After studying this chapter you should be able to:

  • Identify and describe the multiple contexts for education research
  • Describe the main ethical issues involved in education research, especially with children
  • Describe practitioner research, and identify its advantages and disadvantages
  • Discuss the role and contribution of small-scale empirical studies in education
  • Identify the advantages and disadvantages of researching your own classroom, school or college

There are multiple contexts for education research. Those aspects considered here are the academic context, the literature context, the physical–social context, the political context and the ethical context. This chapter first briefly comments on the academic, literature and physical–social contexts of education research. It next considers the political context, using an example from the literature of the professional development of teachers. This example is chosen because it leads to the ideas of the practitioner researcher, of small-scale empirical studies and of teachers researching their own classroom, school or college. After that, there is a section on research with children, which leads to a more general consideration of the ethical context and the ethical issues involved in education research. The important literature context of research is given separate consideration in Chapter 6.

In one sense, the academic context of research is a fundamental premise of this book. When education research is done as part of a degree or higher degree, its context is necessarily academic. Typically, a proposal is developed and submitted for approval before research for a higher degree can proceed. Then, after execution of the research, the research report – usually as a dissertation – is submitted for assessment. At all stages of this process, there are standard and (usually) clearly defined requirements and expectations which are part of the academic context. These range from the style of writing and format of documents, through the size, scope and nature of projects, and the way projects are executed, to its intended outcomes and contributions. Throughout this book, these different aspects of the academic context are addressed, and research writing itself is dealt with in Chapter 15.

Because of its importance, the literature context of a piece of research is the special subject of Chapter 6. It is an aspect of the academic context – a dissertation is expected to demonstrate mastery of the literature relevant to its research topic. No research occurs in a vacuum, and the literature is a valuable source of previous knowledge and thinking about any topic. This applies both to empirical (or research) literature and to theoretical literature, a distinction that is described in Chapter 6. Together, they provide the main literature context for a piece of research.

Like the literature, the ethical context is of primary concern for any piece of education research. Important ethical issues are always involved in research with people, and these are usually magnified when the research is with children. The research world’s understanding of these ethical issues, and the priority given to them, have both increased dramatically in the past 20 or so years. As a result, they now need to be carefully considered and addressed at all stages of a project – the planning, the execution and the reporting and dissemination. Section 3.6 of this chapter deals with these ethical issues, with special reference to research with children.

The physical and social contexts of education research are often self-explanatory, though more prominent in some types of research than others. The primary setting and physical context for education research is clearly schools, colleges and universities. At the same time, in today’s world education and training occur in many other settings as well. Examples are in preschools, in the military, in police organizations, and in corporations and commercial organizations. Whether the research is in colleges, schools or classrooms, or in some other setting, its physical and social contexts are usually obvious. This does not mean they can be ignored, however – for example, the physical context may influence data collection possibilities and arrangements (as in the location of colleges and schools). The social context for research in schools and classrooms involves principals, teachers, students and often parents, and the ethical context of research always involves social dimensions. The same is true for research in other settings. These social dimensions are accentuated when researchers study their own college, school, classroom or other setting. In some studies, however, the physical and social contexts of the research are much less prominent, and much less clearly defined. An example would be an education policy analysis study, based mainly on documentary data. By contrast, in many studies there is a large overlap between the social and political contexts of the research.


The political context for education research can be quite complex and is often very interesting in its own right. While a local political context is more directly relevant for some topics and projects than for others, there is, at the same time, always a general political context that exists. This is because education, at all levels, has many stakeholders, and public accountability is necessarily involved. In addition, education is a prominent part of government policy, sometimes at a state level and very often at a national level as well. Inevitably, therefore, opposing points of view exist, and many topics in educational policy and practice are the subject of highly politicized debate. These debates usually have international connections and overtones. Examples of such topics are the assessment of educational outcomes, teacher training and development, school funding and the structure of education systems. This general political context is typically made more visible, and new dimensions are added to it, by the involvement of the media. Thus it is common now for major newspapers to carry regular education sections and features, and for radio and television programmes to discuss, debate and analyse educational issues. In addition to the general political context, a more local context will be relevant to some education research topics, perhaps all the way down to the ‘micro-politics’ (Ball, 1987) of the schools where research is being conducted.

