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No need to back pointless studies

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 13 March 2006

According to the Australian Council of Deans of Education, taxpayers are not paying enough for research. In New Teaching, New Learning: A Vision for Australian Education, the deans argue that "educational research is important but neglected" and "research into professional learning is poorly developed".

The deans are particularly concerned that not enough Australian Research Council grants are committed in areas such as professional learning and pedagogy and, as a result, they argue that education should be designated as a research priority "as a matter of urgency".

No one would deny that researching ways to make learning more effective is a good thing. But much of existing research, based on a number of ARC projects that have so far been funded, appears to have minimal value for classroom teachers. With titles such as Rethinking Reconciliation; Indigenising Hip-Hop; Schooling, Globalisation and Refugees; Teacher Identity and the Challenge of a Social Critical Identity and Transnational Literacies, it should be obvious that many of the projects are more about political correctness than helping teachers.


In relation to reconciliation, it might be true that "the pedagogical potential of reconciliation processes has yet to be adequately elaborated", but it is doubtful that evaluating how reconciliation is "represented and pursued in media culture, particularly on the world wide web", will improve the situation. Investigating the ways "Indigenous and migrant young people have used hip-hop culture to construct their identities, express their worldviews and challenge mainstream assumptions about Indigenous and non-Anglo youth" might sound beneficial.

Ignored is the often violent and nihilistic nature of hip-hop music and the way it further segregates society. Travelling through outback communities such as Ernabella, in South Australia, and seeing the destructive impact of imported hip-hop music on Indigenous culture should also be cause for alarm.

There is no doubt that refugees find it difficult to adjust to schooling in Australia. Funding a project that "proposes to develop and test a new research approach by combining policy analysis, critical discourse analysis and visual narratives to explore global and local policies, and school-based practices" sounds impressive. But, again, how will such a project directly benefit teachers and students?

Given Australia's obesity problem and the fact that so many children are physically inactive, one might think that any research related to physical education would seek to promote more involvement. Not so with the following project related to health and physical education: "We are interested in the interplay between the embodied identity of HPE [health and physical education] teachers and the social critical agenda of the new HPE curriculum. The project aims to gain an understanding of how prospective and practising HPE teachers construct their teacher identities, and the extent of their commitment to the emancipatory and life politics discourses that underpin the new HPE curriculum."

In addition to having a strong politically correct flavour, an added weakness in many of the ARC-funded education projects is that they are inspired and managed by academics far removed from the realities of the classroom. Projects such as Systematic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW Public Schools might sound impressive, especially when the academics involved, such as the University of Newcastle's James Ludwig, cite pages of overseas research about best practice and exemplary pedagogy.

A closer examination, though, shows that the research is often questioned and that recycling new-age clichés about deep understanding, active construction, authentic pedagogy and inclusivity and connectedness cannot hide the fact that teachers need something more practical and realistic.


Fortunately, there are some research projects that appear to be directed at helping teachers to raise standards. Australian students in maths and science are consistently outperformed by students in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

One reason overseas students do so well is that there is a greater reliance on rote learning and memorisation. Developmental psychologists agree that lower-order skills must become automatic before students can attempt more complex and difficult tasks.

As the project Enhancing Basic Academic Skills states: "The underlying rationale for the program is that improved automaticity in component skills, such as decoding or calculating, frees up working memory resources. This freeing up of resources allows students to focus on inherently attention-demanding higher-order cognitive activities." No one denies the importance of education and the need to properly fund research. At the same time, researchers and academics should understand that public funds are not inexhaustible and that such funding must be justifiable.

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First published in The Australian on February 8, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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