“If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do.” Challenges and potentials in science communication

The panel from left to right: Prof. Martin Heinrich, Dr. Jean-Paul Reeff, Arwen Cross, Prof. C. Katharina Spieß, Prof. Eckhard Klieme

Interdisciplinary cooperation in educational research can present a challenge to young scientists. The fields they come from vary from pedagogy to sociology to psychology, all with their own rules, paradigms and ways of operating. A workshop organised by the College for Interdisciplinary Educational Research (CIDER) and the Leibniz Education Research Network Alliance (LERN) held in Berlin in January 2017 brought researchers with different backgrounds together and offered them the opportunity to present and discuss their current work. The workshop included a plenary debate on the challenges and potentials of science communication, an issue any educational researcher will be confronted with sooner or later in their career. In accordance with the idea of interdisciplinarity, the panellists also came from different backgrounds, ranging from economics to innovation management and international cooperation. We were at the event to hear their stance on the current status of science communication. One thing quickly became clear: The audiences of science communication are as diverse as the scientific approaches underlying educational research.

By Stephanie Pauly

Prof. Eckhard Klieme, DIPF / CIDER

In line with the aim of the workshop to foster interdisciplinary discourse,the first topic covered in the plenary debate was that of internal science communication, that is the communication between researchers and institutions within the scientific community. According to Prof. Eckhard Klieme, Director of the Department of Educational Quality and Evaluation at DIPF, in the inevitably interdisciplinary field of educational research, it is advisable to always take the multitude of perspectives into account that come from different disciplines.He also pointed out that there is, however, a danger some disciplines may look down on one another, disregarding the input that may come from them. Another issue is that of the underlying concepts guiding educational research in different disciplines. As Prof. Martin Heinrich, Professor of Pedagogy, School Development and Educational Research at the University of Bielefeld, put it, there is need for a multi-paradigmatic perspective in interdisciplinary communication: “We often speak about the different approaches and mixed methods in educational research; however, the different epistemologies in different disciplines should not be overlooked”. Prof. C. Katharina Spieß, Head of the Department of Education and Family at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), addressing the question of whether young researchers should embark on interdisciplinary research very early in their career, emphasised that in order to engage in interdisciplinary discourse, “researchers first need to be sure of and comfortable with the paradigms in their own field and based on this they can start interdisciplinary discourses.”

Finding the balance between research interests, political agendas and the interpretation of research results

Prof. C. Katharina Spieß, German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) / CIDER

Thorough knowledge of their research topic will also help aspiring educational researchers when navigating the political arena. Whilst the panellists agreed that the decision whether money is spent on a particular research question is often made on the political level, Dr. Jean-Paul Reeff, independent consultant and a senior consultant for DIPF in the fields of innovation management and international cooperation, stressed that “these decisions do not just magically appear”; there is an implicit process where scientists need to continually communicate their research interests and ideas in order to shape political decision-making. As Ms. Spieß added, this process is supported by research communities such as the Leibniz Association, enabling researchers to set their own agendas to a certain extent.

Dr. Jean-Paul Reeff, International Innovation Management and Consulting

Both agreed that policy-making processes require time and patience and a certain awareness of the constraints educational research will always be under, be it time, budget or feasibility constraints. An interesting phenomenon in the communication of educational research is that individual studies are prone to over-interpretation. An explanation, Ms. Spieß suggested, may be that some politicians and educational administrators expect individual studies to provide general answers and see a need to react – even if this study presents results which cannot be generalised. In the view of Mr. Reeff, this shows that there is a need for an “engineering layer” in the field of educational research to translate the implications of research findings, given that “scientists frequently are not comfortable or maybe don’t have the possibility to engage with policy-makers.”

Taking research to the classroom: evidence vs. values

Whereas politicians may look for quick and general answers from educational research, educational practitioners have different needs. As for his work at DIPF, Mr. Klieme put it this way: “At the end of the day, what matters is: do we reach the profession? Because they are the ones who determine the quality of education.” Whether or not the evidence from educational research can reach them is cause for debate, however.

Prof. Martin Heinrich, Universität Bielefeld

As Mr. Heinrich pointed out, for many teachers evidence and findings from large scale assessments will have to be recontextualised before they can be put into practice in a given classroom. Mr. Klieme suggested that because research is highly context-dependent, the aim of educational research should be to “provide concepts and tools to professionals, rather than relying on the idea of evidence-based teaching, guided by top-down application of research findings.” He further noted that educational research should not only take into account that any evidence will have to be used according to the individual contexts teachers may find themselves in, but that this will be done according to the values that inevitably guide their teaching. “Educational researchers should be aware of these values – and themselves be transparent about the underlying assumptions that go into the development of studies or the assessment of education institutions’ performance”, Ms. Spieß added.

Going public: science communication and the media

Arwen Cross, Wissenschaft im Dialog (Moderator)

A value-based approach is not only common in teaching, but also in the public debate on educational matters. In light of the particular sensitivity that often characterises this debate, Ms. Spieß argued the case for honesty when communicating with the media: “If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do” – her advice for young researchers would be to keep in mind that not answering a question is indeed an option. And even though an audience may be looking for a straightforward answer, “sometimes you will have to remind them that things are complicated and results differ depending on various factors”, says Spieß. This also applies to the specific background and assumptions underlying any educational research. As Mr. Heinrich put it: “When speaking as an expert, you have a certain power. In order to legitimise this, you must be explicit about your normative background.” A notion that Mr. Klieme seconded: “When we want to reach out to the public, we should not pretend to only be delivering facts and data but make clear that we are also delivering concepts and values.” With this in mind, Mr. Reeff made a case for embracing working with journalists and using their ability to explain things in a way that is well understood not only by a broad audience, but also in a way that can help researchers prepare the grounds for conversations with politicians and policy-makers. As moderator Arwen Cross concluded: “It is important to be able to clarify what your research is about in a short and sweet fashion.” And target it to your audience, we may add.

More information on the Leibniz Education Research Network Alliance (LERN) can be found here.

Find out more about the College for Interdisciplinary Educational Research (CIDER)  here.

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