Ethics versus political bias

Can ethical guidelines prevent research findings being misused by politicians, asks Anna Traianou.

Pupil and teacher readingIt is widely agreed that there are benefits to be gained when teaching is informed by educational research findings. However, there is also wide disagreement about what sort of research is of value, and what its relationship to the practice of teaching should be. Indeed, this is an issue about which there is a history of recurrent dispute.

The most recent, and perhaps the most serious, crisis over this issue began in the late 1990s. At this time there were calls for educational practice to become ‘evidence-based’, on the model of ‘evidence-based medicine’: in other words, that it should be guided primarily by evidence produced by systematic reviews of evidence deriving from randomised controlled trials (RCTs). 

The emergence of the evidence-based practice movement took place against a background of increasing national policy interventions in the field of education, some of which were presented as being based on research evidence. It is easy to see the affinity between the idea that research evidence is the appropriate basis for educational practice, and the project of successive governments to bring curriculum and pedagogy under the control of policy, and ‘drive up standards’ by making professional practice ‘transparently accountable’.

In a recent paper, Ellis and Moss (2014) provide an alarming example of the effects of this approach. They describe how the Clackmannanshire phonics intervention, a piece of psychological research whose findings are open to serious question, was promoted as a source of strong evidence in a field said to be characterised by ‘ideology’, and came to be used by politicians to extend control over the early-years literacy curriculum. They state that this case raises ethical issues about how researchers should relate to policy-makers, and how they should make recommendations about professional practice.

Ellis and Moss argue that because classrooms are complex, diverse settings containing children with very different needs, researchers who are trying to decide what could be successful in practice must take into account the body of knowledge built up across a range of areas of education research, not a single discipline, and also the findings of research concerned with policy implementation. They also point out that this case illustrates how researchers are now operating in a landscape in which powerful political and commercial pressures, often undisclosed, can seriously distort the use of research findings.

They conclude that whilst academics cannot control how their research is eventually used by policy-makers, research associations should nevertheless strengthen their ethical guidelines so that they ‘provide clearer rules for researchers working across knowledge domains and with policy-makers’ (p1). They point to medical research guidelines as providing a more adequate framework for encouraging researchers to weigh the nature and breadth of the evidence that they have in front of them, alongside the knowledge generated through implementation, plus political and commercial pressures, so that they are better able to judge how their research would be useful, to whom, and in what circumstances.

There is much to be said for this proposal. Ethical guidelines should not merely focus on the protection of research participants, but must also aim to protect academic researchers, education professionals, children, and the public from the misuse of research findings (see Hammersley & Traianou, 2012). However, it is open to question whether strengthening ethical guidelines is sufficient to meet the challenges that Ellis and Moss outline. Doing this might perhaps help to tackle problems arising in the relationships between researchers in different disciplines whose work is relevant to the same practice field. But a political campaign on the part of professional associations of researchers and teachers may be required to reverse ‘the restrictions government policy now sets on the freedom of university academics in England to engage critically with literacy research and to enable teachers and student teachers to do this’ (p6).

What is at stake here is not just the ethics of researchers, but also the encroachment of political and commercial imperatives on a professional field, and the misuse of research to promote the myth that there could be a single strategy that works best with all children in all circumstances.

Dr Anna Traianou is Reader in Educational Studies at the Department of Educational Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London.

  1. Ellis, S., & Moss, G. (2014). Ethics, education policy and research: the phonics question reconsideredBritish Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 241-260.
  2. Hammersley, M., & Traianou, A. (2012). Qualitative Research Ethics: Controversies and Contexts: London: Sage.

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