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Ratcliffe et al.

The nature of science education research

The nature of science


education research
Mary Ratcliffe, Hannah Bartholomew, Vicky Hames, Andy
Hind, John Leach, Robin Millar and Jonathan Osborne
What is science education research? A range of potential users of its
findings demonstrate differing views.

As part of the EPSE (Evidence-based Practice in


Science Education) Research Network, we have been
exploring practitioners views on the nature, use and
potential of science education research. Here we report
on one aspect of this: how teachers and other science
education practitioners characterise research.
These are some views from interviewees in our
study (using pseudonyms throughout):
I think to be honest Im not clear in my own
mind what research is. And this is why I started
to think, is research simply to find facts? ...
theres pure research, which is finding facts,
almost. And then theres applied research, I
suppose, which is trying to find answers and
applying the answers to some situation, perhaps
with a commercial point. (Peter, examiner)
Research to me is where they sort of have a
hypothesis in mind and then theyre considering
evidence to either prove or disprove or to find
reasons why. (Ursula, primary teacher)
ABSTRACT
A study by the Evidence-based Practice in
Science Education (EPSE) Research Network,
explored practitioners views on the nature, use
and potential of science education research.
This article reports on one aspect of this: how
teachers and other science education
practitioners characterise research. Data were
collected by individual interview and focus
groups from 62 people. Results indicate that
there is no one common or even dominant view
of what constitutes science education research
though a clear purpose and an appropriate
methodology are seen as important criteria. It is
hoped these findings will contribute to the
development of models of effective involvement
of teachers in shaping and using research.

Investigative feedback. Its got to be an


investigation that involves feedback to influence
practice. And if thats what its for, then its
research and its educational research, and its
of use and not just an academic process. (Ken,
secondary teacher with research experience)
How do you react to these opinions about the nature
of science education research? How, if at all, do you
use research evidence? What is the reality and
potential of research evidence in influencing science
education policy and practice?

Evidence-based practice what


counts as evidence?
Robin Millars article (pages 1920 in this SSR), gives
the background to the EPSE Network and an overview
of the idea of evidence-based education. Teachers use
a lot of tacit professional knowledge in day-to-day
routines. This contrasts with knowledge generated by
educational research which is supported by
documented evidence available in the public domain.
We may draw on a wide variety of knowledge and
evidence in our day-to-day practice as education
practitioners. Teachers, policy makers, curriculum
developers, textbook authors and teacher educators
are all potential influences on others practice and
potential users of research evidence. We set out to
sample perceptions of the researchpolicypractice
interface amongst each of these groups within the
science education community.
The researchpolicypractice relationship is a
complex one and it is not assisted by competing
priorities. Education researchers in general have been
perceived as determining their own research agendas,
under pressure to report in international journals and
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The nature of science education research

with a different focus to users wishing for evidence


to inform policy and practice (Sebba, 2000). But what
is evidence-based practice? One interpretation is that
only through large-scale experiments, randomised
controlled trials (RCTs), can we establish what
works and use this as a basis for future practice and
policy. Evidence from RCTs and other large-scale
systematic research projects is very valuable in
providing generalisable findings. However, the rich
form of narrative evidence embedded in case studies
may articulate more comfortably with tacit professional knowledge (H. Simons, 2000, unpublished paper).
There continues to be considerable debate about the
nature of evidence in evidence-based practice (for
example Fitz-Gibbon, 2000; Elliot, 2001).
Until recently, research has rarely involved
teachers or other practitioners in determining priorities
or in design. As a consequence, in England the Teacher
Training Agency (TTA) and Department for Education
and Skills (DfES) have funded a National Teacher
Research Panel to provide expert teacher perspectives
on the promotion of research and evidence-based
practice. TTA and DfES have also funded teacher
action research, supported by personnel external to
the school, from educational researchers to LEA
advisers. This has expanded the number of teachers
involved in exploring practice systematically and also
contributes to the debate about what constitutes
evidence in evidence-based practice. We might,
however, ask what status and potential for informing
policy and practice does the evidence generated in an
individual teachers action research have?
A major aim of our study, then, was to obtain a
better understanding of the extent to which teachers,
and other user groups, recognise and make use of
research evidence in the course of their normal
practice. We also wished to explore the factors that
promote and inhibit the impact of research on science
teaching and learning in practice. Thus, the scope of
this study was not to examine all the sources of
evidence that teachers use to develop their practice
but to focus on research evidence. Just as there is
debate about what constitutes evidence, there may
also be different perceptions of what constitutes
research. A starting point in interviews we undertook
was to establish practitioners views of the nature of
education research. This is the part of the study we
report here. A full report, covering all the aims, is
available from the EPSE website (see References).
Evidence from at least two action research consortia suggests that teachers are more ready to engage

