In this July 2022 episode of the ‘Meet The Education Researcher’ podcast, Neil Selwyn spoke with Bob Lingard – one of Australia’s leading education researchers over the past 30 years. In this conversation, Bob reflects on the art and craft of being an education researcher. He starts by highlighting the distinction between ‘education’ research and ‘educational’ research, as well as how academics can engage productively with demands for research impact and research excellence. The discussion later moves on to considering the added value of university-based education researchers – particularly in light of the trend for governments to commission consultant produced reports of ‘What works and why?’. All told, Bob makes a persuasive argument for academics taking a more proactive stance when engaging in the politics of education research.

(nb. this text has been edited for clarity)


Neil Selwyn (NS):  Let’s start with a couple of deceptively simple questions – how do you define education research … and what would you see as the essential ingredients for good education research?

Bob Lingard (BL):  I suppose we are talking about inquiry about education, defined in the broadest institutionally and practice-focused terms. And then ‘good’, I suppose, refers to the quality of that inquiry. As for quality, I’d say one of the things is the significance of the topic – particularly in terms of the specific moment in time, even though there are enduring questions that always need to be considered. So this relates to the significance of the theoretical framing, the thought given to methodologies, and the onto-epistemological alignment between those. Any sense of quality also relates to the ‘findings’ and ‘outcomes’ (in quote marks) which come out of the systematic inquiry that’s gone on. So, hopefully, good research has some significance in education … in the broadest possible definition of ‘education’

So, I think we should define education research as broadly as possible, especially in terms of its theoretical and methodological frames. While I work in one specific corner of education research, I think we have to be magnanimous and to see quality across difference, and across the field. 

One of the things that has always struck me as interesting, was the 10 years that I chaired the Australian Association for Research in Education ‘best PhD in education’ award. We had five judges who were as broadly different as could be – quantitative people, psych people, cultural studies people, and so on. When we got in the 19 or so submissions we would agree our criteria, and then each person would rank the submissions from 1 to 19. I have to say that across the ten years and despite our methodological, theoretical and political differences, all our rankings were always quite similar. So, it struck me that even if not explicated as education researchers, we had some idea of what ‘good’ and ‘quality’ was.

NS:  Yes! Education research is certainly a broad church … and one of the interesting distinctions you’ve made recently is this difference between ‘education research’ and ‘educational research’. Can you expand on that a little?

BL:  When I talk about ‘education’ research, I suppose one way of thinking about it is as research oneducation, or research about education. This refers to a social science approach to understanding the phenomenon of whatever ‘education’ is, and acknowledging that ‘education’ can be defined broadly in institutional, organizational and practice-related ways. So this might include sociology of education, philosophy of education, history of education, ed-psych, and so on. 

But ‘educational’ research has a much more educative purpose, and aims toward having a more direct and explicit impact on educational organizations, educational policy, and educational practice. So this research has a much more direct approach, perhaps, and impacts in a shorter time frame. 

Of course, what I call ‘education’ research also does impact on policy, but I refer here to Carol Weiss’s argument about social science research impacting policy through a long percolation process where research findings are slowly taken up in the assumptive worlds of policymakers. I think John Maynard Keynes echoed this a long time ago, when he observed that the current common sense amongst policymakers is the economic theory from a decade ago. So, I think that is a sensible way to approach the impact of ‘education’ research. 

But the general distinction I make is that one form of ‘education’ research is about understanding the phenomenon which is education, and the other form of ‘educational’ research is trying to have a direct impact on policy and practice in education. So, in that latter sense, any impact is often more instrumental (even though it can also be conceptual).

NS:  So this begins to get us talking about different forms of ‘good’ research. But another set of criteria for good research that is often bandied around relates to ideas of robustness, rigor, replicability, and so on. Education research is often criticized by outsiders for falling short on those qualities. Is that a fair criticism? And if so, does it matter? 

BL:  What we’ve got is a broad field. And look, I would say there can be poor randomized controlled experiment research, just as there can be poor auto-ethnographic research. So it’s not a simple case that this particular research approach is good, and this particular research approach is bad. I mean, there’s criteria for ‘quality’ around all of the types of research. 

So I think you might want replicability in some sorts of education research, but not in others … and those others can have equal impact and feed into the academic research literature just as well. For example, I always think that history of education and the philosophy of education (which I think are both really important) get pushed away within the discourses of replicability, rigour and robustness, because there’s a conception of there being only one sort of ‘gold standard’ research. 

I was Head of School for a while. And the one thing I’d say I learned very quickly was that I had to acknowledge, understand, and be magnanimous about different kinds of good work. I couldn’t just look to the replication of the types of research that I did and that I was familiar with. I had to look across the whole spectrum. So, some research might fit into that desirable status of being replicable and robust, but there will be plenty of other research which is equally important and desirable.

