This BERA presidential address considers how knowledge, education and research interact in practice, as the institutional structures that support them change. Many of the efforts at large-scale education reform depend upon the proposition that what counts as useful knowledge can be easily defined, without reference to the specific contexts in which that knowledge will be set to work. Yet “useful knowledge” as it appears to policymakers does not always translate into “useful knowledge” from the perspective of practitioners. Distance and context matter. The metaphors of best practice, benchmarking and policy borrowing wear thin when they short-cut the processes through which knowledge is made in favour of collating and distributing a set of knowledge that is treated as closed. The practice of research provides a different set of principles upon which to act.
When ready-made knowledge takes precedence over research, everything rests on the processes of selection that determine which forms of knowledge will get circulated, where. The practice of research orientates to the business of knowing in another way, keeping in tension what we think we know and what else might emerge to challenge or disrupt that state of affairs. Research at its best is transparent about the processes involved in its creation, and identifies the strengths and limitations of the tools it deploys. It develops over the long term by robustly testing the propositions it encodes. Its capacity to adjust in the light of new data or different social conditions makes it a powerful means of learning from the past and reframing current questions in the search for better answers.
By drawing on examples that demonstrate these dynamics at work, this address will argue for the value of the practice of research as a mode of engaging in the social world and set out an agenda for doing so well in an increasingly complex and contested educational field.