Representative image. Photo: Lau Rey/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
- Educational research breaks the cycle of harmful learning practices and empirically unsupported opinions, and doesn’t require expensive tools, LCD screens or costly expert opinions.
- A reflective teacher and principal armed with a notebook and a dose of curiosity can easily be a game-changer to develop local knowledge of school issues.
- The biggest challenges to quality educational research are a combination of the obsession with ‘doing’ and considering research practice to be a complex endeavour.
“High-quality interdisciplinary research across fields must be done in India and cannot simply be imported; the ability to conduct one’s own research also enables a country to much more easily import and adapt relevant research from abroad” – National Education Policy (NEP), 2020
The Indian education system has a paradoxical relationship with research. On one hand, the policy documents proclaim that conducting research is a must. NEP 2020 uses the term ‘research’ more than 140 times, considers research essential for the pursuit of knowledge (jnan), wisdom (pragya) and truth (satya), and suggests setting up a National Research Foundation.
On the other hand, Indian schools and the majority of educational NGOs stay away from quality research about their own practices, school-level data (such as DISE) has not been updated since 2018, and regulatory organisations such as the University Grants Commission want to scrap the requirement of publishing research in academic journals to graduate as a PhD. The rhetoric screams that research is important for Indian education, and then our action silently emphasises that research does not matter.
Given that India’s research budget remains at a low 0.7% of GDP (China and the US both spend more than 2.5% of their GDP on research), it is not surprising that we remain poor at quality research. Leave alone being in the top 100, it is a shame that the best Indian university is ranked 436 in research performance in the world – not exactly the Atmanirbhar Bharat that we aspire to.
But then, the term ‘research’ in India has little rigour; being loosely applied to mean expert opinions and survey results with poor validity and reliability. Worse, we are not even aware of what good quality research looks like. I was part of a respected university and published multiple reports as educational research. Now, after receiving a rigorous research-mindset capacity building to graduate as a PhD, I shudder at how poorly validated some of my educational research reports were.
The biggest challenges to quality educational research are a combination of the obsession with ‘doing’ and considering research practice to be a complex endeavour that lies beyond the capacity of school teachers, principals and students.
Obsession with doing: My experience as a teacher and a researcher with Indian private and public schools shows that our teachers and principals are forever caught in the fire-fighting mode. Even during the pandemic, whose only silver lining was the opportunity to slow down, I found that Indian teachers and principals were always busy. Research was limited to online surveys which did not collect data beyond people’s opinions and therefore was low on credibility.
The rush to finish curricula has led to a higher level of ‘doing’ under the revival and popularization of a phenomenon that teachers have experienced before the pandemic, especially over summer vacations, a phenomenon studied as far back as in 1906: learning loss. This is not to say that learning losses are not real or high, but the ambiguity around the term’s usage, its focus only on language and math skills, and poor validity makes it too broad to be meaningful or guide right action.
There is lack of credible research which nuances how much students forget (say, using the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting), in what duration following immediate instruction, for what subjects, and under what kind of pedagogical practices. For example, research on learning loss shows that students tend to forget memorized facts and procedural skills, but may retain concepts. However, in the absence of research that analyses the complex connections between learning loss, subject facts, procedural skills, concepts, and pedagogical methods, are we not more likely to rush into repeating the same pedagogical practices- such as rote memorization- that amplify learning loss in the first place?
The myths around research: ironically, while educational research is a powerful dispeller of myths such as that standardized tests accurately measure learning or the neuromyth of multiple intelligences, educational research itself is subject to the myth of being too complex and elite. This is evident in the NEP 2020 itself which suggests strengthening research capacity only in higher education institutions and not embracing research as everyday classroom practice.
The elitist notion of research discounts the everyday inquiry practices of school principals and teachers. If you are a reflective principal or teacher, you probably have done some research to understand which conversation tactic works admirably to soothe a troubled parent or to figure out why a student’s scores are falling. In the latter case, you might have spoken to different teachers about the same student, skimmed through the student’s notebooks, and even have an informal chat with the student- triangulating the findings to establish trustworthiness. I grant that this research might not be as detailed and as systematic as that done for a thesis, but I have found that, with support, solid research is not beyond the grasp of school practitioners.
What most people may be unaware of is that India has a rich history of participatory action research (PAR), wherein scholars and research-practitioners have collaborated to conduct research that addresses local educational issues – exactly the kind of contextual research NEP advocates. Importantly, PAR projects do not require literacy as a prerequisite and are authentically empowering, yet because research is perceived as complex and elite, schools rarely establish research groups or conduct staff meetings around active research projects.
So, how can we establish and promote research culture in Indian education? I offer three ideas.
Bring an inquiry mindset to the classroom: Instead of explaining and telling the students about what will help them pass exams, use research projects as a way to make sense of subject topics. For instance, instead of telling students about historical ‘facts’ related to Prithviraj Chauhan, support students in systematically finding the multiple narratives around the Indian hero to arrive at an understanding of how historical texts are shaped by political ideology and culture.
Embed research culture in the school: Instead of only asking for opinions on what should be done, first frame a question on what you are trying to understand. For instance, get curious about a disciplinary issue. Collect data from multiple sources. Hypothesize what the data will indicate (e.g., poor home environment) and then, instead of trying to prove the hypothesis, try to disconfirm it. To embed research, include submissions to a school research journal as part of teacher assessments.
Cultivate research-practice partnerships: School systems and universities can collaborate on research projects in this mode. Not only does this improve access to previous research, but it busts the myths around educational research as too complex or elite. Use PAR methods to collaborate on research initiatives with the community. Encourage practitioners to have a voice in designing the research agenda.
Educational research is powerful because it is empowering. It breaks the cycle of harmful learning practices and empirically unsupported opinions. Unless we begin engaging in quality research now, we will forever be playing catch up to ‘cover’ the learning losses.
It does not require expensive tool-kits, new LCD screens or costly expert opinions. A reflective teacher and principal armed with a notebook and a dose of curiosity can easily be a game changer to develop local knowledge of school issues, develop explanatory theories and resolve the wicked challenges that plague our schools.