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We must start listening to the experts: Opinion

I could easily style myself as an education expert: I have the prefix in front of my name that lends legitimacy; I run a national organisation focused on education research; and I’ve been an education adviser to a minister.

Others have held themselves up as experts with much less.

But I’m not an expert on education, and I don’t hold myself up to be.

Don’t get me wrong: I have lots of opinions on various areas of education. I hold some of them very strongly. I am more well read in this area than the average person on the street.

But I am not an expert.

In an era where “fact” and “opinion” are so often conflated, it is more important than ever that we make that distinction.

“I’ve spent years researching this topic” can mean two totally different things: it can be the academic who has immersed themselves in the peer-reviewed literature on a topic, who has studied it from all directions, who has entered into vigorous intellectual debates with their contemporaries, honing their expertise; or, in 2019, it can mean the person who has spent hours down YouTube rabbit holes “teaching” themselves the topic of their choice.

And in a post-truth world, it’s more important than ever that we make the distinction – that the experts we are presenting in the media are genuine experts in the fields they are speaking to.

That is what drew me to the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA) a couple of years ago. I was passionate about education, and this was an organisation that was explicitly created to ensure that research-informed commentary on education issues was being reported in the mainstream media.

Why is it important to have quality research reported in the mainstream media? It contributes to a better-informed public debate. And a better-informed public debate ultimately leads to better outcomes.

Take the use of mobile phones in schools, which has become a topic of much discussion this year.

In June, the Victorian minister for education, James Merlino, announced a mobile phone ban in his state’s schools from next year. The evidence he referenced in his media release spoke to a study on cyberbullying, an issue that governments of all persuasions are rightly concerned about.

The research that banning mobile phones in schools would impact that issue was not referenced.

Merlino’s announcement prompted discussion at the Education Council, with the federal minister of education, Dan Tehan, saying the government would bring in international experts to consult on the efficacy of such a ban nationally.

But the latest Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) national report showed that the research being generated by the vast majority of our institutions was at or above world standard. We have the experts right here in Australia.

Why look elsewhere? (I’m pleased to note the minister has subsequently spoken with Australian experts.)

On this occasion – as we often do – MCERA spoke to a range of education researchers working in this area to prepare an expert comment. These are short statements from experts that are distributed to journalists that can either be used in reporting directly, or the researchers can be contacted by journalists to speak in further detail.

All the experts consulted did not believe that there exists enough evidence to support a ban; and some went as far as to say that they felt a ban was counterintuitive in preparing students for a digital world.

But comments sections on news websites and opinion pieces on the topic suggested that Merlino’s call echoed what a lot of Australians felt intuitively. It might not have been informed by fact, but it was strongly supported by gut-feel.

Spending on education overall, and the rhetoric from all levels of government, show that this is an area highly valued by Australian society.

Compared to other OECD countries, Australia’s spending on education is relatively high (we rank 9th out of 39 reporting countries in terms of the percentage spent on education).

However, funding for education research does not reflect this. Education research receives comparatively little funding from the Australian Research Council and other sources, both compared to other disciplines in Australia, and compared to spending on education research in other countries.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly that research funding tends to go to projects that can use data to demonstrate outcomes. Education research does not rely on data in this fashion.

But significant funding exists in the UK, US and Europe in education research.

Another issue is that a substantial part of research funding comes from industry. While disciplines like science and engineering have large commercial companies interested in their research, the largest beneficiaries of education research – schools – do not have budgets that can contribute to research efforts.

To create a world-class system, you need to understand what drives a world-class system, and understanding that only comes through the research that helps develop it.

Back to the mobile phone ban: as a parent of two primary aged children, the idea of negotiating the digital world they are native to is something that fills me with much angst. Instinctively, a ban on mobile phones makes sense. The evidence, though? Slim.

I’ve worked as a political staffer. I understand the difficulties in selling a nuanced message to the electorate. The instinctive response to an issue is one that feels “right” to a lot of people.

Which makes it all the more relevant that there is quality research in these areas, ensuring that the debate – at both the societal and the policy level – is informed by research.

If we want to create the best education system we can, we need to ensure we understand the research that drives that system.

The recently announced ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, headed by QUT’s Professor Susan Danby, will help to fill this research gap. I am pleased to say that MCERA is an industry partner on that project.

But there are many more issues in education where the evidence does remain slim, and while we may have world-class researchers living and working here, we need to ensure they have the support to be examining these issues.

It’s all well and good to spend money on the system, but in doing so, it is integral to ensure the foundations it sits upon are strong.

Thanks to members of the MCERA Education Research Advisory Panel  who contributed advice to support the creation of this piece.

Dr Shannon Schedlich has been with the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA) for two years. She holds a doctorate in Australian history from the University of Newcastle, and has previously worked in government and across corporate affairs and community engagement.                                                                          



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