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Where is European educational research heading?

September 25th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

My promised post on the European Conference on Education Research, held earlier this month at the Freie Universitat, Berlin.

The conference attracted some 2200 delegates with hundreds of presentations spanning the different networks which comprise the European Educational Research association. the Pontydysgu team were supporting ECER in amplifying the conference through the use of different social media and through producing a series of video interviews with network conveners. On the one hand this meant my attendance at conference sessions was very limited, on the other hand the interviews with eleven different network conveners gave us perhaps a unique overview of where European educational research is heading.

A number of common themes emerged.

First was that the networks themselves seem to be evolving into quite strong communities of practice, embracing not just conference attendees but with extended networks sometimes involving hundreds of members. And although some networks are stronger n one or another country, these networks tend to suggest a European community is emerging within educational research. Indeed, this may be seen as the major outcome of European funding and programmes for education. A number of network conveners suggested that the search to develop common meaning between different educational and cultural traditions was itself a driving force in developing innovation and new ideas.

Secondly, many of the networks were particularly focused on the development of research methodologies. One of the main issues here appeared to be the development of cross domain research and how such research could be nurtured and sustained. This also applied to those considering submitting proposals to future conferences (next year’s conference is in Seville) with many of the conveners emphasizing they were keen to encourage submissions from researchers from different areas and domains and emphasizing the importance of describing both the research methodology and the outcomes of the research in abstract submissions.

There was also an awareness of the need to bring research and practice closer together, with a seeming move towards more practitioner researchers in education.

The question of the relation between research and po9licy was more complex. Despite a formal commitment by many educational authorities to research driven policy, some network conveners felt the reverse was true in reality, especially given the financial crisis, with researchers being forced to ‘follow the money’ and thus tailor their research to follow policy agendas. This was compromising the independence of research institutions and practice.

I asked each of the interviewees to briefly outline what they considered were the major trends in educational research. A surprising number pointed to a contradictory development. On the one hand policy makers are increasingly obsessed by targets and by quantitative outcomes, be it numbers of students, qualification levels or cost per student. The Pisa exercise is one example of such a development.Whilst no-one was opposed to collecting such data, there was a general scepticism of its value, on its own, in developing education policy. Such policies were also seen as part of a trend towards centralising education policy making

On the other hand, network conveners pointed to a growing bottom up backlash against this reductionist approach with researchers, parents and students concerned that educatio0n is not merely a economic function and that quality cannot be measured by targets and number crunching alone. This movement is being expressed in different ways with small scale local movements looking at alternative forms of learning, a movement also facilitated by the use of new technologies for teaching and learning.

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