“Science communication is successful when we have an impact on society”

We met Professor Eckhard Klieme to find out about his view on science communication. He talks about the collaboration between researchers and practitioners, why he feels it is important that young researchers sometimes think beyond publications and why it is in certain cases easier to turn to English in science communication. Professor Klieme ist the Director of the Department of Educational Quality and Evaluation at DIPF and recently discussed this topic at a high-profile plenary debate in Berlin.

Mr. Klieme, in your opinion, what is the goal of science communication and when can you say it was successful?

In general, I think science communication is successful when we succeed in explaining to the public what our work is about and why we are doing it. We need to convince them that it is good for society to fund research and the career of young researchers. But also, of course, science communication is successful when we have an impact on society. This is particularly important in the field of education because educational science is very closely linked to the profession. So for me as an educational researcher, the criteria for good communication to the non-research audience would be: do I reach practitioners, do I reach professionals, and do I have an impact on what they are doing?

Science communication has many audiences – the scientific community, the political sphere, the media and, of course, education professionals. Which of these currently need the most attention?

Over the last 15 to 20 years, educational research, especially in Germany, was very much perceived as belonging to the arena of policy-making. And many researchers, too, thought that politicians and policy-makers were their privileged audience. I believe that is a mistake because the quality of education depends on what the professionals think and do in education institutions like schools, kindergartens, universities and others. So if you want to change or improve education you have to reach these professionals who are the key factor in education. And there is another reason why we need to communicate with them: we need to learn from them, to understand what they are doing, where their problems lie. If I, as a researcher in education, only looked at my data, I would be lost. I need to communicate with people who are actually working in educational practice to understand what it means to run a classroom in a school.

What does the collaboration between the fields of educational research and educational practice look like?

Taking a look at actual teaching practices and learning from the teachers helps our work at DIPF a lot. In one of my current projects we are working closely together with school staff to change how schools, especially all-day schools, deal with homework. For me, it is a great experience to learn more about individual schools and their problems and successes. The issue of course is, the higher you are in the hierarchy at a research institution, the less opportunity you have to meet with teachers. But I am very happy that many of the young researchers at DIPF are open, enjoy this kind of communication and are ready to learn from teachers – even if that means they need to devote part of their time to doing some practical “down-to-earth work” instead of preparing the next publication!

Whose job is it to “turn insights into impact” once the research has been conducted and at which point do you start thinking about the communication of study results?

There are studies where we think about the communication of the results to the public from the very beginning. With a PISA study or the aforementioned all-day schools study, for instance, you know that there will be a lot of public interest and you have to plan your communication accordingly. The responsibility for this lies with the principal investigators who design the studies. However, I think it is important that the younger researchers who actually conduct the studies, too, know how to communicate with the schools because this will be everyday work. And I think they are well prepared for it. One of the problems we have in Germany, and probably everywhere, with science communication is, however, that the public and especially the politicians prefer to talk to professors. I have experienced several times that I was invited to a talk or presentation where I had to decline because I didn’t have the time and – more importantly – was not the right expert to speak on a particular topic. When I suggested a talented young researcher with the right expertise, they would, however, not be invited instead.

Let’s take a look at the research findings you communicate: in your experience, are there some that are particularly prone to misinterpretation?

There are two types of findings that we deal with in our studies that are difficult to communicate, namely international comparative findings and effects of pedagogical actions like teaching. In both cases, there are a lot of methodological problems how to correctly interpret these findings. There are so many ways you should not interpret international comparative data. We know, for example, that even presenting the same questions to different audiences does not result in comparable data because the questions will be understood in different ways. So we as researchers need to inform the public audience how to critically understand the limitations of cross-cultural comparative projects. The same holds with so called effects, especially causal effects. Quite often, educational research actually deals with correlations; for example when we observe student achievement and teaching. But correlation doesn’t tell you about an effect: is there really an impact of teaching on student achievement? Or is it the other way around; is it the teaching that responds to student achievement because students with different achievement levels need to be treated differently? There are indeed many misunderstandings based on overinterpreting correlational findings.

Speaking of misunderstandings, what role does language play in the communication of educational science?

Of course for a German native speaker it is easier to communicate in German, especially as long as we are dealing with German teaching or German schools. There is some advantage to communicating and publishing in English, too, however. My experience is that many facts, concepts and findings can be expressed better and easier in English than in German because the language is more straightforward and sentences are shorter. In English, for example, you don’t need to change the wording or rephrase, whereas in German it is considered bad style to use the same word again and again in a publication. When we first submitted papers in English journals, we made the mistake of using different words for the same construct. This was misunderstood by the reviewers because they were confused about the language. So I learnt that it is actually easier in English papers: you can use the same construct three or five times in a paragraph and it is clear what you mean, whereas in German we rephrase things. And that actually makes it more difficult for people to understand what you are doing. By the way: In PISA we deal with 70 languages and more – so translating our instruments is a big issue there, too.

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