An interesting demonstration of the importance of the political context of research is the work of Campbell, McNamara and Gilroy (2004: 12–25) on teacher professional development. In describing this context, they point out that teacher education and teacher professional development have become a major focus of government policy, that several related government initiatives intersect with this, and that opposing arguments are prominent. The debates this leads to are heightened by the need for (and media interest in) public accountability for teaching and education. While the focus of these writers is on the UK, one can see similar situations with respect to teacher professional development in other countries – for example, the USA, Canada and Australia. Highly politicized debates inevitably span international borders on these sorts of issues, and there are both common elements and country variations involved in the many tensions that come to the surface. Campbell, McNamara and Gilroy point out that discourse and definitional issues are also involved – for example, what exactly is meant by teacher professional development in today’s world – and they cite research which analyses the discourse of teacher education reform (Cochran-Smith and Fries, 2001).

For Campbell, McNamara and Gilroy the idea of teachers doing research is an important part of professional development. This is often the basis for teacher-initiated school-based inquiry. There are different forms and descriptions of teacher-initiated school-based inquiry (for example, teacher inquiry, action research, collaborative research), but they are consistent with the idea of the teacher as researcher, which itself is an example of the more general category of the professional practitioner researcher.


As a general rule, in previous decades of practice in education and other professions, practitioner involvement in research was restricted to the role of ‘consumer’ rather than ‘doer’. The thinking behind this was that the practitioner did not have sufficiently advanced training in research methods to be able to conduct research, but at the same time, needed enough training to be able to read and understand reports of research, and to apply research findings as appropriate. The research itself was carried out by trained researchers, often academic staff from universities, rather than by practitioners (e.g. teachers). Among the many problems with this model, however, was that the research reports were often too technical for practitioners to follow, and, in any case, the research was often concerned with topics not directly relevant to practitioners’ professional concerns. Such problems widened an already existing gap between research and practice. Over time, practitioners and researchers came to be seen as two separate communities, often having little direct contact with each other.

More recently, new emphasis on, and new conceptions of, continuous professional development for practitioners are leading to new types of involvement for practitioners in research. Specifically, they are becoming involved in different ways in the doing of the research, not just in the consuming of it. But now it is research on topics much more directly connected to their own professional practice. In this conception, involvement in research about their own practice is seen as an important part of on-going learning, and an important way to develop greater practitioner expertise. At the same time, this coincides with a world-wide movement across the professions towards evidence–based practice – the deliberate and organized collection of evidence about practice, as it goes on, in order to inform and improve practice. Thus in health, for example, evidence-based practice involves using the best available evidence to make informed medical and health practice decisions. Similarly, in education in the USA, government agencies that sponsor evaluations have aggressively pushed the concept of evidence-based policies and programmes. This push to develop the evidence base is now seen to have relevance at the level of the individual practitioner.

This view of professional development thus promotes the concept of the practitioner-researcher, and in education of the teacher-researcher. At the same time, the history of action research in education is a reminder that involvement of the teacher in research is not necessarily straightforward. The rise in popularity of action research in the 1970s was driven by a desire to reduce the separation between professional action and research, and to bring the two roles together. In other words, teachers were encouraged to become action researchers, and to research as well as to teach. Over time, however, disillusionment occurred. The action research teachers produced was typically seen not to have sufficient academic strength and rigor to convince often sceptical audiences. In the face of this scepticism, teachers found the burden of researching in addition to teaching to be not worth the time, effort and trouble. Thus enthusiasm for action research declined. In line with today’s enthusiasm for the concepts of the practitioner-researcher and the teacher-researcher, there is currently a renewed interest in action research (see section 7.6). It is one of the ways in which teachers’ professional development is being encouraged, but its history is a reminder of some of the difficulties.

Thus the challenge is to find good ways to implement effectively the concept of practitioner researcher, and different models of implementation can be found. One of these is the introduction and growth of the professional doctorate in education (and corresponding professional doctorates in other professional areas). In education, this degree is called the Doctor of Education degree, usually abbreviated around the world to Ed D. Being a doctorate, the Ed D requires a research dissertation, and the university still provides the necessary academic training in research and research methods. But, typically, Ed D candidates are encouraged to select topics for their research which are relevant to professional practice, including their own. The research is intended, in other words, to have direct applied relevance to professional practice. In recent years, professional doctorates, and especially Ed Ds, have been a major growth area for many universities in different countries.