NS:  Yes, and that’s why it’s really important to read widely, and as you say, think outside your own predilections and preferences. But while we’ve talked about impact and good research, another kind of set of criteria that universities are keen to push on education researchers at the moment is this idea of research ‘excellence’. So, what is excellence in education research? And how can we work generatively with that concept?

BL:  I think we have to work generatively with it. So, it is down to us as an education research community – you know, through our research associations, professional associations, through things like the Deans of Education group – we have to speak back and define what research excellence is, and don’t have allow it to be defined for us. And I think it has to be defined broadly. 

So, in one sense, you can hardly speak against ‘excellence’, I suppose [laughs]. But what is excellent research if we’re talking about a particularly detailed ethnography approach – as compared to an auto ethnography, or a large questionnaire-based study? I think we need different criteria of what excellence is for different sorts of research. And I think that we as the researchers must play actively in that game. We can’t simply be the recipients of policy around research. And, recently, I think we haven’t played actively enough in the game. 

So maybe it’s a moment again to try to do that. For example, I was thinking of your previous question around replicability, and it brought up something that I think Arjun Appadurai wrote about research – making the point that it needs to be seen as the prefix ‘re’ and the word ‘search’ … so re-search. So there’s a sense that we are always building on what’s gone before. Which is interesting, because that is not ‘replicability’ per se. Instead, we are building out of what’s gone before. 

So, I know one of the criticisms of education research has been that it doesn’t accrete and add together so that we know much more about something than we did previously. But of course, the thing we’re researching keeps changing … education doesn’t remain constant! I mean, there’s a way in which schools today look like the schools that I attended. But there’s also a way in which the kids today are nothing like what I was like when I went to school So, what we research keeps changing. So we’ve got to be ever mindful of that. 

NS:  … while also being mindful the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of previous generations of education researchers! Now, we’ve talked about the what makes education research, and I like to move on to the why. So, based on your kind of experience, what is the point of education research? What does education research (or at least good education research) do?

BL:  It’s that’s a very good question. You know, Vygotsky argued that the pedagogical is part of being human – in other words, you teach your kids forever. I think that education, since the Industrial Revolution and modernity, has been a central cultural institution involved in the reproduction of the society. So, understanding that – which is what education research and all of its manifestations seeks to do – is important and necessary. And then if research does that then it does have a purpose and a flow on.

For example, I would say that even across conservative people and politicians, there is a general understanding that the social class background of kids (SES, if you want) is a primary factor in determining who performs well. I think it’s almost a universal understanding. And where did that come from? It came from sociological research of education across the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. 

So, to develop this understanding of the central institution in all societies (i.e. education) is part of the human desire to know. And education researchers are the specialized professionalized people who work to really get to understand education … to point out if education is not working, and the other ways we think it ought to be working. That’s what we do. Of course, research isn’t the only thing that determines what policymakers and what politicians do. You know, we have to remember that we’re only one component of it..

NS:  Yes, but we should retain a professional confidence that we are still taken seriously, we still do have authority, we continue to have a voice in these discussions. So it behooves us to actually use that voice.

BL:  I agree … and that’s why I agree with Bourdieu’s argument that all social scientists should participate in public debates, but not as politicians. Our role is to somehow use what we know from the research that we’ve done – to get that into the public sphere as part of the debate … to ventilate that set of ideas. 

So, the point of education research is not for us to act as a politician – i.e. saying what you thought you wanted to say irrespective of what you’re asked, et cetera. Instead, the point of education research is using what you’ve found out (and what other researchers have found out) to enter into that debate. I think that’s really important.

NS:  I just have got a couple of other questions to finish up with. And one thing that’s bothering me is does it really matter who does education research? There are a couple of different couple of different directions to take this thought in. First, is the presumption that education research has to be carried out in a Faculty of Education. I sometimes get a sense that the best education research these days is being carried out by philosophers, geographers, neuroscientists, and so on. Why do universities need distinct Faculties of Education in order to do education research?

BL:  I think in relation to your first observation, I would agree with you. You know, the University of Queensland (where I spent most of my academic life) has got a huge Brain Institute, with huge amounts of money. But, you know, the director of that Institute used to come and talk to me all the time about trying to avoid a reductionist construction of ‘learning’ out of neuroscience. He wanted their work to avoid slipping into simplistic notions of learning and education. He could see what the neuroscience approach lacked. So I think there are huge opportunities in us working with these other researchers.

