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Q&A: Author Argues for Giving a Voice to Research 'Subjects'

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In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Andrew David Gitlin, associate professor of education at the University of Utah, argues that most critiques of education-research methods have ignored the "politics of research," or the relationship between researchers and those they study.

In Mr. Gitlin's view, traditional education research is a one-way process that ignores the views of those who are studied and "strengthens the assumption that researchers are the producers of knowledge."

In its place, Mr. Gitlin calls for a different model, which he calls "educative research," in which teachers, parents, and students investigate questions in a dialogue with researchers. Such a process, he says, would give a voice to those "typically left out of educational-policy discourse."

Mr. Gitlin discussed his ideas with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. What do you see as the problem with current education research?

A. We have not looked critically at what research does to subjects--those who are studied. We have looked at valid6ity and reliability. Those are very important issues. But it seems to me that if we are interested in change, we have to be clear about what the research process does to those studied.

Q. What does the process do to them?

A. The "subjects"--those studied--become objects. This creates a number of problems. It is alienating to them, their views are silenced, and it creates a situation in which the research itself is limiting in two ways. [One,] it exaggerates the voice of the academic while silencing the insights the practitioner may have. [It also makes it] difficult to see how research impacts on practice. ... Practitioners tend to be resistant to it. That's not a positive attitude, but it's understandable.

Q. In recent years, a number of researchers have begun to include teachers in developing research designs, and teachers have been conducting research themselves. Are those steps moving in the right direction?

A. Yes, we can see those as beneficial, but we can also see limits. The issue is, what is legitimate knowledge. If we assume what is legitimate knowledge is what is called "research," we are still left with the basic problem that the expertise and basic understanding practitioners have is discounted.

What educative research is trying to do is involve these groups, and expand what is legitimate knowledge.

Q. What would an ideal educative-research inquiry look like?

A. It wouldn't look like one thing. It would be a community getting together, deciding what series of important quesel10ltions to ask, asking them critically, and investigating the questions in a dialogical manner.

The research itself would act back on the questions. If they find out things in an inquiry, they may go back [and ask different questions]. ...

It's not that the product is an end-point stop. [What's important is] the process, being part of a community. ...

But all methods have the potential of being oppressive if they are imposed, not caring for the particular context.

Q. You describe in your paper some problems you had setting up your research project with master's students at the University of Utah. What did you learn from those problems?

A. Our number-one problem was, as individuals struggling to reconceptualize what is research, we are embedded in a context that has historical meaning. There is a university context, and a public-school context. One problem we overlooked was how powerful that context is.

For example, the reward structure. Teachers were not rewarded for doing that inquiry. They are rewarded for their students doing well on standardized tests and being orderly. They are not in the question-posing business. ... If we are thinking of changing their roles, we have to think of the historical and material context. We did not have that firmly in mind when we started. We are aware of it, and we're making changes.

We can't assume the research context is neutral. It's not.

Q. In your paper you speak of "school change based on protest." What do you mean by that?

A. If you say what you need to do is involve teachers in the research process, that's good. ... But unless there is built into the process some way you can protest the way you understand the world, you are stuck in a position of changing who is doing what, not the process [itself].

The important protest is internal and external--things that limit teachers and others from doing what they need to do in the community. Without protest, it's hard to see how you don't get top-down change. If someone else offers a solution, once that person leaves, you still have the dependency-type issue. You haven't empowered a person to say, "I can do this myself."

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