Another promising practitioner researcher development is forms of partnership which grow up between professional researchers (for example, academic staff in universities) and teachers. These partnerships may take various forms – they may be based in schools, or perhaps jointly in schools and universities, they may show varying degrees of formalization, and they may be accompanied by project-based teacher consortia. But a distinguishing characteristic is that the starting point for the research tends to be a professional or applied problem or topic, rather than the more theoretical or academic starting points which are typical of university research. With this more applied starting point, the role of academics is then to help shape and focus the project, to develop the research questions to guide it, and to assist and advise on appropriate methods for designing the project and for collecting and analysing data. Box 3.1 gives an example of such a partnership


BOX 3.1
A higher degree–professional development partnership

An innovative teacher-researcher–professional-development partnership is that between the Hwa Chong Institution in Singapore, and the University of Western Australia Graduate School of Education. In this particular partnership, the university teaches both its Master of Education degree and its Doctor of Education degree directly in the school, to members of staff. Central motivations behind the programme included a desire for teachers to increase their knowledge and confidence about research, for use in their own teaching, and for topics for research to be chosen according to their relevance to professional practice in the school.

Thus there are various ways in which teachers and education administrators, as practitioners, and education researchers, are coming together. Writing about the UK, Taber (2007: 117) points out that there are increasing expectations that teachers should undertake small-scale empirical studies to inform their own practice. This applies to trainee teachers, but also to practising teachers as part of their on-going professional development – and it has always applied to teachers doing higher-degree research programmes. This means that the idea of carrying out small-scale empirical research projects is now built into all stages of the teaching career.


In addition to the pressure from these expectations, there is generally today a greater understanding of the role and importance of small–scale research projects in a field such as education. When the quantitative approach dominated education research, as it did in the 1950s, 1960s and (to a lesser extent) the 1970s, there was an understandable emphasis on using samples of sufficient size to permit multivariate statistical analysis and inference. Inevitably, this meant large samples. Among its many effects, the rapid growth of qualitative research in the 1980s and up to the present has reinforced the value of smaller-scale research projects. There is now a greater realization that large sample sizes are not a necessary requirement for all research projects, and that it is not realistic to plan for large samples in many research situations, both because of resources required for large sample data collection, and because of issues of access and cooperation. At the same time, there is better understanding of the value of small-scale studies, both for their contribution to knowledge, insight and professional practice, and for their importance in research training.

There are limits to what can be done in any one project, and most experienced researchers and research supervisors would agree that it is better to have a small–scale project well done than a bigger project superficially done. ‘Bigger is better’ is by no means necessarily true, and bigger is often defined in terms of sample size. In addition, qualitative research shows us that there are trade-offs involved. A small–scale (or small sample size) interview-based project can go into considerable depth with a small sample, whereas a quantitative survey can investigate a much larger sample, but not in the same way or to the same depth. Both research strategies have their strengths, and often combining them can combine these strengths. But the point stressed here is that well-executed small–scale projects have much to contribute.

When practising (or trainee) teachers conduct empirical research in their own classroom or school (see section 3.4), the projects are very likely to be small scale. And research projects for masters or doctoral degrees need to be realistic in their size and scope, especially with respect to sample size. This also usually means relatively small samples. Yet the learning experience for a graduate student can be as profound and valuable from a small-scale project as from a large-scale project, and, as Campbell, McNamara and Gilroy (2004) point out, small-scale projects can also make important contributions to teachers’ professional development. Small-scale studies can open paths to larger projects. Their findings and insights can inform larger projects, and there are many examples of this. In addition to these points, knowledge in any field, but especially in a professional field such as education, usually progresses through the accumulation of evidence across many studies, rather than because of one large-scale definitive project, and small-scale research has much to contribute here. And finally, there are outstanding examples of the contribution small-scale studies can make in their own right. Box 3.2 refers to a particularly famous case of this.


BOX 3.2
Small-scale research

A compelling illustration of the potential value of small-scale research comes from the work of Jean Piaget. Piaget is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of education, and some of the most widely accepted ideas in the practice of education around the world today are based on his ideas about the stages of cognitive development in children, developed almost 100 years ago. His primary research method was the case study. Much of his theorizing was based on his observations of his own three children, and other samples he used for the research were small.

