Little ‘r’ and Big ‘R’ research

Dr Georgiana Cameron

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Should our school invest in research when implementing Positive Education?

This is a frequently asked question by many of the schools we work with. As detailed in our recent publication Positive Education Research at Geelong Grammar School: Our contributions and discoveries to date 2009 – 2019, we have invested heavily in research initiatives in the last 10 years and learned a great deal along the way. Many schools are curious about the role research plays in Positive Education and whether it is a necessary and justifiable investment.

This will be the first of a series of articles about research and implementing Positive Education. In later blogs we will explore some of the common questions and concerns about Positive Education research in greater detail.

Before we begin trying to answer, our first step is to agree on what research means. Research is such a broad brushstroke term. At Geelong we have engaged with diverse research activities such as action research, wellbeing measurement, theoretical development and university led empirical and independent research. To clarify what we are doing, we have come up with the distinction of little ‘r’ research and big ‘R’ research.

Little r research refers to the systematic collection and analysis of data across a school to inform ongoing improvement. This sort of research might involve asking students and staff to complete validated wellbeing measures to determine a pattern of strengths and weaknesses across year levels and groups. This data is interpreted in relation to the programmes, initiatives and policies that are currently in place. Schools tend to be interested in this kind of research as a means of evaluating the success of their Positive Education efforts.

In contrast, big R research for a school usually involves a partnership between a school and a university, with an independent researcher running a project. This sort of research typically requires clearance by an ethics board and has the potential to be published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

Schools can invest in one or both types of research. When schools invest in Big R research, they are making a strong contribution to the development of Positive Education, or more broadly enhancing knowledge of how to foster wellbeing in school communities. The practical findings and knowledge gained from participation in experimental trials is circulated globally through scientific channels such as conferences and journals, and may become translated into best practice.

On the upside, Big R research can be a useful strategy for cost savvy schools looking to increase resources and knowledge through university partnerships, for example, they may receive a free or low-cost program as part of an evaluation study.

On the downside, although investing in such research is often a noble and generous act, schools involved in Big R research may not necessarily learn useful insights specific to their school context. This will largely depend on the research project design and the nature of school-university partnership, for example, your school may be ‘a control school’ and therefore not receive the benefits of the program. This kind of research also puts a lot more restrictions and demands on any school involved, for example, it is often a set program which a school needs to comply with and coordinating consent forms, surveys and external researchers can be time consuming.

Little r research is often very attractive to schools starting out their Positive Education journeys. In particular, school leaders want to know whether their investment in Positive Education is having an impact on the students they serve. However… schools soon learn that wellbeing measurement is far from black and white. There are many decisions to make, which measurement tool do we use? How often do we use it? Who participates in the survey? And these are the easy questions. One of the hardest parts of measurement is how to interpret and make use of the findings.

Having new information about students and/or staff from little r or Big R research does not necessarily create positive change. This information needs to be considered in relation to other observations. On the one hand transparency and accountability is increased through sharing wellbeing data and research findings. On the other hand, data from surveys is at-risk of being seen as the one and only indicator of Positive Education’s success or failure.

In reality, the findings from little r or big R research should be seen as indicators of success among many. To explain this, if a parent is trying to decide on the best school for their child, a school’s academic results and wellbeing data provide useful information, however, most people would suggest the parent go for a tour in the school to meet the educators and see the classrooms, talk to leaders and hear about what educational experiences the school offers. Schools are rich and dynamic environments which shouldn’t be reduced to data or research findings. As many will be aware, the most impactful moments in a school’s Positive Education journey are unlikely to be peaks in data, but rather the real life stories of change and transformation.

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Dr Georgiana Cameron

Dr Georgiana Cameron is the Research Manager at the Institute of Positive Education. As an educational psychologist and trainer, Georgiana has worked closely with individuals, families and whole school communities in supporting evidence-based approaches to improving wellbeing.