The Double Standard of Ethics in Educational Research

I am at the BERA 2016 conference this week. For an unapologetic empiricist, its a bit of an odd place to be.

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Yesterday I attended a small seminar at the conference, convened by BERA’s Practitioner Research Special Interest Group (SIG). There has been a lot of talk recently about the challenges faced in helping teachers to engage with research. A combination of lack of support from senior management, unhelpful writing styles, limited access to journal articles, and perfunctory or non-existent research methods courses in initial teacher education means that teachers tend not to engage fully with the research that is there to help inform what they do. This is in contrast to other, comparable, professions. For example, as a part of the everyday responsibility of being a nurse or a doctor there is the expectation that one will not only keep up to date with relevant research but be actively involved in new research. Not so in teaching.

It was, therefore, fascinating to hear at the seminar about a postgraduate degree delivered in Wales for newly qualified teachers, a part of which reflected the norms for nurses and doctors by helping these teachers to develop their research literacy and engagement. This Masters in Education Practice degree ran over three years and culminated in a research project designed and implemented by the teacher and guided by research mentors.

We were told about one such project where a teacher used an action research approach to explore a method of giving feedback to her students on their work. The project involved eight students in one class, who had been classified as having Additional Learning Needs (Wales’ equivalent of SEN), and ran for six sessions. It appeared to be a great success. The teacher was very happy with the results of her research enquiry and felt that she had tapped into a way to improve the outcomes for her students. At the end of her presentation she described what she felt were the limitations of her study and implications for further research.

I felt that this was a brilliant introduction to research for this teacher. She was clearly extremely switched on and reflective about her practice. Moreover, she demonstrated keen understanding about how her research had informed her teaching and its potential to continue to help her develop as a professional. I asked, therefore, whether she intended to build on this small scale study to explore whether it could be helpful beyond the eight SEN children with whom she had developed her hypothesis.

This is where it got odd. I suggested that it would be interesting to involve all of her classes, to divide them into two groups, give one the promising approach that she had piloted with SEN children and continue to teach the others with her usual approach. Then to compare the results. At this an audible intake of breath filled the room, followed by cries of “Ethics!”. “That would be unethical?” two said in unison. “Why?”, I asked. To which the usual trope was trotted out, asserting that denying an apparently promising teaching approach to one set of children, while delivering it to another group, is ethically indefensible.

Rebuttals to this trope are not new, but it is worth going over them again with reference to this project. First, the ‘ethics criers’ appeared not to see the irony of their position, as they celebrated a research project that delivered a promising intervention to only eight of this teacher’s children while denying it to all the others. Neither did they acknowledge the double standard expressed in the idea that a teacher can deliver whatever untested approach she likes to all of her students without ethical approval, but that if she wants to try it out in only half of them, so that she has a better idea of its effects, she is acting unethically. Moreover, by implication, they express the notion that new teaching approaches are only ever positive, without acknowledging the possibility that some new teaching approaches can have negative effects, or can add nothing to what is already being done.

This raises two ethical issues. First, if we are convinced (preferably by good research) that a new teaching approach is categorically better than existing approaches, then the ‘ethics criers’ are correct, we mustn’t wilfully deny it to children who may benefit from it (for example, all the children in this teachers’ classes who were not in her action research group). However, if uncertainty exists about the effects of a new teaching approach (such as the uncertainties expressed by this teacher when she described the limitations of her study), the only ethical course of action is to assess these effects properly. The best way to assess the effects of a new teaching approach is to compare it with an alternative.

So, to add my voice to the conversation about why teachers don’t engage in research: one possibility is that when motivated and clever young teachers are told (by the Practitioner Research SIG of the British Education Research Association of all things) that they are entitled to develop thoughtful educational theories but that they are not entitled to test those theories properly, we are failing to educate them about educational research and we are, therefore, enforcing an embargo on their professional development in this regard. The promise of the Masters in Education Practice to raise research literacy in teachers was fatally compromised by this peculiar attitude to what is and what is not ethical in educational research.

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3 comments

  1. Steven Watson

    The problem with encouraging a quasi experimental approach is not just an issue of ethics. There is the problem of causitly, without random assignment it is not possible to attribute the cause to the intervention. Second, the intervention is likely to result in a very small effect, of a sample of 60 (two classes: experiment and control group) leading to a significant effect is unlikely. Action research is a viable approach for classroom research for these reasons, since you can examine processes, experience and potentially develop theory. Understanding how an intervention has worked is at least as valuable as trying to measure its effect.

    • Hamish Chalmers

      Thanks Steven. I agree that, where possible, comparison which uses unbiased allocation schedules should be used to assess the differential effects of alternative approaches, though I wouldn’t argue that it is “not possible” to make causal inferences based on quasi-experimental designs. In the case of this teacher, I think that a comparison of two classes (which, for the purposes of a power calculation, is only two units regardless of the number of students in the class, not 60) is likely to need a very dramatic difference in effect if a causal inference is to be drawn confidently. Perhaps a stratified allocation by year group would reveal more. For the sake of argument, if she teaches her subject in every year group, Year 7 to Year 13 and there are two classes per year group, one in each year group could be randomly allocated to the new teaching approach and the other to usual teaching. That would give you a better powered study. Better still, if she partnered with other teachers in her region and extended the study in that way we might be in a position to be even more confident that any observed difference in effect is attributable to the teaching approach and not a result of the play of chance.

      I am not denigrating the role of action research and I haven’t argued that it shouldn’t be done. Quite the contrary. I hope that I made clear that the action research approach has allowed this teacher to engage in educational research, thoroughly investigate a topic that is meaningful to her and her students, and develop an interesting research question that could be addressed in a formal comparison. My concern is that misguided assumptions about what is ethical in education research puts the brakes on her ever doing so.

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