In 1997, Prof S. Gopinathan made an observation that education research wasn’t making enough impact on policy or practice. Are things any different now? We caught up with the founding editor of SingTeach to find out.
As a veteran teacher educator and researcher, Professor S. Gopinathan has always believed in power of research. But even more so, he believed that research has to be documented, shared and disseminated for its impact to be felt.
To this end, he helped establish the Education Research Association of Singapore (ERAS), and spearheaded its many annual conferences. When the Centre for Research of Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) was established, he also helped launch the Redesigning Pedagogy Conference.
This also explains why he notched up more than 140 published works over a long and illustrious career in education, and edited publications such as SingTeach and the Asia Pacific Journal of Education.
A notable work is Education and the Nation State: The Selected Works of S. Gopinathan, which was published just last year. The book is a compilation of his best works, including book chapters and research articles.
2013 also saw CRPP celebrating its 10th year anniversary. Prof Gopi had helmed the Centre and was instrumental in establishing and expanding CRPP to what it is today: a leading force in education research in Asia.
We caught up with Prof Gopi recently and asked for his views on the current state of education research in Singapore, and the role of teacher research in improving the teaching force.
Q: In a 1997 conference keynote address, you observed that research has not impacted upon policy and practice as much as researchers would like. Has that changed now?
I think we’re looking down 16 years, and the answer to your question is, yes. A point I made was that in the past, the worlds of the policymaker, the practitioner and the researcher were three separate worlds. The policymakers were dealing with substantial issues on education policies and reform, big-picture issues. Sometimes they had research to draw upon, sometimes they didn’t, but nevertheless they had to make decisions.
The world of the practitioner was largely the school. They had very little input into policy. They were basically “policy consumers”, if you would like. But it wasn’t always the case that they understood well why a policy was formulated in a particular way but they recognized their role was to implement it.
The researchers were in a slightly different position. They could draw upon international and regional research and they were less pressurized by time. But for many, while they knew what the important research questions of the day were, there wasn’t a substantial amount of money for high-quality research.
As a result of the commitment in 2003 by MOE to fund the establishment of CRPP, substantial funds became available to researchers. Secondly, the Ministry had acknowledged clearly that policymaking in the future had to be either evidence-based or evidence-influenced. NIE researchers were tasked with providing that evidence.
We’re in the situation now where the impact on policy and practice is much greater in 2013 than it was in 1997. Also, we’ve been able to develop a larger pool of well-qualified researchers, as our system matured. We now have a critical mass.
Q: Tell us about your experience in CRPP.
Oh, I think it was a very exciting time! It was a major commitment by the MOE to say that we’ll need to plan reform, not on the basis of ideology or by being reactive to circumstances, but to plan reform for the long term. The only way in which that reform was going to be credible and acceptable, was that if it was grounded on good, solid evidence. It was a huge commitment on the part of the Ministry, and an act of confidence in the ability of NIE. For me it ushered in a new era of research and policy coming together.
Also, we committed ourselves to a lot of sharing with MOE and bodies like the Academy of Principals and Academy of Singapore Teachers. In my view, that needs to continue and that needs to be even more substantively encouraged. We are sitting on a body of extremely valuable, nuanced research on what is happening in the classrooms that very few systems can claim to have.
And the only way that this research can improve practice is if more teachers, principals, heads of departments know about it, the more it is going to stimulate thinking and discussion. SingTeach and the Redesigning Pedagogy conferences, for example, are all efforts that we need to continue so that a majority of teachers will become familiar with research.
There is a need for teachers to think of themselves as researchers, but not necessarily in the mould of university-based or scholarly researchers.
– Prof S. Gopinathan, Policy & Leadership Studies and Curriculum, Teaching & Learning Academic Groups
Q: What do you think of teacher research, or teachers doing education research?
The field of teacher research in Singapore had emerged in the past 15 to 20 years. And the reason is because policymakers and others are beginning to recognize that teachers cannot always be only policy consumers. The needed reforms are of such a magnitude that you need to have teachers thinking of themselves as knowledge workers. They will have to begin to understand some of the complexities of change, and what will be required to change. Teachers will need to take ownership of the change process.
So how do we get a more professionalized teaching force? How do we get them to think of themselves as knowledge workers? They must have an affinity and openness to new knowledge and understandings, and research.
There is now a conviction that teachers have a lot of tacit knowledge. They may not express it in the way a researcher asks his questions, but it is very real to them. So you now see action research and the emergence of communities of learning and lesson study: These are all examples of teachers coming together, identifying their pedagogical issues, and sharing their expertise.
There is a need for teachers to think of themselves as researchers, but not necessarily in the mould of university-based or scholarly researchers. They need research of a different kind, for different purposes. For them, there is a certain immediacy. For example, teachers would come together and say: “We’ve got an issue with our Math achievement in our primary classes. There is a body of research that NIE has done, but does this address the particular problems that we think we have? Or can we do something ourselves?”
So that is where I see teacher research coming into play. But that needs capacity building. I’m glad to see the Ministry is investing in more and more teachers doing their Masters. It’s an endorsement of teacher research, so that teachers will have some formal understanding of research, research methodology, asking the right questions and so on.