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Questions first, methods second

Research tries to answer questions. The range of education research questions is vast: why do some pupils truant? What is the best way to teach fractions? Which pupils are most likely to fall behind at school? Is there a link between the A-levels pupils study and their later earnings in life?

Despite the bewildering array of questions, education research questions can be put into three main groups.

  1. Description. Aims to find out what is happening, like how many teachers are there in England? What is the average KS2 SAT score in Sunderland?
  2. Association. Aims to find patterns between two or more things, like do pupils eligible for free school meals do worse at GCSE than their more affluent peers?
  3. Causation. Aims to answer if one thing causes another, like does investing in one-to-one tuition improve GCSE history outcomes?

The research question determines the method

A really boring argument is what is the best type of research. Historically, education has been plagued with debates about the merits of qualitative versus quantitative research. 

A useful mantra is questions first, methods second. Quite simply some methods are better suited to answer some questions than others. A good attempt to communicate this comes from the Alliance for Useful Evidence’s report, ‘What Counts As Good Evidence?

Have a go at classifying these questions into the three categories of description, association, or causation.

  1. How many teachers join the profession each year in England?
  2. What percentage of children have no breakfast?
  3. How well on SATS do children do who have no breakfast?
  4. Does running a breakfast club improve pupils’ SATS scores?
  5. How prevalent is bullying in England’s schools?
  6. Are anti-bullying interventions effective at stopping bullying?
  7. Does reading to dogs improve pupils’ reading?
  8. Is it feasible to have a snake as a class pet?
  9. Is there a link between school attendance and pupil wellbeing?
  10. Does marking work more often improve science results?

Answers: 1) descriptive 2) descriptive 3) associative 4) causal 5) descriptive 6) causal 7) causal 8) descriptive 9) associative 10) causal

Finally, if you want a fantastic guide to research questions, then Patrick’s White’s Developing Research Questions is an excellent read.