What is research? Research is a process in which you engage in a small set of logical
steps. In this chapter, we define research, discuss why it is important, advance six steps for
conducting research, and identify how you can conduct research ethically by employing skills
that you already have. You can approach research in two ways—through a quantitative study
or a qualitative study—depending on the type of problem you need to research. Your choice
of one of these approaches will shape the procedures you use in each of the six steps of
research. In this chapter, we explore the many ways these two approaches are similar and
different.
Definition of Research
Research is a process of steps used to collect and analyze information to increase our
understanding of a topic or issue. At a general level, research consists of three steps:
1. Pose a question.
2. Collect data to answer the question.
3. Present an answer to the question.
This should be a familiar process. You engage in solving problems every day and you start
with a question, collect some information, and then form an answer. Although there are a few
more steps in research than these three, this is the overall framework for research. When you
examine a published study, or conduct your own study, you will find these three parts as the
core elements.
Not all educators have an understanding and appreciation of research. For some, research
may seem like something that is important only for faculty members in colleges and
universities. Although it is true that college and university faculty members value and
conduct research, personnel in other educational settings also read and use research, such as
school psychologists, principals, school board members, adult educators, college
administrators, and graduate students. Research is important for three reasons.
1. Research Adds to Our Knowledge
Educators strive for continual improvement. This requires addressing problems or issues and
searching for potential solutions. Adding to knowledge means that educators undertake
research to contribute to existing information about issues. We are all aware of pressing
educational issues being debated today, such as the integration of AIDS education into the
school curriculum.
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Research plays a vital role in addressing these issues. Through research we develop results
that help to answer questions, and as we accumulate these results, we gain a deeper
understanding of the problems. In this way, researchers are much like bricklayers who build a
wall brick by brick, continually adding to the wall and, in the process, creating a stronger
structure.
How can research specifically add to the knowledge base and existing literature?
A research report might provide a study that has not been conducted and thereby fill a
void in existing knowledge. It can also provide additional results to confirm or disconfirm
results of prior studies. It can help add to the literature about practices that work or advance
better practices that educators might try in their educational setting. It can provide
information about people and places that have not been previously studied.
Suppose that you decide to research how elementary schoolchildren learn social skills.
If you study how children develop social skills, and past research has not examined this topic,
your research study addresses a gap in knowledge. If your study explores how African
American children use social skills on their way home from school, your study might
replicate past studies but would test results with new participants at a different research site.
If your study examines how children use social skills when at play, not on the school
grounds, but on the way home from school, the study would contribute to knowledge by
expanding our understanding of the topic. If your study examines female children on the way
home from school, your study would add female voices seldom heard in the research. If your
study has implications for how to teach social skills to students, it has practical value.
2. Research Improves Practice
Research is also important because it suggests improvements for practice. Armed with
research results, teachers and other educators become more effective professionals. This
effectiveness translates into better learning for kids. For instance, through research, personnel
involved in teacher education programs in schools of education know much more about
training teachers today than they did 20 years ago. Zeichner (1999) summarized the impact of
research on teacher training during this period (see Table 1.1). Teacher trainers today know
about the academic capabilities of students, the characteristics of good teacher training
programs, the recurring practices in teacher training programs, the need to challenge student
beliefs and worldviews, and the tensions teacher educators face within their institutions. But
before these research results can impact teacher training or any other aspect of education,
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individuals in educational settings need to be aware of results from investigations, to know
how to read research studies, to locate useful conclusions from them, and to apply the
findings to their own unique situations. Educators using research may be teachers in
preschool through Grade 12, superintendents in school district offices, school psychologists
working with children with behavioural problems, or adult educators who teach English as a
second language.
Research may help these individuals improve their practices on the job. Research
offers practicing educators new ideas to consider as they go about their jobs. From reading
research studies, educators can learn about new practices that have been tried in other settings
or situations. For example, the adult educator working with immigrants may find that smallgroup
interaction that focuses on using cultural objects from the various homelands may
increase the rate at which immigrants learn the English language. Research also helps
practitioners evaluate approaches that they hope will work with individuals in educational
settings. This process involves sifting through research to determine which results will be
most useful which focuses on three steps that a classroom teacher might use (Connelly,
Dukacz, & Quinlan, 1980). A teacher first decides what needs to be implemented in the
classroom, then examines alternative lines of research, and finally decides which line of
research might help accomplish what needs to be done.
For example, a reading teacher decides to incorporate more information about cultural
perspectives into the classroom. Research suggests that this may be done with classroom
interactions by inviting speakers to the room (line A) or by having the children consider and
think (cognitively) about different cultural perspectives by talking with individuals at a local
cultural center (line B). It may also be accomplished by having the children inquire into
cultural messages embedded within advertisements (line C) or identify the cultural subject
matter of speeches of famous Indians (line D). A line of research is then chosen that helps the
teacher to accomplish classroom goals. This teacher might be our teacher conducting research
on weapon possession in schools and its potential for violence. Teacher hopes to present
options for dealing with this issue to her committee and needs to identify useful research lines
and consider approaches taken by other schools.
