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Introduction and Importance of Educational Inquiry

Introduction and Importance of Educational Inquiry
What is research?
The term research has a range of meanings. For example, children going to a library or using an Internet search engine might consider themselves to be researching a particular topic. University students conduct research prior to writing an essay. Someone in your family may research your family history.
In the field of education we take the term research to mean the collection and analysis of data, using a systematic manner of inquiry, in order to respond to a problem (e.g., understand, describe, predict).
This is not to suggest that a single research study must provide a definitive answer to the identified problem, however. Rather, Kervin et al. (2006) state that  “educational research is often compared to the completion of a jigsaw puzzle. Piece by piece, researchers throughout the world are conducting studies that add incrementally to our understanding of pedagogy and learning, and how to make it more effective” (p. 1).
Research thus represents an important means to continually advance educational knowledge, theory, practice and policy in the ever-changing educational context.
Who conducts research?
Many of us imagine research as an activity carried out only by scientists and professors. In this subject we advocate that if the purpose of research is to respond to problems of importance to a particular profession, or to a particular professional in a situation, it is important to empower those who operate within the profession to conduct research and be informed consumers of the research of others.
Scientists in laboratories conduct research to answer important medical, technological and scientific questions, but research is also conducted in educational institutions. Prominent contemporary educational research topics include teacher retention, students at key transition points, characteristics of effective teachers, the importance of play, digital literacy, cyber-bullying, and many more.
While understanding and implementing research methods can begin to address these problems, use of this knowledge and skill in educators’ everyday practice can also promote professional enhancement. By extension, every classroom teacher, trainer or adult educator, regardless of their professional circumstance, can benefit professionally from research knowledge and skills, from the critical appraisal of research reports and through conducting professionally relevant research projects.
For an example of a classroom teacher who has identified something within her teaching practice that she wanted to examine further, read:
Corby, P. (2008). Transforming pedagogies with new technologies: Advertising. English in Australia, 43(1), 15-21.
As you read through this article, consider:
•    Who the teacher has involved in the research;
•    The issues the teacher wanted to explore (perhaps the questions you think the teacher posed);
•    What her key findings were; and
•    What her findings might mean for you.
To foreshadow this week’s ‘capstone’ activity, use this to stimulate your thinking about what research topic would be of foremost interest to you.
Why conduct research?
It is unfortunate that not all educators have an understanding and appreciation of research. All too often it is seen as something that is important to academics, but removed from everyday classroom practice. Yet, at the same time, many educators value, conduct, read and utilise research.
To illustrate the importance of research in education, consider this (brief) list of hot topics in education at the moment:
•    Teacher retention
•    Students at key transition points
•    Physical activity and academic success
•    Characteristics and effective teachers
•    Strategies for helping low-achieving students meet/exceed standards
•    Effective instruction strategies
•    Out-of-school time programs
•    Play and child development
•    Composite classrooms
•    High school dropout rates
•    One-to-one technology initiatives
•    Summer learning losses
•    Digital literacy
•    Cyber-bullying: Prevention and Intervention
•    …the list is virtually endless…
Imagine you are faced with even just one of these issues (pick whichever is most salient to you). How would you go about addressing the issue? How would you know if your solution was effective? How would you decide if your solution was appropriate in other classrooms, in other contexts and with other students? Research provides the means to effectively, comprehensively, accurately and reliably answers these questions (when conducted properly).
Although research is important for a wide range of reasons (which you will want to consider and decide between for assessment task 1), we will focus on three here.
1. Research adds to our knowledge. That is, educational research provides us with information, understanding and solutions to contemporary issues. Just consider the following examples:
•    Research investigates issues requiring a solution (e.g., what has and has not worked in the past)?
•    Research fills gaps in our understanding (e.g., how can we effectively address this issue?)
•    Research provides a deeper understanding (e.g., was our solution effective? Why or why not? How can we improve upon it?)
•    Research (dis)confirms prior research (e.g., is a solution that was effective five years ago still effective today?)
•    Research provides information about people and places not investigated before (e.g., is that solution appropriate in other contexts?)
2. Research improves educational practice. That is, research can provide educators with evidence to support their current practices (ensuring defensible, evidence-based practice) or can suggest new ideas that have been successful in other settings and situations. It can also allow educators to evaluate these new approaches and programs for themselves. Lastly, research helps educators adapt to the changing educational context (e.g., the introduction of interactive whiteboards not only requires that educators know how to use them, but how to use them effectively for teaching and learning).
Notice, however, that before research can have any impact, educators need to be aware of these findings, know how to appraise the research report and know how to interpret and critically evaluate the findings.
3. Research informs policy. Consider, if policy makers have to make decisions in a hotly debated area, how should they evaluate the different perspectives? How should they proceed in developing a policy? Well designed and conducted research gives policy makers, as well as educators, evidence to support their arguments and decisions. In fact, if you were to pick up a policy document you would likely find cited research in support of the decision made. For instance, the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities’ Policy for the Education of Gifted and Talented Students regularly cites evidence in support of the practices they advocate.
Whether or not educators conduct research studies, it should nevertheless be apparent that research should be an important element of educators’ ongoing professional development.
Determining the quality of research
Regardless of the type of research or its methods, we want the research to be legitimate and trustworthy. The concepts of validity (i.e., accuracy) and reliability (i.e., consistency) address this problem. There are certain differences in ways that validity and reliability are defined in different types of research (this will be an ongoing theme throughout the subject), but at this stage we are concerned with a basic meaning of the terms as it pertains to judgements of the quality of research.
A fundamental question of any research design is whether the study provides an accurate picture of the phenomenon under investigation. This is a problem of validity. More specifically, particularly in relation to quantitative research, we ask the question: have the researchers actually observed/measured what they claim to have observed/measured? For instance, if a researcher is interested in the proportion of time preschoolers spend sitting in a day, do the researchers’ measurements accurately reflect the children’s sitting time? With respect to the trustworthiness of qualitative research, validity is generally described within the paradigm that is being used. That is, the criteria for validity may vary in different types of qualitative research. For example, validity of ethnographic research might be addressed through the depth and richness of collected data and ‘convincingness’ of its interpretation.
Reliability of research refers to the consistency of its results. In quantitative research it is based on an assumption that an independent researcher could repeat the study and find similar results when using the same procedures (all things being equal). It is important to remember, however, that some studies in qualitative research cannot be replicated because of the uniqueness of the situations and events, or due to multiple interpretations and meanings that can be given.
Throughout this subject, issues of credibility and trustworthiness of research in the interpretation and reporting of data will be examined in great depth. These definitions (above) should give you a sense of the meaning and importance of these evaluations, but it is only in the development of research-related skills and knowledge that effective appraisals of validity and reliability can be made.
Weekly ‘Capstone’ Activity and Discussion:
After working through the Moodle content for this week and reading Chapter 3 of the text, identify an educational research topic that is of interest to you (e.g., from your area of specialisation). On the basis of that topic, please post to the forum your responses to the following questions:
•    What is a contemporary topic (e.g., in your area of specialisation) that is in need of further research?
•    Why is this topic important (drawing from your experience, professional knowledge and/or reading)?
•    What question(s) would you want to answer?
•    What sorts of data might you need to collect from participants to begin answering the question(s)?
Post your responses to the questions in the Week 1 forum.

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