There is thus a continuum of research (Taber, 2007: 7), from professional academic research published in peer reviewed journals to small-scale practical and applied projects researching professional practice. It is logical that the small-scale empirical studies teachers are now under pressure to carry out to inform their own practice will focus on their own classroom. As noted, this is in line with the push for evidence-based practice which has developed. The same is true of teacher-initiated school-based inquiry – very often, the research is planned for the researchers’ own classrooms or schools. Researching one’s own school, college or classroom raises a number of issues, advantages and disadvantages, which need to be thought through in planning and conducting the research. For simplicity, in what follows, the shorthand ‘teacher-researcher-own-classroom’ is used. Teacher-researcher here is synonymous with practitioner-researcher, and own classroom here includes own school and own college.


As with any strategy in planning empirical research, teacher-researcher-own-classroom research has advantages as well as disadvantages. Four possible advantages of teacher-researcher-own-classroom research are:

  • Convenience: The collection of research data is not likely to involve travel to other locations, or other logistical issues often involved in collecting data.
  • Access and consent: Access to the research situation is often easier because the researcher is working in the research situation. However, issues of consent are still involved, with their ethical implications. A teacher (or administrator) cannot simply exploit the work situation for research purposes, without the knowledge and consent of people involved, including children and parents. This point is discussed further below.
  • Relevance: It is usually not a problem to connect research in your own classroom, school or college to research to professional concerns and issues. On the contrary, some problematic or particularly interesting or promising aspect of the professional situation may well be the springboard for this research in the first place. In this way, the professional relevance of the research is built into the project.
  • Insider knowledge and understanding: Teacher-researchers studying their own school or classroom can bring an insider’s understanding of the research situation, including its social, cultural and micro-political aspects. This type of understanding can enrich and deepen the research, including interpretation of its results and consideration of their transferability to other situations. At the same time, such insider status is a two-edged sword, as noted below.

Four possible disadvantages of teacher-researcher-own-classroom research are:


  • Bias and subjectivity: The very nature of the teacher-researcher’s insider position may bring the risk of subjectivity and bias. It may be difficult, in other words, to maintain a dispassionate, objective, arm’s length approach to the research situation. Selective sampling, bias in the collection or analysis of the data, and bias in the interpretation of results are obvious possibilities. As noted below, however, awareness and discussion of these possibilities usually brings suggestions and ideas for minimizing their effects.
  • Vested interest in the results: When the teacher-researcher’s-own-classroom research proceeds from some professional concern, a vested interest in the outcome of the research may influence the way it is conducted and the outcomes claimed. This is especially possible when a new or different method of teaching – perhaps teacher-developed – is the focus of the research. Again, awareness and analysis of the issue is the best defence against it, and will likely throw up possible measures for its control.
  • Generalizability: The transfer of observed research results to other situations may be a problem when researchers are studying their own classroom. An example is the possibility of a strong teacher effect in a study investigating children’s learning outcomes with a new method of teaching – positive results with the new method might be due to the ability and commitment of the teacher as much as they are due to the method. At the same time, this generalizability issue applies to any research that studies particular situations.
  • Ethics: Special ethical issues may be involved just because the researcher is also the teacher. Informed consent of children and parents is one issue, but confidentiality, protection and the subsequent use of data collected for research purposes are also important. Complicating matters further is the dividing line between research data and ‘normal’ professional data. For example, teachers collect information on children’s learning and academic performance in the course of their work. Using that information as research data raises ethical issues, which need to be carefully considered.

Running through this discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of teacher-researcher-own-classroom is the theme of the ‘positionality’ of the researcher. As in the point about bias and subjectivity above, this is highlighted when teacher-researchers study their own school or classroom. However, it is important to note two general points about this theme.

First, all researchers come to their project from some ‘position’, whoever the researcher and whatever the project. There is no such thing as a ‘position-free project’. Even the (supposedly) detached objective external researcher occupies a position with respect to the research.

Second, any researcher-position with respect to a project has both strengths and weaknesses, both advantages and disadvantages. For example, the insider may bring greater understanding but less objectivity to the research; the outsider may bring greater objectivity but less understanding. Both positions, in other words, have strengths and weaknesses.

In view of this, the planning of any research should include recognition and scrutiny of the researcher’s position, and analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. Only when this matter is analysed in the planning process can the advantages of the position be maximized and its disadvantages minimized. In the special case here – of the teacher-researcher-own-classroom – such disadvantages as bias, subjectivity and vested interest can be minimized by ‘bracketing’, and by the informed involvement of colleagues. In particular, informed colleagues as ‘critical friends’ can exercise a ‘watching brief’ acting as a cross-check for possible subjectivity, bias or vested interest.