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Ratcliffe et al.

in research generated by others once they have had


experience of either doing research themselves or
working closely with peers engaged in action research
(TTA, 1999; Cordingley, 1999). Thus, in exploring
practitioners perceptions and use of research, one of
our intentions has been to explore and compare
reactions of those who have been involved in research
with those who have not.

Methodology
Data collection
We interviewed a sample of people (62 in total) drawn
from the different groups of science education
practitioners. This included 10 primary and 11 secondary teachers of science, chosen (as far as possible) to
provide a representative sample of science teachers
(21) with no formal research experience. We were
concerned not to bias the sample towards those who
might make greater use of, or hold more positive views
about, the role of research in informing their practice,
but to collect the views of a cross-section of experienced teachers. In contrast, we purposefully included
a sample of teachers (20) who had been involved with
research, most commonly (though not exclusively)
within the context of an MEd or MA course.
The interview sample also included other science
education practitioners (21): four curriculum policy
makers (e.g. from QCA, Ofsted), four current textbook
authors, four leading participants in recent science
curriculum development projects, eight providers of
initial and in-service training from higher education,
local authority and independent sectors and one chief
examiner (other practitioners also had examining
experience).
Through semi-structured interviews of 3040
minutes duration, we explored their perceptions of
research on teaching and learning in science, and its
impact on their practices. The outline of the interview
schedule is shown in Box 1. A particular feature of
this was the Card Sort exercise. This was designed to
explore participants definition of research at an
optimum point in the interview. Each card showed an
activity that might or might not be construed as
research (Box 2). All the activities involve gathering
and analysis of data but involve different personnel
and purposes. Interviewees were asked whether or not
they would classify each activity as research. The
importance was not so much the choices that participants made in designating examples as research

Ratcliffe et al.

The nature of science education research

Box 1 Interview schedule


1

Do you think that anything you do in your teaching either in the classroom or in your preparation is
influenced by research? [or for other practitioners, e.g. INSET providers your practice as an INSET
provider]

You mentioned things like ... or I suppose teaching is influenced by things like ... the National
Curriculum, the textbooks/schemes of work that you use, the examination syllabuses you follow as the
main influences on how you teach. Do you think that these are influenced by research?

Card Sort task


3

We have been talking about research. It might be useful to clarify exactly what we are counting as
research. Could you look at these cards, and say for each of them whether the kind of thing that is
described on the card is, in your view, research.
Can you say in a sentence what is the common feature of the ones you regard as research? What is
the characteristic that makes them research? What is it about the ones you dont regard as research
that puts them in the not research category?

If you want to improve your science teaching [practice as an INSET provider, etc.] in some way, where
would you go to for ideas or guidance?
Would research have a role to play in this?
Would this be a major role, or a relatively minor one?

We have been talking about improving science teaching. If you or a colleague make a change in
something you do, how do you decide if it is an improvement?

What contribution, if any, could research make to improving the overall quality of school science
education? Im not thinking here just of your own teaching, but of the whole business of school science
education.

Where does your knowledge of research come from?

but more the reasons for their choices.


To augment this interview data, and to probe issues
arising from it in greater detail, we also set up three
focus groups of primary teachers, and three of
secondary teachers. Each group had 68 members.
In a structured focus group session lasting around 90
minutes, we elicited their views on research and its
relevance to their practice. In order to accomplish this
effectively we constructed eight vignettes of real
examples of science education research. These
contained examples of various types including: a case
study of motivational effects based within one
classroom; an exploration of pupils conceptions of
human bodies in a non-educational setting; an
intervention showing differences in GCSE results
between test and control groups. The discussion,
which was audio-recorded, explored teachers
perceptions of the extent to which research can hope
to provide general guidelines for practice (can tell us
what works), and their views on what counts as
evidence in relation to their everyday practice.

