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It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity today to discuss research in learning and the role of the Canadian Council on Learning in providing research and policy options. Given the importance of education for every segment of society, I can’t think of a more important audience than the educators of tomorrow.
As educators and researchers, you are part of the broader learning community that must address the challenge of how to ensure that our research meets the needs of a changing profession in a changing world. In this presentation, I will endeavour to give you some insights into the role you will soon be called upon to play.
You are all either professors or doctoral students, which means that none of you believes everything you hear.
Feel free, then, to take my words today with a grain of salt.
I can’t remember who said: “I’ve made it this far by listening to every piece of good advice and doing the exact opposite.”
It was probably the same person who said: “I can believe anything as long as it’s unbelievable.”
My presentation will include two parts. First, I’d like to offer my perspective on the education research issues set out by the symposium’s scientific committee. The second part is linked to the first since the mandate of the Canadian Council on Learning, which I will briefly describe, in a way exemplifies the type of research that I believe ought to be promoted in the field of education.
First, some insights into the issues and challenges related to education research.
It is true, as stated by the symposium’s scientific committee, that the institutional, social and environmental context is evolving rapidly. There is a call for teams of researchers, involving not only multiple universities, but also multiple disciplines, and also for stronger linkages between researchers and social, economic, environmental and technological issues. The preferred model involves teams of researchers familiar with diverse geographic and political contexts, who can fully exploit existing databases using new technologies, and who understand the need for a cross-disciplinary approach to the issues.
I should mention that today’s education research world is affected by the same types of changes and challenges as other disciplines. Unfortunately, this field has not been in the forefront in terms of consciously developing areas of research relevant to practitioners and education policy-makers. I believe education researchers are faced with a stark choice: will they exercise profound influence on the choice of topics and approaches in both policy and practice? Or will they be relegated to the margins as society faces today’s major challenges, shunted aside in esoteric fields of research?
A brief anecdote illustrates this point. One of my good friends and colleagues, who is a renowned education researcher and also the deputy minister of education in a Canadian province, was trying to sell a certain research project to his minister when the minister answered dismissively: “this research doesn’t vote in my riding”. The minister was making two points:
In other words, we must first run the relevance of any research by the public before we can hope to exert real influence on politicians.
In our studies and research on education, we must constantly strive to produce results that are relevant to the overall evolution of learning.
What is the future of research? How can we do it better? How can we ensure its relevance? We are looking at a future of new relationships and partnerships in which universities and other stakeholders will need to reflect on the way they conduct research and how they share it in a global information environment.
I bring a particular perspective to the task of research in education and learning. My background is as a university professor and administrator, a medical scientist and social scientist, and most recently, prior to joining the Canadian Council on Learning, as Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education. I have always had a particular interest in the relationship between university research and government policy. This includes issues relating to public accountability and encouraging the maximum return on good research that has relevance beyond academic circles…research that reaches practitioners and policy makers alike.
Having participated in academia, in health and social research, and in public sector organizations, I’ve had an opportunity to learn along my career path how research can evolve to meet the needs of a large community made up of actors with different priorities. I refer to this as relevant research…its relevance is born from its ability to be a tool in realizing discoveries, finding problematic gaps, suggesting policy alternatives and delivering sound programs. This is particularly relevant in terms of looking at aspects of learning and education across the country.
In the structure of government that we have, education is a provincial responsibility. At the Council and, in my previous position with the Council of Ministers of Education, we are building a pan-Canadian learning network that has been designed from the outset as a source for research sharing, comparison, access to best practices for policy makers and a national ability to, through research, find the gaps and the opportunities in all aspects of learning in Canada. Research that we conduct or support reflects the diversity of approaches across the country where there already are some clear examples of strong practices that should be shared across the board. For example, the province of Quebec is a recognized leader in early childhood learning.
Over the coming days, you will be discussing a number of pertinent aspects of educational research and its practice in the information age. As well, an important area of discussion is the evolution of the practice of research as a generational shift begins to take hold, not only in universities and research-based organizations, but across the spectrum of government and the private sector. With these topics in mind I’d like to discuss a little history, a little current context and, in particular through my lens at CCL, the future of what we can achieve as researchers and educators in the coming years.
Let’s look back a little bit at the origins of 20th century research paradigms in universities and other publicly-funded organizations. The University of Berlin, using the approach of Humboldt, was perhaps most influential in creating the model of faculties and departments and the disciplinary structure that we still know today. This model is discipline based, reflecting university departmental structures and a taxonomy of knowledge derived from a 19th century view.
