Education research in Australia needs an urgent boost – here’s why

Education research in Australia needs an urgent boost – here’s why

A growing body of research has shown that systems and schools that prioritise data-driven evaluation have a greater impact on student outcomes than those who don’t.

And it stands to reason. Using data effectively helps teachers identify areas for improvement and make evidence-based decisions to improve student learning.

However, a 2022 survey of more than 900 teachers and school leaders across Australia found that while most educators are using evidence to improve student learning their classrooms, some aren’t using all the strategies necessary for those practices to be effective.

“Some key challenges are teachers' confidence in using evidence, availability of resources that are easy to understand, and culture around discussing and learning from evidence,” Dr Zid Mancenido, Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation at the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), said.

However, according to other experts, there is a bigger problem.

World leading educational psychologist Professor Herb Marsh of ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology in Education, educational policy and programs in Australia are “rarely based on rigorous, long-term research”.

“There is a need to systematically research new strategies and policies before they are rolled out on a large scale,” Professor Marsh told The Educator.

“In medicine, for example, implementing large new programs without adequate efficacy and safety tests would be unthinkable.”

The same should be true in education, says Professor Marsh.

“Indeed, government support for educational research is dwindling. Education is not even mentioned in the Australian Research Council’s long list of research priorities that drive research in Australia.”

However, the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Chief Research Officer, Professor Christina Twomey, said while the amount of funding for all disciplines varies from year to year, over the past decade the trend of ARC funding for education research has been “stable”.

Professor Twomey said ARC’s National Competitive Grants Program (NCGP) supports research excellence and funds the highest-quality fundamental and applied research and research training across all disciplines, from mathematical sciences to creative arts and philosophy.

“Within the NCGP, applications in the field of education have received similar amounts of ARC funding to many other Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) disciplines,” Professor Twomey told The Educator.

“For example, between 2012 and 2021, applications with a primary focus on education received $142.6m of ARC funding, which is more than most HASS disciplines, including disciplines such as Law and Legal Studies; Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services; and Studies in Creative Arts and Writing.”

What does the future hold for education research?

Looking ahead, Dr Mancenido sees important change on the horizon when it comes to education research in Australia.

“There are encouraging signs that governments do understand the importance of robust research and the use of evidence in practice, to gain improvements in education outcomes. In 2019, all governments agreed to establish a national agency to bring attention to research in early childhood and school education,” he told The Educator.

“In 2021, AERO was launched to identify gaps in education research and make information about evidence and research accessible and relevant for educators and policymakers. Importantly, AERO also examines and supports the effective implementation of evidence into practice.”

However, Dr Mancenido said the best research won’t improve students’ learning if teachers don’t know about it or choose to adopt it into their practice.

“Government support for rigorous educational research is critical for it to have an impact,” he said.

“For example, given the cost and time needed to conduct rigorous randomised control trials in schools [i.e., research similar to the sorts of efficacy and safety tests conducted in medicine], this sort of research should focus on helping teachers and school leaders to answer the most challenging questions they face on a daily basis.”