At a broader level, research helps the practicing educator build connections with other
educators who are trying out similar ideas in different locations. Special education teachers,
for example, may establish connections at research conferences where individuals report on
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topics of mutual interest, such as using small-group strategies for discipline management in
classrooms.
3. Research Informs Policy Debates
In addition to helping educators become better practitioners, research also provides
information to policy makers when they research and debate educational topics. Policy
makers may range from federal government employees and state workers to local school
board members and administrators, and they discuss and take positions on educational issues
important to constituencies. For these individuals, research offers results that can help them
weigh various perspectives. When policy makers read research on issues, they are informed
about current debates and stances taken by other public officials. To be useful, research needs
to have clear results, be summarized in a concise fashion, and include data-based evidence.
For example, research useful to policy makers might summarize the alternatives on:
 Welfare and its effect on children’s schooling among lower income families
 School choice and the arguments proposed by opponents and proponents
Positivistic Research
Although positivism has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought from
the Ancient Greeks to the present day, it is historically associated with the nineteenth century
French philosopher, Auguste Comte, who was the first thinker to use the word for a
philosophical position (Beck 1979). His positivism turns to observation and reason as means
of understanding behaviour; explanation proceeds by way of scientific description. Comte’s
position was to lead to a general doctrine of positivism which held that all genuine
knowledge is based on sense experience and can be advanced only by means of observation
and experiment. Following in the empiricist tradition, it limited inquiry and belief to what can
be firmly established and in thus abandoning metaphysical and speculative attempts to gain
knowledge by reason alone, the movement developed what has been described as a ‘toughminded
orientation to facts and natural phenomena’ (Beck 1979).
Although the term positivism is used by philosophers and social scientists, a residual
meaning is always present and this derives from an acceptance of natural science as the
paradigm of human knowledge (Duncan 1968). This includes the following connected
suppositions, identified by Giddens (1975). First, the methodological procedures of natural
science may be directly applied to the social sciences. Positivism here implies a particular
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stance concerning the social scientist as an observer of social reality. Second, the end-product
of investigations by social scientists can be formulated in terms parallel to those of natural
science. This means that their analyses must be expressed in laws or law-like generalizations
of the same kind that have been established in relation to natural phenomena. Positivism here
involves a definite view of social scientists as analysts or interpreters of their subject matter.
Positivism claims that science provides us with the clearest possible ideal of knowledge.
Where positivism is less successful, however, is in its application to the study of human
behaviour where the immense complexity of human nature and the elusive and intangible
quality of social phenomena contrast strikingly with the order and regularity of the natural
world. This point is nowhere more apparent than in the contexts of classroom and school
where the problems of teaching, learning and human interaction present the positivistic
researcher with a mammoth challenge.
Several Problems with Research Today
Despite the importance of research, we need to realistically evaluate its contributions.
Sometimes the results show contradictory or vague findings.
Not only are policy makers looking for a clear “declarative sentence,” many readers of
educational research search for some evidence that makes a direct statement about an
educational issue. On balance, however, research accumulates slowly, and what may seem
contradictory comes together to make sense in time. Based on the information known, for
example, it took more than 4 years to identify the most rudimentary factors about how
chairpersons help faculty become better researchers (Creswell, Wheeler, Seagren, Egly, &
Beyer, 1990).
Another problem with research is the issue of questionable data. The author of a
particular research report may not have gathered information from people who are able to
understand and address the problem. The number of participants may also be dismally low,
which can cause problems in drawing appropriate statistical conclusions. The survey used in
a study may contain questions that are ambiguous and vague. At a technical level, the
researcher may have chosen an inappropriate statistic for analyzing the data.
Just because research is published in a well-known journal does not automatically make
it “good” research. To these issues we could add unclear statements about the intent of the
study, the lack of full disclosure of data collection procedures, or inarticulate statements of
the research problem that drives the inquiry. Research has limits, and you need to know how
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to decipher research studies because researchers may not write them as clearly and accurately
as you would like. We cannot erase all “poor” research reported in the educational field. We
can, however, as responsible inquirers, seek to reconcile different findings and employ sound
procedures to collect and analyze data and to provide clear direction for our own research.
THE SIX STEPS IN THE PROCESS OF RESEARCH
When researchers conduct a study, they proceed through a distinct set of steps. Years ago
these steps were identified as the “scientific method” of inquiry (Kerlinger, 1972; Leedy &
Ormrod, 2001). Using a “scientific method,” researchers:
 Identify a problem that defines the goal of research
 Make a prediction that, if confirmed, resolves the problem
 Gather data relevant to this prediction
 Analyze and interpret the data to see if it supports the prediction and resolves the
question that initiated the research
Applied today, these steps provide the foundation for educational research. Although not all
studies include predictions, you engage in these steps whenever you undertake a research
study. The process of research consists of six steps:
1. Identifying a research problem
2. Reviewing the literature
3. Specifying a purpose for research
4. Collecting data
5. Analyzing and interpreting the data
6. Reporting and evaluating research