Thursday, 2 Dec 1999

New initiatives in school education were too often based on political agendas or untested philosophical positions, Dr Geoff Masters, Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) said.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Dr Masters said that Australian education systems need to establish a more systematic program of national research into schools.

"In education we lurch from one fad to the next, rarely pausing to question the research base for new initiatives," Dr Masters said. "The time has come for a national effort to establish what is known about the best ways to improve student learning and to identify the pressing questions that now need to be answered."

Dr Masters called for an alliance between schools, education systems and the research community to identify national priorities and to establish an Australia-wide school research agenda. "In most industries there would be consensus on the research questions requiring answers. But those responsible for running schools in this country sometimes appear sceptical about the ability of research to inform educational decision making and have made little coordinated effort to identify questions that they would like answered."

The research community could take much of the blame for this lack of national direction, Dr Masters said. "Because in educational research there frequently are no simple answers, and because much research is equivocal or contradictory, we often begin to wonder whether there are any answers at all. In fact, research has been generating clear indications of how learning can be improved in schools. Our task as researchers is to synthesise and communicate those findings in forms that can be easily understood and used."

Researchers needed to work harder at making research findings accessible to schools, policy makers and parents, Dr Masters said. "In addition to our traditional published reports, new ways must be found to bring research findings to the attention of schools and education systems. National clearinghouses of research findings and national research advisory services are mechanisms that have proved useful in some countries."

The challenge in the 21st Century will be for education systems and researchers to collaborate more closely around their common interest in improving learning, Dr Masters said. "What do we know about ways to improve learning outcomes for boys? What works in teaching reading? What can be done to improve outcomes for Indigenous students in remote communities? How can schools develop lifelong learning skills? What uses of test results are most effective in improving learning? These are the kinds of questions that could form part of a focused national research agenda."

Research into school achievement was continuing to show a wide gap between the poor and the wealthy, and between Australia and countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, Dr Masters said. "The challenges facing Australian schools in the 21st Century will not be solved by fads and fashions, but by solid research-based evidence about the best ways to improve learning in classrooms."