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30 May 2019

Experimental education research: navigating a researcher's minefield

Eliza Kozman and Michael Sanders

ELIZA KOZMAN AND MICHAEL SANDERS: with the UK a world leader in this field, this blog series aims to explore what works and what doesn't in education research.

Experimental education research: navigating a researcher's minefield
Journey through the unknown

The UK has become a world leader in experimental education research over the last decade or so. While there have been major breakthroughs emerging from this research, there are important lessons to learn about how we design and execute experiments in this complicated space. In this short series of blogs, we’re hoping to share our lessons from the last few years of conducting research in this area, in the hope that other researchers may share the joy of experiments, and avoid some of the traps that we’ve fallen into. 

There are few things more rewarding, in our experience, than conducting experimental research in schools. Research, and (for us at least) experimental research, is itself a huge source of joy - the swell of emotion when you’ve finally got a cleaned dataset, and run your (prespecified) primary analysis. At a time when species are going extinct faster than we’re discovering them, where satellites can photograph the entire world, where humans have walked on the moon and rovers trundled on Mars, the first sight of the results of an experiment are as close to genuine discovery as any of us are likely to get, and all without risk to life and limb. 

Education research holds a special place for us, because the journey’s end is so worthwhile in itself. Like voyagers to the fabled city of El Dorado, there is a reward at the conclusion of our travels - not in riches, but in the possibility of learning something that can help young people to thrive.  

On this journey, we don’t face perilous climbs, bottomless pits, mechanised spikes or poisonous wildlife. That doesn’t mean that the quest is easy. Many projects start down the road, but not all will survive. Many researchers wander from the path and get lost in a jungle of unwise decisions, waiting to be found by a travelling research manager with a greeting of “Doctor Sanders, I presume?”. 

Over the last decade, we have been down paths to nowhere, fallen into the pits of despair, been skewered by the spikes of poor data collection and been poisoned by unreliable and hostile partners. This series of blogs, published over the next several months, aims to record our journeys - and those of our friends and colleagues - in the hope that you, dear reader, have a less turbulent journey than those who went before - or at least that you will find perils of your own to face.  

Eliza Kozman is Research Manager at the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO), the What Works Centre for Higher Education, which is hosted at the Policy Institute at King’s and a doctoral student at UCL’s School of Management.  

Michael Sanders is Executive Director of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, Academic Lead at TASO, and a Reader in Public Policy in the Policy Institute at King’s.