Institute of Education

Research & Expertise to Make a Difference in Education & Beyond

Why R&D Deliverables Often Fail to Deliver in Education

A seminar that was held last week as part of IOE’s Year 2019/20 Series on Educational R&D hosted a guest talk by Dr. Dirk Van Damme, Head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills. In his presentation, Dr. Van Damme shared his thinking about the main reasons why the domains of educational R&D, policy, and practice are often at odds with one another and what measures could help alleviate this discrepancy.      

It should be admitted that education research has so far often faltered on its key objective of producing and scaling up relevant evidence and knowledge so various dimensions of policy and practice in the sector and beyond could benefit from incentives for more robust decisions and action plans, Dr. Van Damme argues. This state of affairs calls for academic discourse alongside broader public conversations to take a more critical, result-centric stance toward how the research–policy gap in education should be addressed while helping spark a momentum for largely rethinking the domain of educational R&D.    

Unlike in the medical and healthcare sector, recent decades have witnessed the realm of educational R&D make only negligibly little progress in developing fully-fledged evidential groundwork, while topics of evidence-based R&D in education have begun to resonate more and more widely with interests of the state. As a result, we are confronted with a persisting mismatch that has existed between the sort of outputs that educational R&D is able to offer and what policymakers are keen to obtain. Current research in education often fails to aid sector policy, while system agencies at both international and subnational levels not infrequently lack well-grounded conclusions and data for more reasoned policy strategies to become possible.                 

One problem that has afflicted educational research worldwide is a significant percentage of redundant deliverables. Outputs from the global sector of educational R&D have neared 70 thousand papers per year, of which about 13% are mere replicas. Another stumbling block is that experimental methods and frameworks are often not as easy to be developed and implemented in the educational realm.

Educational R&D has always involved a good deal of ‘buzz’ trends, theories, and conceptions that are but sheer conjectures not supported by any hard fact. Yet, history has seen many of these become a basis for actively practiced methodological models, hands-on frameworks, and evaluation approaches. Meanwhile, a clear demarcation must be drawn between the R&D and practical dimensions in education and the dimension of educational assessment, so whenever an innovative conception, method, etc. is proposed, it first receives an unbiased and all-round evaluation.

State executives and strategists across the globe have been more likely to claim these days that massive funds that are being ploughed in educational R&D have in most cases been able to generate only very insignificant payoff. For example, in the U.S., where studies of education have been a site of keen policy emphasis and major earmarkings since as far back as the early 1970s, the system has not yet been reported to witness any material upside effects on the quality of education and student outcomes in particular.

Many surveys, including those run by OECD, testify that educational R&D often fails to produce incentives for the realm of learning and development to set off on the path of sustained innovative development. In TALIS 2019, only a quarter of the teacher corps surveyed reported that they find themselves having the capacity to innovate and believe these efforts to be rewarding. By contrast, the majority of teachers point out it is mostly conformist practices and styles that are encouraged and rewarded in their profession. 

According to Dr. Van Damme, the following can be identified as the key factors that hinder a better alignment between R&D, policy, and practice in education:   

  • A lack or inadequacy of conduits to share newly developed academic knowledge, misjudgment and lack of vision among regulators, deeply entrenched legacy approaches and practices that are hard to change.     
  • R&D outputs, even if they are found robust, often fail to stand competitive pressures from various types of non-academic knowledge.    
  • Academic knowledge disintegrates as it is being put to practice.  
  • R&D outputs in and of themselves are irrelevant. 

Dr. Van Damme believes that the fundamental pillars of educational R&D need to be thoroughly rethought and it is primarily a brand-new ‘science,’ which will synthesize the most important advanced outputs from such strands as brain studies, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, genetics, AI and machine learning, etc., that will shape a competitive, future-proof image of academic knowledge in education.