To review educational research

To review educational research

After completing a larger project on research reviews (see links below to the project's website and to an interview with me about the project (in Swedish)) financed by the Swedish Research Council, it may be timely to report some overall observations/conclusions.

Firstly, that reviewing of research is an expression of power. This statement may surprise some who see reviewing as a more or less neutral activity based on specific methods.

Secondly, reviews of research can/should be seen as a form of theory development. Research is reviewed in order to get better theories to understand and change schooling.

Thirdly, we arrived at the conclusion that perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on reviews of research and that it is rather new types of basic studies that are needed.

Let us discuss these three observations/conclusions in turn.

The power to review

David Gough is an English researcher who has played a prominent role in the development of so-called systematic research reviews. Together with his collaborators he has developed different formats for how such reviews can be carried out. But which of all these formats should you use? Gough and Thomas write:

"However, even if the idea of ​​a systematic review is simply 'doing a good literature review', like all knowledge-seeking—and creating—endeavors, the way in which you go about it, and the purposes for which you do it, can be seen as political actions, which by their nature, can be seen as promoting one epistemology over another.” (p. 96, see reference below)

It was a little bit surprising to me that Gough view systematic research reviews as political actions since that is not in my view how he himself has approached the subject. Gough has not taken this basic premise about the politics of reviewing as his point of departure.

The question that arises is, of course, why the research should be reviewd in a certain way and not in another. Gough's answer (although I can't claim to have read everything he has written) seems to be that it is a matter of choice for the researcher. 

Personally, however, I would like to go a step further and claim that this issue of why research is reviewed in a specific way should be part of the research review. In an article (in Swedish) that will soon be published in the journal Utbildning och Demokrati, we thus argue that research reviews should be both systematic and reflective. Since it is about choices being made, it is therefore important to explain the grounds on which these choices are made and, ultimately, why it is important to do the review at hand (among a universe of possible reviews).

Why, for example, does John Hattie look almost exclusively at school performance when the school has a broad mission? Why does he exclude research based on qualitative data? Hattie can be said to have exercised a very large power over schooling in a number of countries and his reviews would have had more legitimacy in my eyes if they had addressed such fundamental questions in a reflective way.

Theory development

At some point during the course of the project, I began to see reviews of research as theory development. Since I work from a pragmatic perspective, I see research on schools as something that should contribute to the development of a more democratic and fair society.

To take Hattie as an example, he develops a theory for how educational achievement can be improved.

Someone would perhaps claim that the task of research is to develop theories that explain "how it is" and "why it has become the way it is". I personally think such objectivism is unattainable, given the existence of several competing ideologies in educational research that make different claims on “how it is” "why it has become the way it has". Still if one believes in such objectivism the rationale of reviiewsr would be to get better theories about “how it is” and “why it has become the way it is”.

Is a new type of research needed?

A major problem in educational research is that the goal of schools is taken to be the increase of educational achievement. While knowledge naturally is important to schooling, my view is that we need research that takes the entire school's mission into account. Such research is largely absent which is why it is important to develop a new type of study that take such a broader mission into account. The missions of schooling would be different in different countries, still few would argue that the sole aim of schooling is educational achievement.

Furthermore, it has proven very difficult to transfer findings from the research to everyday school practice. We thus need studies that take the broader mission into account and that have de facto proven to be functional in developing practice.

Some final words

The conclusions/observations described above have, to say the least, major implications for how research reviews in education should be conducted and what role they can play. However, we should not expect that the conclusions/observations will have any greater impact on present day research on Western schooling since it to a high degree is guided by the overall logic that the role of school research is to address the issue of educational achievement.

Link to the project's website where there are also references to the works written within the framework of the project.


Link to interview with me about the project (in Swedish)


Several of the findings from this research project are discussed in prior blogs.


Gough, David & Thomas, James (2016): Systematic reviews of research in education: aims, myths and multiple methods. Review of Education, 4(1), 84–102.


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