Research recognition event in the Faculty of Education Sciences on 21 June 2016
Address to the guests and staff Faculty of Education Sciences of North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus)
Beyond the Measurement Mob: features of future for education research in South Africa.
Prof RJ Balfour
Introduction and acknowledgements
Good eveningeveryone and welcome to this special event to recognise the research achievements for the Faculty of Education Sciences. In 2015 we deliberately did not organise such an event because the Faculty shifted from a calendar year calculation of research outputs and achievements, to a HEMIS year calculation (which like the financial year runs from March to March). In the course of Faculty based ceremonial and functions, this is the one occasion in which we acknowledge not only the many outputs generated by colleagues (whether in the form of books, articles or papers delivered), but also the dedication dozens of colleagues have displayed in relation to successful supervision and our graduate throughput rates. Tonight, I wish to welcome not only our colleagues from the Faculty, but also a number of special guests whom I wish to acknowledge:
Prof Frik van Niekerk – Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation;
Prof Susan Visser – Vice Rector: Research and Planning
Prof Rantoa Letšosa – Vice Rector: Teaching-Learning
Dr Herman van Vuuren – Director: School of Human and Social Sciences for Education
Dr Neal Petersen – Director: School of Natural Sciences and Technology in Education
Prof Kobus Mentz – Director: School of Education
Prof Elsa Mentz- Director: Focus Area SDL
Prof JP Rossouw - Director: Unit: Edu-HRight – you are all heartily welcome.
In 2013 we launched the Research Turn Around Strategy (RTAS) in the Faculty, the fruits of which are evidenced not in high claims, or hopeful wishes, but in the hard evidence of an upward turn in research generativity as calculated through HEMIS. In any other Faculty this might in itself be worthy of comment and praise, but in Education Sciences, in the context of an unprecedented recurriculation process in which new programmes are introduced as old programmes are simultaneously phased out, the achievement is doubly remarkable: not only is Education the largest Faculty at the NWU accounting for almost half its total student numbers, but the Faculty also offers the widest array of degree, postgraduate diplomas, diplomas and certificate programmes, together with an impressive range of short learning programmes. The research achievement comes on the back of the redevelopment of old programmes like the BEd, and totally new programmes like the structured Masters Degree, the Advanced Certificate in Teaching, and the Advanced Diploma in Education. As Dean I always knew the demands made of our staff between 2015-2017 would be substantial. When we instituted RTAS, we saw a risk: that the support in the form of mentoring, the assistance in the form of marking and lecturing work, and the time bought out of WIL or study leave, would not be gobbled up by teaching. But tonight I am very pleased to affirm an age old wisdom: that when the best is generally expected of an inspired group of people, the excellence delivered surpasses expectations. Colleagues in our Faculty have surpassed expectations.
I also wish to pay special tribute to Professors Elsa Mentz whose organisation, together with the Faculty’s Research Administration, of this evening, and general stewardship of our research efforts which includes coordination of the research mentoring programme, culminates in the recognition of many colleagues gathered here. And then, also Professor Rossouw, whose immense committee work with the Masters and Doctoral as well as Examinations Committees, helps to support the successful throughput of our students under the careful and dare add, caring,supervision of colleagues in the Faculty. Tonight we celebrate the achievement of a group of dedicated colleagues whose publication and supervision efforts stand as examples to the rest of us, but I wish to contextualise this work within a few opening remarks.
This evening I wish to make a three points about the future of education research in South Africa: the first in relation to the preoccupation with education measurement in relative absence of a sustained debate about the factors that make for education excellence in South Africa’s schools and universities. The second point is in relation to the increasing impact of ICT on research participation, dissemination and reflection.The third point occurs in relation to those areas, which as a result of the emphasis on performance, remain under-researched in South African schools, and indeed higher education institutions. I conclude this address by reflecting on the ways in which we describe research productivity in South Africa and the disservice potentially inflicted on the interrogative and iterative nature of research which belies both the designation of product or output.
As regards measurement for performance excellence. In South Africa there has grown a tendency in the last few years to focus on the measurement of performance to the exclusion of the contexts that produce excellence in schools, or indeed universities. The preoccupation with Annual National Assessments, PIRLS, TIMSS and SACMEQ testing, is relayed so frequently in education commentary whether in the media, or even in the most recent edition of the Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Journal, that I feel confident to generalise on this point both in terms of journalism as well as academic writing. In higher education the South African Rankings of Universities in research output is flashed so frequently before the eyes, that academics, much like school teachers, I am sure will not need alcohol to feel punch-drunk on such occasions. And,commensurate with the measurement preoccupation is that notorious measurement mantra: you cannot manage anything unless you measure it. In this context it would appear that any claim made for qualitative research, would seem as though a stifled whisper in goal scoring roar of the measurement mob.Yet, research from around the globe challenges us to rethink the orthodoxy: that measurement approaches are sufficient methodologically to describe the nuanced processes and interactions that create circumstances where a culture is created that leads to excellence, rather than simply focus on the outputs which may be classified as ‘excellent’. Research generated in the global North as well as the global South is beginning to show that education excellence (rather than simply performance) arises not so much from the presence of standardised assessment measures, or standardised national curricula, but from what the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland terms “equality and inclusion... as promoted through schools collaboration” (O’Dowd, 2016, 11). One of the features of successful education systems is the professionalisation of the academy, not through state agencies (like the CHE, SAQA etc), but through self-regulation initiatives in which peer review becomes the preferred mode of standards generation, maintenance and innovation. Equality of identity, respect for diversity and community cohesion play a role to in the creation of vibrant learning communities.