NS:  So, there is a role for Faculties of Education to be a bit more forthright and say, ‘Well, actually, we can add to your scholarship around education’. I guess education is one of these topics that everybody thinks they know about it, because they have experienced it themselves at different points in their lives. So medical researchers are going to say, ‘Well, I know about schools, I can do that’. But as you say, they are likely to be missing a trick or two.

My second point around this question of ‘who does education research’ is does it actually have to be done in universities at all? We’re seeing lots of ‘evidence’ now being produced by the likes of PwC, McKinsey and OECD … as well as policymakers and teachers picking up on practically-orientated reports from independent researchers and market researchers. So, is there a danger that university-produced academic research around education is getting squeezed out? And if so, what do we do about it?

BL:  I find it enormously frustrating that State departments of education in Australia very often employ those big consultancy firms such as PwC to do the research. Now, I think when you’ve commissioned research of that kind, it’s not academic research that is deconstructing the issues at hand. Instead, this is research that takes the problem as a given, and tends to function in a way which only references other research of that kind – not the academic education research. 

So it’s quite self-referential. If you look at all of those consultancy research reports – but also work from the likes of OECD and ACER – those tend to reference certain sorts of research while totally ignoring huge bodies of academic research. Indeed, there are now bibliometric studies that have analysed the use of references in that sort of consultancy research, and find that academic researchers basically do not get referenced. Of course, firms such as PwC and the like often bring in academic researchers as consultants … but that’s never really evident in the reports they eventually produce! 

[Sighs heavily] I don’t know, I’ve read some of those reports … in Queensland at one stage there was a move out of government school provision into non-government schools and, I think it was Price Waterhouse that did the research, which was very strange. I read the research report. And it seemed to me that if you were asking me about why this move to non-government schools was happening, then the questions that I was reading would not have been the questions that I would have been asking! And the conclusions being reached did not cover what I’d say about it. But this report was telling the government that they could do this, this and this.

NS:  So again, it falls to us to stress the added value of academic research, as you say, to explicitly frame the criticality and sophistication of academic work as a plus.

BL:  Yes, but I think that is sometimes seen by some policymakers as a huge negative. I’m reminded of Barry Jones – when he was a government Minister. He produced that document of the future [Enabling the Knowledge Nation] … it was this thick policy document, and it had all these diagrams, which looked so complicated. 

They asked me if I would introduce him at various public fora. So, I did that, and I remember afterwards him saying to me: The problem with people like you academic researchers is that you are two-handed’. So, I said, ‘What do you mean?’. He says,’ Well, you often say, if you did this, then this would possibly happen. And if he did this, then this would possibly happen. You don’t say, this is what you should do and this will be the outcome’. 

And politicians basically want to hear ‘This is what you should do – and this is the outcome’. Whereas with researchers there’s an equivocation, which I think is a positive feature about what we do. I think we have to be open, and not dogmatic, and not categorical and not just say this is what we think at this moment. But I think that’s difficult.

NS:  Yes, academic researchers are increasingly slipping into this ‘What works and why’ agenda, which is actually very categorical and very unequivocal. So, that’s something to push back on as well perhaps?

BL:  I think we should really push back against the ‘What works?’ stuff. I’ve found when I’ve done professional development with policymakers in the Queensland education bureaucracy, they’re much more interested in all the critical research than in the ‘What works?’ approaches. I find that interesting. They want to be educated to be able to think about issues, rather than being told that this works somewhere else. Any description of ‘what works’ somewhere else in the world .can’t carry context or history or politics with it. You know, all of the arguments that ‘this happens in Finland’ ….

NS:  … Yes, that approach to policymaking is a complete minefield! So, final question – we’ve talked a lot about the past. What does the future have in store for education researchers? Where do you think university education research might be in twenty years’ time?

BL:  I don’t know … really, I think that what you research – datafication, digitalization and all of that world is getting bigger, and raises questions of what that does around schooling. For example, the issues thrown up by something like Google Classrooms. 

I think we are in a climate crisis, and so education in and around that topic is so important. Actually, I did go to a preschool the other day where the kids sang about how bad coal was. I nearly fell off my chair! And I could see how a conservative politician would see that as indoctrination. 

I think the climate crisis is coupled with the movements of people, increasing diversity, and how that is playing out within nations and schooling systems. So we need to research where all of that goes. 

And then there is this mess we seem to be in the world. I’m on the post-war baby boom side of things, but this must be the worst moment in time. And so where do we go? And what’s education’s role? And what’s the role of university, schools, TAFE, Voc-Ed, etc? I think these are huge questions.

NS:  … and highlight the continuing need for critical, sophisticated research that’s not just trying to provide answers and solutions, but is actually pointing out problems … 

BL:  … and asking questions 

NS:  … and asking questions. Well, that’s a great point to finish on. Bob. Many thanks for taking the time to talk all this through.