Andhra Pradesh that studied the operations of rural government and private schools to understand the value that each provided. The other route is to start a massive campaign of micro-research in our classrooms and aggregate these at one place. The aggregation of research can be post facto – teachers may research what they choose and write up the results for sharing. Or, even better, let there be (say) three national level research questions that are raised every year for teachers to study in their classrooms and report back to the hub. We will, in this way begin to gain some understanding of what really works in our classrooms.

Teacher research is a strong teacher training and CPD (continuous professional development) tool in many countries. It keeps teachers engaged in improving the classroom practice while adding points for their own promotion and fame. When teachers share studies, or run studies together, it also creates strong teacher peer learning networks which has a positive snowball effect on other teaching.

The next question that needs to be answered is probably a bigger question: What happens to the result of all this research? Where will it be used?

The question raises the spectre of all the research in education that has been done so far in the hundreds of education departments in Universities across the country. These departments have been in operation for decades, and each has regularly produced PhD thesis. Some departments of education are prestigious and have internationally acclaimed faculty, others are not so well known. The national hub of education data and research has recently made its work more accessible to the practioner and researcher. Yet, there is no central repository or curation for the vast and deep (how would we know?) work that has been done in education for decades.

When asked, the answer from senior researchers is surprisingly the same as the school’s answer – ‘Our people all know’. Word of mouth is not the same as a systemic and fair view of research, nor does it lend itself to a fair assessment of quality either of the research or of expertise that has been created within the system.

This is why, when it comes to seeking a body for creating a ranking system, the ministry turns to the IITs to lead the process. The IITs were designed to be a bridge of excellence between the vocational, professional and academic aspects of engineering – not a be-all central spine of expertise for human development. They do have departments of management and have conducted education research, like other universities – innovating (sic) on their remit, but no more.

It is high time  education research be taken seriously and expertise developed so that it does not have to be handed over to generalists and practitioners when the need arises. It is time to invest in education research – curate, collate and build expertise.


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