As regards ICT and its impact on changing how research works, what its impact is, and how its outcomes enable participants. What is entirely new in education research is the impact of social media in bringing research closer to participants. Social media makes it possible for opinions to be formed, reshaped and responsive to research data, in ways hitherto unprecedented. Thus virtual learning communities (chat rooms and the like) becomes the ways in which school teachers undertake their professional development and interaction with peers, the ways in which students collaborate on learning tasks, and the ways in which researchers interact with each other, and indeed participants in their projects. How is research changing the way we teach? Through the integration of ICT into the classroom, free apps (applications) enable the academic or teacher to provide to a group learning analytics in which the participation rate of learners is provided as data back to them. In Singapore classrooms this simple application provides for data to support studies on classroom interaction on the one hand, but has become a teaching tool because if the data is returned to the participants in real time, it occasions greater self-reflection on the positionality of the learner and the extent to which s/he is able to influence opinion, or not, within task groups. Here we have an example of research analysis that changes learning behaviour, leads to self-reflection and enhances learning performance not through teaching to tests, or spoon-feeding material, but through engagement with the individual to enable that person to derive the most out of the learning opportunity. As Muijs (2016) noted, research benefits from the diversity of information, approaches and choices available to both researcher and participant, teacher and learner (Muijs, 2016, 13).
My third reflection concerns the relative disappearance of race related research in South African education research and discourse. In South Africa the links between race and education underperformance can be made with such ease as to mask the challenges associated with race integration and its impact on performance as well as social cohesion at university level. And, as with our top institutions which feature frequently in the press, there is a dangerous association of whiteness with quality and whiteness as the price to be paid by black people for access to good quality education. In the context of debates about decolonisation of the curriculum, we need more research on the relationship precisely between race, social cohesion and performance, if the lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland are to be believed: that socially cohesive institutions characterised by equality and inclusion perform better on a range of levels and measures. What we should not risk losing sight of in this regard, is the emphasis on class which lies at the intersections of race, language and gender in our education system.
In conclusion: on an occasion such as this we celebrate “the how much” and what academics inevitably refer to as research productivity. It is accepted as normal that the term productivity, as derived from the discourses of capitalism and indeed Marxism, may be applied relatively straightforwardly is one which, together with the previous designation of human resources as human capital, we shouldas academics instinctively resist. Academics do not produce research in as much as Volkswagen produces cars. The mechanical car requires understanding from its owner, but not intelligent interaction, or speculation as regards its ontological and epistemological foundations. And, despite advertisements concerning higher levels of artificial intelligence that enable vehicle, to park as well as potentially drive themselves, the vehicle does not either question the premises of its own construction, reflect critically on its purposes, or re-consider its ulteriority. Are research outputs, “products”? The academic product is iterative and demands an engaged reader whose work it is not simply to consume the product, but also to interrogate and reinterpret it, often not on the terms outlined or implied by an author. Research is thus generated, rather than produced, and one of the fundamental conditions of research generation is an acknowledgment of the need for its own deconstruction of assumptions and re-construction. This short, perhaps leading example, enables me to return to the notion with which I first began my address.
Education research in South Africa needs, similarly to be cautious in over-articulating the quantitative narratives that define this period in our lives, given that such narratives tend to hide, or obscure the conditions of their own construction and the assumptions underlying such constructions of learning, of performance or excellence. Thus whilst I have often supported in the past the need for meta-studies of qualitative research, it is important to consider that such studies need precisely to bring together the many strands of qualitative research to yield, more decisively the insights that derive from the generation of such work, methodologically and theoretically.
It has been a pleasure to watch the Faculty grow and change in this period of the last six years, and to see within our entities and new niche areas a growing responsiveness to questions that require from academics a more finely nuanced approach to the big questions and narratives of our time.
We look forward to the celebration this evening of researchers and their work in the Faculty.Thank you.
Muis, D. 2016. The changing face of research: some reflections. Research Intelligence. British Education Research Council. pp.12-13.
O’Dawd, J. 2016. Northern Ireland. Research Intelligence. British Education Research Council. p.11.