The issue of positionality is an aspect of the more general concept of reflexivity (Greene and Hill, 2005: 8). The researcher always comes to the research from some position, and the ‘lens’ of the researcher is always involved in the analysis of data, and of its interpretation and representation. Understanding this, and taking the researcher’s position into consideration, should be a part of the preparation for any piece of research, and it is especially important in research with children (Davis, 1998)


By definition, much education research – probably most – is concerned with children. There is a long history of child study in educational psychology and developmental psychology in particular. A historical perspective on this research is important here, because of the methodological and ethical context it provides for present-day education researchers.

As with other areas of research in social science, the historical tradition of educational and developmental psychology research was based mainly on positivism, favouring quantitative methods. The emphasis was on ‘objective’ and quantifiable data, with statistical analysis focusing on the aggregation of data and relationships between variables. As a result, there is a wealth of quantitatively oriented observational research on children’s behaviour, and multiple tests and measuring instruments exist for assessing children’s developmental levels, their attitudes and their behaviours. In this research tradition, children and young people have typically been positioned passively (Veale, 2005). The emphasis has been on ‘children as the objects of research rather than children as subjects, on child-related outcomes rather than child-related processes and on child variables rather than children as persons’ (Greene and Hogan, 2005: 1). In the way child study has historically been approached, the child has also been seen as context-free, predictable and irrelevant (Hogan, 2005).

In the past two decades, however, there have been major changes in the way some research with children has been construed and approached. Sometimes called a new sociology of childhood or a new social studies of childhood, this perspective ‘accords children conceptual autonomy, looking at them as the direct and primary unit of study. It focuses on children as social actors in their present lives and it examines the ways in which they influence their social circumstances as well as the ways in which they are influenced by them. It sees children as making meaning in social life through their interactions with other children as well as with adults. Finally, childhood is seen as part of society not prior to it’ (Christensen and Prout, 2005: 42). One consequence of this change has been a concern with children’s perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, views and opinions. A second consequence has been a direct research focus on children’s experience itself – how children interpret and negotiate their worlds, and the way in which their construction of experience shapes their perceptions and views. This approach not only seeks the child’s perspective – it also acknowledges children as ‘competent’ human beings in their own right, rather than as ‘deficient’ or ‘unformed’ adults (Hill, 2005). They are constructed as human beings, not human ‘becomings’ (Qvortrup, 1987; Roberts-Holmes, 2005: 55).

Table 3.1   Possible bases for differentiating children from adults

Source: Hill, 2005: 66


Such an approach clearly requires qualitative methods. Thus these changes are in line with the growth of qualitative methods in education research in general, and the movement of qualitative methods from the margin to the mainstream. As in other areas of education research, there has been a questioning and critique of traditional positivistic methods and of their paradigmatic and epistemological bases. This in turn has led to a broadening both of paradigm considerations and methodological approaches. In other words, positivism and post-positivism have been challenged, and other paradigms – notably interpretivism and social constructivism – have been promoted. And qualitative and ethnographic methods have become important in studies of children’s experience in multiple settings. As a consequence, the methodological toolbox for research with children is now broader than it used to be, in the same way that it is for research with adolescents and adults.

However, there are important differences between children and adults, with implications for the methods of research. Hill (2005) summarizes the key differences as competence, power and vulnerability. As shown in Table 3.1, competence here centres on verbal competence, and the capacity of children to understand and express abstract ideas. But it also includes issues of meaning, the use of non-verbal communication, and so on.

Power in this context relates to age, size and status. Researchers are usually adults, and adults are typically in positions of authority over children. These power and status differentials raise the possibility that children may find it difficult to dissent, disagree or say things which adults may not like (Hill, 2005: 63). Added to that, perceived incompetence and weakness combine to place children in a potentially vulnerable situation in research – in particular, they may be open to persuasion and influence.