Data analysis
The work produced three data sets: a set of transcripts
of 42 interviews with a range of potential users of
research; a set of transcripts of interviews with 20
teachers who had been involved with research; and a
set of transcripts of 6 focus group interviews. As a
team we analysed and coded all the transcripts using
a coding scheme that related to the key issues explored
and allowed for codes emerging from the data.

Outcomes
At a general level, in distinguishing between activities
they had classified as research and non-research,
interviewees argued that research:
was done with a purpose in mind;
was carried out in a systematic manner (often
using controls or comparisons);
would be used to inform action;
may be large scale.
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The nature of science education research

Ratcliffe et al.

Box 2 Activities used in Card Sort task


1

A researcher is testing a new thinking skills course. The course is being taught to several classes.
The childrens performance on a test of thinking skills is being compared to that of several control
classes which are similar to the others, but who have not been taught the course.

A group of OFSTED inspectors is observing teaching and documentation in a school, and writing an
inspection report.

QCA are reporting on a KS2 test paper for science/An examination board is reporting on a GCSE
science paper, discussing the performance of the pupils on each question.

A teacher is administering and marking an end-of-topic test, and using the data to produce a
spreadsheet showing pupil marks on each question, to discuss with colleagues in the school/science
department.

An LEA science adviser/inspector is carrying out a survey to find out about the computer facilities and
resources in schools/science departments in the authority.

A researcher is visiting a classroom to carry out a detailed study of the actions and discussions of two
groups of pupils as they carry out a science investigation, leading to a fully-documented report on how
each group went about the task.

A teacher is using a set of questions to evaluate pupils understanding of electric circuits before
teaching the topic, and then using the same questions afterwards to see how they have progressed.

For individuals, often just one or two of these features


were dominant in their thinking. In contrast, examples
of non-research were seen as:
just collecting information;
part of normal practice;
usually small scale.
In general, those teachers without research experience
professed limited notions of what constitutes research,
even given the general comments they made on
purpose and methodology. These generalisations
across all interviews hide interesting and contrasting
perspectives on these perceived attributes of research.
The vast majority of interviewees considered that
the purpose of an activity was a major determinant in
deciding whether the activity was research (as
implied in the responses given at the beginning of
this article). Going beyond fact-finding and giving
a focus to the use of collected data were seen as
important in research. However, there were distinct
perspectives as to what the purpose might be. For
most, the expectation that there was clear purpose, of
whatever nature, was sufficient; for example:
My understanding of research is that it is
collected or it is undertaken for a reason. There
has to be some kind of focus for it and there
must be a reason for it being done, whether it is

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to, you know, to find out what, which flavour of


ice lolly is going to sell best in the shops or
whether it is to work out which teaching
method, whether one teaching method is
superior to another in you know teaching a
particular group of children or whatever.
(William, teacher with research experience)
Its about collecting data and interpreting that
data and using it for a purpose. (Anna, INSET
provider)
Im looking for a clear sense of purpose and
that leads to knowing not only why theyre
doing it, but what use are they going to make of
the data that theyve produced. (Ruth, INSET
provider)
However, for some a clear focus on improving
teaching or learning was important, for example:
I think if they use the information to try and
improve the situation, then I would class it as
research. If they use it try and improve the
quality of the test, or to improve the quality of
the teaching, to ensure that pupils learn better,
then theyve used the information theyve found
out to improve the situation and it will be
classed as research. (Michael, secondary
teacher)

Ratcliffe et al.