In essence, the focus is on the individual researcher, who in turn is closely linked to an international peer network or guild of fellow researchers in the same discipline or sub-discipline. Often this results in a shared value system of the guild, including performance evaluation and the determination of what is good research and who the best researchers are. This internal value system is often viewed as more important to the researcher than the values, policies and strategies of the organization that is the funding body.
In this traditional research model, support is given to as many useful research projects as possible, spanning as broad a range of problems as possible, in order to maximize the likelihood of reaching a useful and beneficial outcome.
We might call this “research mode 1” in our typology of research.
University governance structures are based on collegiality, the ideal of a community of scholars and shared decision making.
Faculty reward systems, particularly regarding individual career progress, promotion and tenure, are related to individual scholarly performance, centred on peer review.
There is a strong belief in the value of a close link between research and teaching and this distinguishes universities from other tertiary institutions.
The goal of graduate teaching is to produce the next generation of researchers, suitably inducted into the disciplinary guild.
There is a strong belief that universities are the proper home of basic research. Applied research, technology, and commercialisation are better done elsewhere.
The products of research are freely circulated, evaluated by peers, and available to other scholars.
Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are based on shared trust and a public consensus about the intrinsic value of universities.
This portrait of the ‘traditional paradigm’ is somewhat caricaturized. By and large, it has served both the university and society well. We must be careful, in advocating change, that we preserve what is of value. Also, the traditional model of university-led scientific research for its own sake strikes a sympathetic chord with all of us.
The traditional model assumes that areas of basic research that will produce real benefits or practical applications can NOT be pinpointed in advance. Good things, by way of socially and economically desirable outcomes, will undoubtedly happen, but no one can predict where. The best strategy is therefore to support as much good research as possible across the broadest possible range of research problems, to maximize the probability of something useful emerging somewhere. So basic research remains both fundamental and untargeted.
However, we must constantly question our choices to ensure that our research has uses beyond filling a quota and does not stay in a silo. Therefore, we need an alternative “research mode 2,” focusing on specific questions with concrete implications.
Let us now look at some of the forces and trends that are rapidly altering this traditional context in the post cold war era.
I believe that one of the visible impacts of all these changes has been a genuine breakdown of the public consensus about the value and importance of universities. The ‘traditional model’ included a belief shared by universities, government and the public that university activities were ‘self-justifying’, and that the best strategy was to permit institutions to govern themselves. In particular, decisions about what research to pursue, how to allocate research funding, and how to evaluate the results of research activity were best left to the research community itself. Researchers and, indirectly, their universities, would be accountable through peer review, reflecting tha values and priorities of the disciplinary ‘guild’.
As suggested at the outset, the order of the day is now public review, accountability, and justification of public funding in a competitive fiscal environment.Governments are responding to public pressure for ‘relevance’, ‘results’, ‘value for money’ by taking increasing control of the research policy agenda away from universities and managing it themselves.
In mode II the research context is largely independent of disciplinary guilds. It is application driven. Advancing the frontiers of knowledge is a discipline is not the goal. It is transdisciplinary. That is, it involves complex groups of researchers with heterogeneous skills and knowledge.
This research takes place in heterogeneous networks of institutions which go beyond universities and may include government agencies, private sector R & D laboratories, NGOs, and even freelance individuals. These networks are often transient, even virtual, and exist only for the purpose of addressing the problem at hand, after which they mutate or even disappear. What we are observing here are national or even international systems of innovation seen from a university perspective. Michael Gibbons calls it a ‘socially-distributed knowledge system.’
The networks involve multiple stakeholders who are accountable in different ways to different publics or organizations. The research is therefore not subject to any single administrative hierarchy. There tends to be greater social and public accountability than in mode I but much less discipline-based accountability.
While some participants may be subject to peer review, mode II research has an expanded system of quality control that involves values and distinct goals that reflect the variety of participants.
We are witnessing the appearance of mode II research. There are strong pressures, mainly from the outside, to do more of it. Moving along this track would certainly help universities to address government concerns about quality, relevance, and accountability for research funding. It does however, raise a number of serious questions about university management and governance, indeed about the value system and mandates under which universities hae become accustomed to operating.
Allow me to open a parenthesis to note an aspect of relevance to research mode 2.
