Educational Research: Small Scale or Large?

On Monday, Clare and I (Clive) had the privilege of attending an outstanding symposium at Brock University on self-Image Brock Symposiumstudy research on teacher education. It was organized by Tim Fletcher and Deirdre NiChroinin and funded by their respective institutions, Brock University and the University of Limerick. Highlighted speakers were Clare, Julian Kitchen, and Tom Russell. Apart from the local audience, the symposium was streamed live and will be archived for online access at : http://brockvideocentre.brocku.ca/videos/ (Under Self Study Symposium — 01:46:06).

One issue that came up was the validity of self-study inquiry versus research with a larger sample size. It was noted that there is pressure (from tenure and promotion committees as well as policy developers) to conduct research larger in scope than the typical self-study project. Some suggest that to increase the “significance” of self-study research it may be necessary to combine a number of smaller projects.

From the audience, I made a comment that was lost electronically and Tim and Deirdre have asked me to repeat it here. My comment was as follows:

Small scale research by individuals or small groups often provides a depth of understanding not available through large scale research. We must not assume that bigger is better. While large sample research is suitable for certain purposes, often something is lost when we move to a larger sample and have to ask simpler, one-shot questions, where the meaning of the questions and answers is often unclear. The typical self-study project enables us to probe in considerable depth the nature, purpose, and effectiveness of various teaching practices.

Dewey, Schon and, more recently, Zeichner, Cochran-Smith, and Lytle have emphasized how much practitioners learn on the job; and Bryk et al. in their recent book Learning to Improve (Harvard Education Press, 2015) maintain that quantitative researchers must join forces with on-site practitioner-inquirers to build a complex, publically available framework of educational concepts, principles, and practices (somewhat akin to Wikipedia). Both types of research are needed. We must not privilege one over the other.

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