These considerations sensitize us to important differences between children and adults, with implications for the way we use methods in our research. Balancing this, there are both many similarities between children and adults, and enormous variation within the general category ‘children’ – as Veale (2005: 253) notes, a ‘multiplicity of childhoods’ needs to be understood. This means that research with children needs the same full range of quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods as any other area of education research. This includes methods developed in the positivist tradition, newer methods stimulated by the growth of interest in qualitative research, and appropriate combinations of the two. In addition, however, methods for research with children need to be developmentally appropriate, sensitive to the issues of ability, power and vulnerability noted above, and able to accommodate the faithful representation of children’s views, experience and meanings, in line with the view of children as social actors and co-constructors of their own reality. Research methods for the study of children are described and analysed from this point of view by Fraser et al. (2004), Greene and Hogan (2005), Grieg and Taylor (1999), MacNaughton et al. (2001) and Roberts-Holmes (2005). There are also important ethical considerations in research with children, which are taken up in section 3.6 of this chapter.

Figure 3.1   Children in research


The greater emphasis on children’s experience, together with increased recognition of their rights as citizens, has also led to a reconsideration of children’s role in research. A first consequence of this is to see children as active participants in research that aims at change and transformation of aspects of their lives. A second consequence, an extension of the first, is to see children as researchers themselves. The continuum in Figure 3.1 shows these changes in the role of children in research.

‘Children as participants’ in this diagram implies participatory research. In keeping with the principles of participatory research in general (see section 7.6), participatory research with children:

  • rejects researcher-imposed realities and challenges imposed knowledge
  • seeks ways of working with children that define their own reality
  • promotes reciprocal learning between participants and researchers
  • recognizes and promotes awareness of children’s agency in transformation.

Research methods developed to implement these ideas are described by Veale (2005).

Even in participatory research with children, however, adults are the planners and designers. The concept of children as researchers, as in the right-hand point on the continuum in Figure 3.1, goes further, involving children in the selection of research topics, and in the shaping, planning and designing of research projects. Thus, Kellett (2005) asks why, when we place such importance on the benefits of research for the personal and professional development of adults, children should not have access to these benefits. She provides evidence, based on two years of pilot testing, that children can be taught to do empirical research without compromising its core principles. She points to a number of important learning benefits from teaching children to do research. These include the development of metacognition and critical thinking, improving the ability to develop focused research questions, extending children’s logical and lateral thinking, and their organizational and management skills. Higher-order thinking is especially promoted in the data analysis stage, and research reporting and dissemination sharpens writing, communication and organizational skills. Less tangible, but equally important benefits flow from ‘project ownership’, particularly in terms of motivation and self-esteem. In addition to these learning benefits, there is the knowledge children can create through their own research. Kellett’s book (2005) is an experience-based, step-by-step guide to teaching the research process to children aged 10–14. It also includes examples of research projects designed, executed and reported by children.


Empirical research in education inevitably carries ethical issues, because it involves collecting data from people, and about people. Planning for research must therefore identify and consider the ethical issues involved, and a research proposal must show how they will be dealt with. As O’Leary (2004: 50) points out, researchers are unconditionally responsible for the integrity of all aspects of the research process.

The literature on ethical issues in education research is of two main types. First, there are the codes of ethical and professional conduct for research, put out by the various education research organizations – examples are the principles and guidelines published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA, 1992) and the British Educational Research Association (BERA, 2004). The second type of literature is the various commentaries on ethical issues, sometimes across social research in general, and sometimes specific to education research. Examples are the writings of Miles and Huberman (1994), and Punch (1986, 1994) in social research, and of Hill (2005) and Roberts-Holmes (2005) in education and psychological research. Both types of literature are valuable. The first type offers researchers guidelines for ethical conduct, and checklists of points to consider. The second describes what issues have come up for different researchers, and how they have been handled. These two bodies of literature together provide a general framework for dealing with ethical issues. That general framework often needs elaboration for education research dealing with children, as is discussed below.

Ethical issues arise in quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods approaches, but they are sometimes more acute in some qualitative approaches. This is because, while all social research intrudes to some extent into people’s lives, qualitative research often intrudes more. Some qualitative research deals with the most sensitive, intimate and innermost matters in people’s lives, and ethical issues inevitably accompany the collection of such information. With the growth of interest in qualitative methods, recognition and consideration of ethical issues have become a bigger feature of the education and social science research literature. Ethical issues saturate all stages of the research process, beginning with the researcher’s choice of topic, which raises such questions as why is this research worthwhile, and who benefits from this research?