You have an opportunity here to address some of the research under way across Canada. I know that there is an inclination in Quebec to turn to European sources. But it is in our interest to consider promising research topics and practices in Canadian provinces, not only because there are many more similarities between the education systems in Quebec and in other provinces than between those in Quebec and in other countries, but also because learning is so closely linked to other aspects of the economy and society, deeply rooted in communities throughout Canada. In other words, it is desirable for us to address pan-Canadian challenges and issues.
When we look at the expectations of the value of the research we do, there is increasing demand for research that responds to precise issues of public policy: research mode 2. As a broad example, in the context of education and learning, governments are constantly grappling with issues on the ground, trying to reconcile fiscal reality and programming imperatives. Governments must also meet the challenges of competitiveness and productivity, for example in terms of labour force quality. These issues require concerted research, but this research is often commissioned from private organizations or consulting firms rather than university researchers. Why is this, when we have so many competent researchers in our institutions? The issue is not one of competence, but of focus: university researchers are usually preoccupied with traditional, mode 1 research.
Increasingly, interdisciplinary teams are required to arrive at the conclusions sought by policy and decision makers. It is not uncommon now for economists, social scientists, environmental and educational experts to work together to deliver the requested research for precise issues. In my own experience in developing cross-regional or national networks I’ve noticed that cooperation is growing, that organizations are more and more willing to share information in order to deal with similar challenges and that cross-disciplinary interaction and project integration is fast becoming the norm as research demands become more focused.
Let me stress once more how beneficial it would be for Quebec researchers to work with their Canadian colleagues, given the close similarity between educational challenges in all provinces. By deploying our efforts and expertise collectively, we can focus on key areas of interest.
At CMEC, ministers of education have found that the most useful exchanges take place during informal sessions, because the environment they work in and the issues they deal with do not differ a great deal between provinces. This led them to seek joint areas for action and a shared policy framework.
In my own experience relevant research is research that responds to the needs and demands of practitioners and policy makers. This research is required to make solid and sustainable policy decisions that positively affect the practitioner and the student. Adapting to the reality that, governments in particular, no longer “blanket fund” research activities, that they increasingly fund specific projects, means a trend in the research community to niche specialization.
As I mentioned earlier, as a result, we will see more competition and, although this may seem contradictory, more collaboration between universities and other types of research institutions in order to respond to the demands of the decision-making bodies. This will favour the emergence of research mode 2. I believe that this evolution and these new practical demands are in fact a positive direction for research. A repeating theme through my own experience and the organizations I’ve been involved with has demonstrated that cooperative inter-organizational models achieve the most valuable and useful research for public policy consumption.
Research in many ways is now the driver of public policy. The element of politics will always be present, but, as challenges and pressures rise the need for real and sustainable policy options grow. The role of the researcher has become “foundation builder” for longer-term public policy solutions that eclipse the better known quick-fix political approach.
Through the public policy lens, we have to look at the research. The basis for evaluating what is the public benefit of the research is: What is the return on public or private investment? Where is the accountability for public funds?
There is always a desire to maintain the status quo or to make minor adjustments to maintain a below-the-radar level of satisfaction that can survive the changing whims of governments and other institutions. There are many who feel this is the best approach.
Consensus on change will never be fully reached. There is always talk of broad and sweeping changes in research that suggest abandoning the old tried and true for the bold and unknown. However, there is also a resistance to relinquishing loyalties to club models.
I believe that reluctance to adapt to changing realities, to a changing world, represents a challenge to the very careers that people build in the varied world of research. With the increasing demands for innovation and public accountability, the issues of relevance and of cooperation in research become the focal points for sustainability of the profession.
What is truly needed is a concerted research effort that addresses the silos that many in the research community find themselves operating in. In learning and education we have made strides in this respect, as the model of the Canadian Council on Learning demonstrates. But we also want to continue to break down the traditional barriers to shared knowledge in order to build stronger research that supports more effective policy.
While I was with the Council of Ministers of Education, I discovered how truly beneficial it is to be able to share cross-jurisdictional research and information, in that case province to province for the benefit of each and every one. Today, as the Canadian Council on Learning continues to build its pan-Canadian infrastructure, we will apply lessons learned with some innovative new approaches to research gathering and dissemination that benefits society by finding our successes and our ongoing challenges in all areas of learning in Canada. The benefits of cooperation and of sharing information far outweigh the self-satisfaction of containment and ownership within organizations.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and to explain the work of the Canadian Council on Learning. I wish you well in your deliberations in the coming days and look forward to working with many of you in the months and years ahead.
I’m happy to take your questions.
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