Jane Abbiss

Valuing curriculum research: Taking a second look

Jane Abbiss University of Canterbury, New Zealand Tuesday 10 October 2017

In an age of research excellence assessment, what type of curriculum research is valued?

The field of curriculum research is varied. There are scholars whose work is renowned internationally and whose theorising around curriculum has had a profound impact on thinking in the field (including, for example, Maxine Greene, William Pinar, Ivor Goodson, Michael Apple). Curriculum research, though, also includes research relating to the curriculum in practice, pedagogy and assessment, in the context of particular national curriculum policy frameworks, sectors (including school and early years) and subjects. This work is often conducted by teacher educators and practitioner researchers. It is work that matters precisely for its practice orientation, because it supports the making of connections between theory and practice that directly impacts children and young people. This practice-oriented research might be published in scholarly peer-reviewed journals, but these journals may be nationally-focused and of ‘lesser’ academic status than the ‘big name’ and highly ranked international academic journals (see, for example, Set: Research Information for Teachers), or in non peer reviewed teacher journals or magazines. The notion that knowledge gains value in practice can be seen as an argument for curriculum research as a public good – in the generic (rather than economic) sense that curriculum research is of value to the public, particularly to education communities. However, the extent to which this type of curriculum research is valued in research environments with excellence assessment regimes is debatable.   

‘Common to these regimes is a focus on quality as measured by the nature of research outputs and where these are published.’

In some countries, the university research environment is heavily influenced by performance regimes. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the Research Excellence Framework (REF), Australia has the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) evaluation framework, and New Zealand has the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). Common to these regimes is a focus on quality as measured by the nature of research outputs and where these are published. In the United Kingdom, a star ranking is applied to research to indicate the extent to which research is world leading and recognised in originality, significance and rigour (REF, 2011) and in New Zealand the quality categories similarly indicate the level to which research outputs are of a world-class standard (ranking with the best within the discipline) or of a lesser nationally recognised standard (TEC, 2016a). Publication in international journals, with high ‘impact factors’ from research impact metrics, is an indicator used to substantiate research quality.

Focusing on the New Zealand context suggests, though, that the valuing of curriculum research within a research quality performance regime is problematic. At first glance, the aims of PBRF appear to support curriculum research that makes theory-practice connections, informs and influences teaching practice, and communicates research in the wider community. Objectives of the fund include facilitating “knowledge transfer to New Zealand businesses, iwi [tribes] and communities” (TEC, 2016b). However, PBRF has been identified as problematic for teacher education and practice-based disciplines, where valued outputs tend to relate to service to a professional community rather than the more highly valued academic publishing currency (Grant and Elizabeth, 2014; Middleton, 2006). There is a particular dilemma for teacher educators in reporting their research, where this reporting is interpreted narrowly as writing and publishing outputs (Gunn et al, 2016). PBRF is problematic for university located researchers and teacher educators who seek to publish in the field of curriculum research, but who also have strong commitments to teaching communities and to influencing practice and disseminating research information in ways that are accessible and meaningful for teachers.

At second glance, then, there are questions about the efficacy of PBRF in supporting and valuing research, including curriculum research, that informs practice in professional fields and work in communities. There is an ongoing tension relating to what counts (is valued) as writing and publishing for curriculum research. And there is irony in a situation where the mechanisms of a performance regime that is intended to act for the public good by promoting knowledge transfer to communities and influencing practice appear to actually militate against these aims. The types of publication that are valued within the PBRF framework are not necessarily those that support the notion of curriculum research for the public good, where knowledge is directly transferred and research disseminated within teacher communities, to inform curriculum development and the curriculum in practice in schools and early childhood centres.

Recognition of how an assessment regime might constitute (and limit) what counts as valued curriculum research invites reconsideration of what it means to undertake and publish curriculum research for the public good. It highlights how it is important to articulate the value of curriculum research disseminated in a variety of forms and in ways that are accessible and meaningful for teachers and communities. In so doing, it also challenges the restrictive and limiting elements of evaluation regimes as they are applied to curriculum research publication.

This blog post draws on ideas from a Curriculum Matters editorial.

See Abbiss, J. (2016). Editorial: Curriculum research for the public good. Curriculum Matters, 12, 1-7. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.18296/cm.0010.

Jane Abbiss is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. She has twenty years experience as a teacher educator and researcher. Before entering  a career in academia and teacher education, she was a secondary school teacher. She is the Editor of Curriculum Matters, published by the New Zealand Council of Educational Research. Her research interests relate to curriculum studies and curriculum issues, teacher identity and learning, teacher preparation, and student experience.