Well, I would say that all these, the ones that


Ive said yes to, its for a purpose, i.e. youre
trying to establish some good practice or other.
Youre trying to say, either trying to improve
your teaching or youre trying to improve your
resources. (Nancy, teacher with research
experience)
I cant see the purpose of any research that
doesnt actually engage with enhancing
childrens learning, not educational research,
can you? (Keith, textbook author)
Some interviewees saw research as requiring a prior
hypothesis:
When I am considering about research I am
looking for some sort of hypothesis that the
researcher is going in with but they have got
some idea of where their research is going and
that they are testing that and in order to
validate it I would expect them to have a similar
group of pupils of the same sort of age that they
are comparing against. (Fran, teacher with
research experience)
Others, in contrast, saw research as purposefully
exploring the unknown:
For me research is when you have a question
and you dont know what the answer is and you
are going looking for an answer. But you might
end up finding out that your initial question was
wrong. But you certainly dont know when you
start out whats going to happen at the end of it.
(Carol, teacher with research experience)
All the activities discussed in the Card Sort involved
gathering and analysis of data. However, the nature
of the data collection and analysis was important for
many in deciding whether an activity could be classed
as research. Methodological issues were commented
upon by more teachers with experience of research
and science education practitioners than teachers
without research experience. In many responses there
was an implication that data should be collected
systematically but without a clear discussion of what
constitutes validity and reliability.
Specific methodological attributes alluded to in
deciding whether an activity was research included:
The use of controls, with controls being seen as
important in giving a scientific basis to the
research:
It helps if there is some sort of control. It
depends what youre doing of course, but it

The nature of science education research

helps if theres some sort of control to measure


against. Thats not always possible, it depends
on what youre doing. (Valerie, curriculum
developer)
Making comparisons between different
populations, treatments, etc., with the expectation
that research undertaken in this way can provide
evidence for improving practice:
Well, my own view is that if its research it
should compare a situation, evaluate some
action to what effect has it had. I can appreciate
that it doesnt have to be that way, but thats my
own personal view. (Luke, teacher with research
experience)
The scale and scope of the activity, with studies
with large or multiple populations being seen as
providing better evidence for transfer of findings:
I think why I was putting some in the category
for research and some less is because if its
small scale and focused on one classroom or
one institution I suppose I was thinking of it
being too localised to necessarily have an
application which when published would necessarily be useful to another school. (George)
Critical analysis as a feature of rigorous research:
Well, I think, its, they are investigative things in
the true sense of the word. In that, although
youre going in with perhaps a model or a
question, or a hypothesis, or an idea, you are
looking at whatever it is youre finding,
critically. And youre looking at what it is
youve set out to do, critically. So your
presentation, your methodology may, you know,
maybe wrong, so that you may not be
generating valid and reliable information, so
that needs to be something that you are able to
do, willing to do. (James, teacher with research
experience)
Objectivity as a feature of rigorous research:
Ive also been aware of the fact that in writing a
... report myself, I may then have been rather
more subjective than I would like and I would
never want to hold it up and say this is a
research paper. If we could, however, begin to
characterise their responses and then put
numerical values to these in some way or other,
if it became more objective then I would say yes
it could be research. (Lawrence, INSET provider)

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The nature of science education research

In ensuring that research was objective, a few said or


implied that trained educational researchers were
essential for example:
If you just rely on the sort of standard questionnaires and interviews giving feedback from
teachers, teachers have a view about what goes
on in their classrooms, but its often not the
students view and its often not the view of an
impartial observer and therefore, if you are
trying to gain a view of what the impact of some
new teaching approach, of some new
curriculum material, some new resource of one
sort or another, what is happening, whether or
not it is leading to higher motivation, changed
attitudes, better learning, you know, youve got
to have some systematic way of answering that
question. And thats research. And the people
who are trained to do that are in higher
education. (Chris, curriculum developer)
However, several, particularly science education
practitioners and teachers with research experience,
recognised the potential of small-scale individual
studies as systematic research:
It could be a little bit of action research in
school and the extent to which I was going to
place reliance on these findings would depend
very much on exactly how Id carried out the
exercise and how objective I really thought it
was. I mean the virtue of this of course is that
you could actually begin to compare your
methodology and your findings with national
findings from .... Um, so yep. It could well be
characterised as research. (Lawrence, INSET
provider)
If there were differences between teachers with and
without research experience, it was that those with
research experience were more likely to articulate
clear views on the nature of research and, interestingly,
more prepared to envisage research taking a variety
of forms ranging from individual action-research to
large-scale studies. However, collection of data,
particularly by a lone individual, was not seen to
constitute research by any interviewee. Thus the scope
and purpose of an activity was important to many.
Of interest are possible features of research which
are notable by their absence. No explicit mention was
made of the need for a theoretical framework in
discussing the distinctive features of research. The
closest comment was Jamess (above) in relation to
critical analysis.

