Article 1 of 29: The purpose of research in education

Written by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com; D. Phil, CEO of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

Sponsors of research be they taxpayers, government, businesses or the community, will expect some value for their money. Somebody will need to decide if research should take place and it is often the sponsor who asks a researcher to do research on a problems that they need solved. You, as the prospective researcher, can also decide on the topic for research based on a problem or need that you identified. Lecturers also sometimes suggest research topics.

Time and energy spent on research is never wasted. The purposes of research can be added economic value, improved quality of life or improved professionalism. These three possible purposes overlap. Added economic value can be improved production processes, higher productivity, etc. Improved quality of life can be higher income, well-being, health, safety, social justice, the arts, leisure time utilization, freedom to interact in an enlightened, informed, responsible and constructive manner, etc. Improved professionalism can be the availability of good quality learning institutions, improved skills, more research, etc.

Generally speaking research should improve the learning offered by learning institutions. Knowledge and human well-being should be improved. It is debatable if, as some academics claim, the ‘pure sciences’ really add more value than social sciences. Do not underestimate the importance and value of improving intellectual skills. It is the improvement of analytical clarity, cognitive reasoning, conceptual imagination, perseverance and meticulousness of thought that provide students with the motivation and confidence to embark on further studies at a higher level.

It makes sense to argue that a county with a high unemployment rate should focus more on occupational learning, i.e. learning that will add value to the industry than on academic, philosophical research that only adds indirect and delayed value to the industry. However, strategically speaking a society should position itself to be ready to capitalize on growth opportunities by also conducting some research of an advanced scientific and philosophical nature.

It is difficult to ‘predict’ what the long-term value of such research will be. However, the likelihood of research providing some kind of benefit, even if only indirect, is almost certain, the only two preconditions being that the research should be shared with others who can do something with it and that the research should not have been done with ulterior, damaging motives in mind. 

Intellectual research for its own sake probably does not exist. For example, people can learn from historical research even if only by learning from mistakes made by our predecessors. The principles of science and the tenets of mathematics can be improved through research, with ‘old’ knowledge serving as a healthy foundation to build on. Besides, how will we know that concepts, principles, laws and tenets are wrong or outdated if we did not have them to begin with?

What may be regarded as worthless knowledge now might well turn out to be valuable in the future. I was once interviewed by an American post-graduate student who studied the patterns that sand form on the bends in river banks. His research was claimed to be worthless. Later researchers in astronomy discovered that the sand patterns that he did research on provided valuable evidence to determine if there was or is water, perhaps even life, on other planets.

In closing, the following are prerequisites for research in education to be of value:

  1. Universities and the industry should co-operate.
  2. We need to be patient. It is only when university students are employed that they learn to apply the theory taught at university in practice and to understand the (often simulated) practical work that they did at university.
  3. Research reports need to be made available for others to read.
  4. Knowledge and skills need to be transferred to the workplace and/or learning institutions.

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