Academic research: is it worth it?

I started my Masters of Education (research) half-way through this year. It has been a tumultuous ride … my ideas about education, research, my future have been given a good spanking courtesy of my lecturer, my supervisor and my independent reading. I have grown as a thinker, I know that much for sure. But what will the end result be for people other than me?

I went into this post-graduate study with the dreams of researching PBL and being able to get real data that would indicate whether this pedagogy is worth the hard yards – for the students and the teachers. I wanted to have some real evidence to support or refute what I have been doing in my classroom (and banging on about on this blog) for the last 15 months. I wanted to contribute something meaningful to my profession and make an impact on how teachers teach. But you know what? After 6 months of talking, reading, writing, crying, stressing, arguing and giving in and getting on with it, I’ve discovered that the contribution I can make as a researcher is pretty damn small. And by small I mean drop in the ocean. It’s not like I thought that I’d revolutionise education by writing a 20,000 word research paper on PBL. I truly didn’t. And it’s not like I didn’t know that most education research – despite the thousands of hours of work and the absolute heartache given over to an idea – makes a very, very small difference to how teachers teach. But what hurts the most it the realisation that this Masters is only going to impact me. It’s a thing you do to get ‘qualified’ … it’s a horrible, painful process designed to test me and see if I’ve got what it takes to be a researcher and/or an academic. It’s like the HSC on steroids.

You can read the progression of my thesis proposal here. It’s morphed like crazy from a naive idea of a non-researcher to the more realistic questions of a researcher-in-training. I worked so hard on that final draft thesis proposal that it almost broke me. That’s not one of my trademark hyperbolic statements either. And guess what? I had a meeting with my supervisor (who is a great guy, BTW) last Wednesday and he helped me get to the realisation that my proposal needs to go. The focus, the question, the design … all of it. Gone. Basically I was being too ambitious for a Masters student. It’s impossible to get all the data I wanted to and then work with it meaningfully to answer the questions I had proposed. So instead, I’m going to be writing a case study of one class in one school. It could even by my school – he said that’d be great. It won’t be focused on PBL. It’ll be focused on technology use for formative assessment using aspects of PBL. Oh, and I won’t worry about the multiliteracies stuff – that’s a 16 year old paper – and besides, literacy is implied in the study because I’m focusing on English teaching anyway. Finally, I should probably use a modification of an Action Research design.

Why have these decisions made me lose my research convictions? Because I do this in my classroom all of the time. I study MY classroom and write ‘rich descriptions’ of my lessons on this blog frequently. Sharing my experiences with PBL, technology, assessment, teaching English in the 21st century here seems – to me – to have as much, if not more, impact than writing a 20,000 word dissertation that *might* get published in an education journal. Oh, and those journals mostly aren’t read by my target audience – real, actual, not fake or full of shit, working teachers. I just don’t see how me learning how to collect ‘data’ and analyse said ‘data’ then write up my ‘discoveries’ is going to benefit anyone but me. Why would it help me? Well completing an MEd (research) is a stepping stone to a career as an academic … if that’s a path I wish to pursue. But that was never my intentions. Of course I have thought about where I want to be professionally in 5 years and still at Davo hasn’t featured high on that list … the possibility of teaching budding teachers is kinda cool. And yeah, I definitely fantasied about being called Dr Hewes or even better, Professor Hewes. But being a researcher … what impact does that have on us, the teachers? It seems to take FOREVER for any research-based ideas about education to actually gain traction in the classroom. I just don’t know if that’s the path I should take.

I guess I should conclude by making it clear that I am not saying I make a massive difference writing this blog. But if I counted all of the words I have written about my teaching practice in blog posts, and then add all of the words you have written in comments about your teaching practice, well … I reckon that’d be well over 20,000 words. And I reckon, just maybe, those words have or will have more impact than the 20,000 I’ll be writing for my dissertation.


Hewes, B. (2011). Her Brain. Sydney: WordPress.

6 thoughts on “Academic research: is it worth it?

  1. I’d add to the references:
    Hewes, B. (2011). Her Heart, Sydney: WordPress.

    You write your posts with such honesty and angst as evidence of your passion for teaching, your KLA and your students. And yes, all that has impact beyond what you can ever know. The drop, the splash, the ripples, the waves – all that stuff that technology makes so much easier.

    It’s not either/or, however. And I’m glad that you’re not packing it in. Professor Hewes may yet come to be. And I hope that if you become a professor, you will continue to blog.

  2. If I didn’t have ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’ as my mantra for working in academia, I would be rocking in a corner most days. Research is broken. The system is broken. My take is that there has got to be some of us working inside the system and making noise, otherwise nothing will change. Today is a good day (at least perhaps until a strategic plan meeting in 10 minutes…) so I’m feeling quite ‘damn the man, let’s punk this research game’, but other days I just shake my head, tweet profusely and go home, so I totally get where you’re coming from.

    I think, ultimately, the only way research is going to gain audience, traction and practical applications in any sort of decent timeframe is if people like us force it to. If we all give up in disgust the system is guaranteed never to change and edu research will never evolve into a dynamic entity with real impact. Kelli McGraw made an interesting observation on my post here ( about the ‘king’s hand’ and where power will eventually start to show itself. And in the meantime, we’ll all just keep each other sane with blogs and tweets and analytics that justify what we do :).

  3. “I guess I should conclude by making it clear that I am not saying I make a massive difference writing this blog. ”

    YOU don’t need to say it. It’s US, the people you share your passion with, that say you make a difference. The difference doesn’t just happen in your classroom but ours as well. You drop a rock into the ocean of education and the ripples keep going, bouncing off other shores, reverberating on and on…

    Keep writing and keep making a difference.

  4. Hi Bianca, I’ve just stumbled onto your blog while looking to do a Master in Education Research degree. I enjoyed reading your posts and don’t think your proposal is out of scope. I teach in an all PBL school and would love to dialogue a bit more to see what you are looking for in terms of research and also to ask some questions about your Masters journey. I hope we can get in touch. I teach English too. My email is I think we both presented at this year’s ETA conference as well. I spoke on Problem Based Learning. Hope end of term is going well and we can touch base.

  5. Thanks for your interesting post – I related to it very much, but the view from the other side can be quite different. I did a masters by research and then a PhD within a 6 year period. I feel much better equipped to be a teacher and thinker than I did before I started, but it’s a slow burn. Only now, 2 years after finishing do I realise the one thing it really taught me – how to learn. I learn faster, better and more efficiently with much less pain than I used to. For that alone I believe the process is worth it. However I agree with Sarah – I would much rather write a blog than a journal article. I believe my blogging makes a real difference. I do regular publishing because I know I have to, but my heart isn’t in it. I hope the system catches up and starts to to recognise this space as legitimate. I fear it will take a goodly long time though. Best of luck with the rest of your studies!

  6. I second everything said so far and add this: “nothing you learn is ever wasted”. I love that statement and it’s not mine, it belongs to Christine Richmond (Dr!) who said it at a recent behaviour management workshop. I love it because I can say it in the classroom whenever some kid says “why are we reading this poem, it won’t get me a job?”. I can say it when I come out of year 7, who have once again tested my patience and creativity and 30 years of experience and made me wonder if I’m too old to teach year 7. I can say it when my daughter, a beginning English teacher, tells me about her really cool way of getting her very bottom Standard class ready for writing an Essay on belonging, and who took ten years to go from HSC to Uni degree and decide to be an English teacher. And I say it to you, who continues to remind me why I have always wanted to be a teacher and that I am still learning to be a teacher and who always inspires me.

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