Can Research Happen at School?

House: he knows a lot. That's why he's an expert.

House: he knows a lot. That’s what makes him an expert.

I recently had a very enjoyable time debating the place of research in the school curriculum. Many commentators were rather unclear about what research actually is. In academic subjects, research is a contribution to the sum total of knowledge, which is achieved by those who have thoroughly mastered what is already known, and spot an opportunity for pushing the subject further. They are, of course, standing on the shoulders of giants. They need to have reached an expert level in their subject, something which takes, on average, ten years of hard graft.

Clearly, this is not possible at school level. So what are school teachers actually asking for when they tell pupils to ‘research a topic’? Really this typically means ‘go and find out some relevant information about it, and report back’. Teachers are not in fact asking pupils to research. They are simply asking them to study, but without specifying exactly what they will study. The results will be uncertain, and the process will be highly time consuming. The opportunity cost will be large, and the outcome doubtful. More successful outcomes are likely to depend upon a high level of parental intervention.

At undergraduate level, students are never given such a blank canvas. They receive lectures which give them an overview of core content, and reading lists which allow them to study it in greater depth. This is not research. It is not even independent study, because the course leader has specified the topic, given a didactic overview of it, and demarcated the further reading which will deepen understanding. So those in charge of undergraduate courses are aiming, as Daniel Willingham suggests school teachers should, for deep understanding, not the creation of new knowledge (see Why Don’t Students Like School?, Chapter Six).

When the course is assessed, university academics will want to know what the students know. They will not be interested in ill-informed opinions, however ‘original’. It always helps to clarify these sorts of issues if one thinks of the study of medicine. There, ignorant, opinionated approaches could cost people their lives.

Most university education is in fact very traditional, which is why school pupils who have spent years in a progressive stew of ignorant opinions and empty self esteem are very likely to do poorly at university. A friend of my wife’s, who has taught history at a good university, which requires high A-level grades for entry, told my wife that she must assume that students know nothing when they arrive from school. After how many years of school history?? But of course they did lots of ‘research projects’ at school. That’s one of the reasons they know so little by the time they leave.

University readiness cannot be developed by working on mythical transferable skills of research and critical thinking. Thinking critically about a subject is dependent on knowledge of that subject, and true university readiness comes from receiving a thorough grounding in core knowledge at school, not wasting time pretending to be a professor at the age of twelve.

(Caricature of Dr House by Nelson Santos. Source: Wikimedia.)

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2 thoughts on “Can Research Happen at School?

  1. …this highlights the difference between research in the sense of background study into a topic, such as might be done by novelists and journalists and scientific investigation – the hunt of causes.

    Important not to put academia on too high a pedistal, there is a lot of shoddy lazy rubbish produced by academics. Also practitioners can make massive contributions to research when outside academia, for example a lot of medics noticed important things when treating patients and investigated producing big breakthroughs

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