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Summary
The interviews gave perceptions of what constitutes
research evidence, resulting, as seen, in some common
concerns about purpose and methodology but with
interesting, and perhaps unresolvable, individual
views and nuances. There appears no one common or
even dominant view of science education research.
Rather different activities are seen as constituting
research provided they fulfil the important criteria of
having a clear purpose and an appropriate methodology.
Science education practitioners become familiar
with the research methods in science, often during
their undergraduate study. Unless they have engaged
in educational research, they may have far less
familiarity with social science research methods. We
detected in some interviewees a scientific, that is,
experimental model of research as dominant in
responding to interview questions. More discussion
with practitioners in professional settings about the
variety and purpose of social science research methods
may assist teacher evaluation of research evidence.
We might ask at this point whether there is a
difference between what is seen as research and what
is seen as good research. The extent to which reported
research evidence is seen as convincing was one topic
explored in the focus groups. In summary, for focus
group participants, the research presented in the
vignettes was seen as convincing if it had resonance
with teachers experience, was viewed as transferable
across different contexts and came from studies where
there was seen to be a clear methodology (usually
involving large samples). More detailed discussion
of the criteria used to judge research evidence as
convincing, and worthy of influencing practice and
policy, is in the full report of this project. We hope
that the complete analysis from the EPSE projects
will allow the development of models of effective
involvement of teachers in shaping and using research.

Ratcliffe et al.

The nature of science education research

Acknowledgements
We are very grateful to all the interviewees for participating. The work reported is part of one project (of four)
being carried out by the Evidence-based Practice in Science Education (EPSE) Research Network, which is
funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the Teaching and Learning
Research Programme (TLRP) (award no. L139 25 1003). We are grateful to ESRC and to the TLRP steering
committee for their support.

References
Cordingley, P. (1999) Constructing and critiquing reflective
practice. Educational Action Research, 7(2), 183190.
Elliott, J. (2001) Making evidence-based practice
educational. British Educational Research Journal, 27(5),
555574.
EPSE website: www.york.ac.uk/depts/educ/projs/EPSE

Sebba, J. (2000) A strategic approach to research and


development In What works? Evidence-based policy and
practice in public services, ed. Davies, H. T. O., Nutley,
S. M. and Smith, P. C. Bristol: The Policy Press.
TTA (1999) www.canteach.gov.uk/community/research/
consortia/annrev99.htm (Accessed 22.10.02)

Fitz-Gibbon, C. (2000) Education: realising the potential.


In What works? Evidence-based policy and practice in
public services, ed. Davies, H. T. O., Nutley, S. M. and
Smith, P. C. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Mary Ratcliffe, University of Southampton, Hannah Bartholomew and Jonathan Osborne, Kings College
London, Vicky Hames and Robin Millar, University of York, Andy Hind and John Leach, University of Leeds,
are all members of the EPSE Research Network.

A piece of research that influenced me


was one by Mick Nott and Jerry Wellington (1993) that explored the idea of a nature of science
profile. Although originally written for teachers, this article suggested a simple way of getting my
Access students to reflect on their opinions and experiences of science. I have since used this
questionnaire with Access students at a point towards the end of their one-year, intensive course,
just before they leave further education and progress to higher education. My aims are to encourage
the students to consider their image of science seriously, to think, learn and reflect on this image, as
well as to provide an enjoyable but thought-provoking experience. When used, it always provokes
discussion, reflection and the positive feeling that they want to go on!
Nott, M. and Wellington, J. (1993)Your nature of science profile: an activity for science teachers.
SSR, 75(270), 109112.
Dave Pickersgill, Sheffield College

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