Researching the future of education and community engagement: “hard fun”?
For many years some of us at NZCER have been chipping away at the gnarly question of what it might take to achieve deep levels of community and public engagement with education – not just for the purposes of engaging the community in debates around the perceived educational issues of today, but to start to collectively reimagine public education to ensure that it is relevant for the future. We call this “future-oriented community engagement with education”.
I’m very aware of the ease with which a term like “future-oriented” can be used to mean everything and nothing. For example, I’m fairly certain that almost everyone involved with education (including teachers, students, families, and communities) believes that what they are doing now is preparing learners “for the future”; this idea is so ingrained that it’s almost tautological.
But as I have discussed in a previous blogposting and in a lot of my writing, in my opinion most of us actually have a very poor set of ”futures thinking” skills and tools. This isn’t necessarily a failing of our intellects, but rather of our own educational experiences and the fact that the human environment has changed (and continues to change) so rapidly that our basic default settings for thinking about and planning for the future simply can’t cut it anymore. To my mind we may as well just come to terms with this, and with due humility, just start getting on with the work of assisting ourselves and each other to become better futures thinkers and futures-builders. This is good work and important work, and really, really challenging work. However, as an educational researcher I have seen how the inherent rewards of this kind of work are energy-building, “buzzy”, and above all, deeply meaningful for the people who are engaged with it. (Years ago at NZCER we adopted the phrase “hard fun” to describe this kind of work, and it still crops up in our conversations from time to time).
That brings me to another question I’ve been worrying away at for the last few years: What is – or should be – the role of research in informing, supporting, critiquing, or evaluating the kind of future-oriented work that we are arguing needs to happen? If education needs to change, what about educational research? Where are we positioned in all of this? Should we be trailing behind the changes to document and make sense of them? Should we be informing and directing the changes, or leaving it to others to pick up our work so that their work is “research-informed” and “evidence-based”? Is it our role to sit on the sidelines or to get in amongst it?
I think many people assume that research is about finding answers, but in my experience it’s all about reaching the meaningful questions. If my theme question for 2010-2011 was, “what does it mean to take a future focus in education” then my theme question for 2011-2012 has been “what does it mean to take a future-focussed approach to research?”. This question has filtered through several of my recent projects; you’ll see it addressed it in section 1 of the Future-oriented learning and teaching report NZCER recently prepared for the Ministry of Education, and it’s picked it up and addressed it again in a new working paper called: What role might research play in supporting future-oriented community engagement with education?
The working paper builds on several pieces of our previous work, and in particular this piece by Ally Bull.
As you can see, my own thinking on these matters is still forming and changing and growing, and I’d be interested to hear any thoughts from educators, researchers, or anyone else who is interested in discussing this!