Punch (1994) summarizes the main ethical issues in social research as harm, consent, deception, privacy and confidentiality of data. Miles and Huberman (1994: 290–7) have a broader list of eleven ethical issues that typically need attention before, during and after qualitative studies, though many apply to quantitative studies also. Each issue is briefly outlined below, as a series of relevant questions – as noted, they give a valuable general framework for dealing with ethical issues.

Issues arising early in a project:

  1. Worthiness of the project – is my contemplated study worth doing? Will it contribute in some significant way to a domain broader than my funding, my publication opportunities, my career?
  2. Competence boundaries – do I have the expertise to carry out a study of good quality? Or, am I prepared to study, be supervised, trained or consulted with to get that expertise? Is such help available?
  3. Informed consent – do the people I am studying have full information about what the study will involve? Is their consent to participate freely given? Does a hierarchy of consent (e.g., children, parents, teachers, administrators) affect such decisions?
  4. Benefits, costs, reciprocity – what will each party to the study gain from having taken part? What do they have to invest in time, energy or money? Is the balance equitable?

    Issues arising as the project develops:

  5. Harm and risk – what might this study do to hurt the people involved? How likely is it that such harm will occur?
  6. Honesty and trust – what is my relationship with the people I am studying? Am I telling the truth? Do we trust each other?
  7. Privacy, confidentiality and anonymity – in what ways will the study intrude, come closer to people than they want? How will information be guarded? How identifiable are the individuals and organizations studied?
  8. Intervention and advocacy – what do I do when I see harmful, illegal or wrongful behaviour by others during a study? Should I speak for anyone’s interests besides my own? If so, whose interests do I advocate?

    Issues arising later in, or after, the project:

  9. Research integrity and quality – is my study being conducted carefully, thoughtfully and correctly in terms of some reasonable set of standards?
  10. Ownership of data and conclusions – who owns my data, my field notes and analyses: me, my organization, my funders? And once my reports are written, who controls their diffusion?
  11. Use and misuse of results – do I have an obligation to help my findings be used appropriately? What if they are used harmfully or wrongly?

As Miles and Huberman point out, these issues typically involve dilemmas and conflicts, and negotiated trade-offs are often needed, rather than the application of rules. But heightened awareness of all these issues is an important starting point. Feminist approaches to research have contributed further perspectives on the ethical issues involved. Thus, Mauthner et al. (2002) point out that ethical debates in society in general are increasingly wide-ranging, and these authors show that ethical concerns in research are similarly more wide-ranging than can be covered by sets of rules. Their key themes are responsibility and accountability in applied feminist research practice based on personal experience methods. Some of the ethical issues their analysis exposes are questions of intention underlying research, the many meanings of participation and the important idea that consent may need to be on-going and renegotiated throughout a research project. Several other writers (O’Leary, 2004; Hill, 2005; Roberts-Holmes, 2005) also point out that the key issue of consent is an on-going process. It is not a one-off event, but must be continuously renegotiated. The right to withdraw, or not to participate in some part of the research, must be respected.

These general ethical issues are especially sharply framed in qualitative research on children’s subjective experience in natural contexts. This subject is discussed in detail by Hill (2005). Against the background of increased emphasis in the past 20 years on the rights of the child (see, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), he uses the list of issues shown in Table 3.2 to identify key ethical issues in research with children:

He elaborates these key issues, showing that in today’s world especially, some are not as straightforward as they might appear. For example, discussing potential harm or distress (2005: 72–4), Hill notes various possibilities. What should be done during a research project if an adult has abusive intentions towards children? If emotional harm is likely to result? If a child becomes upset? If a child discloses an incident of abuse, or does something that may harm others? Or if dissemination of research findings adversely affects other people? Hill presents a similar analysis of privacy and confidentiality, showing that it involves public confidentiality, social network confidentiality and third-party breach of privacy. He summarizes his discussion of these ethical issues using a four-part rights perspective (Hill, 2005: 81):

Table 3.2   Key ethical issues in research with children (based on Alderson, 1995)


1 Research purpose Is the research in children’s interests?
2 Costs and benefits What are the costs and risks for children of doing or not doing the research? What are the potential benefits?
3 Privacy and confidentiality What choices do children have about being contacted, agreement to take part, withdrawing confidentiality?
4 Inclusion and exclusion Who is included, who is excluded? Why? What efforts are made to include disadvantaged groups (e.g. those with physical impairments, homeless young people)?
5 Funding Are funds ‘tainted’? Are resources sufficient? In what circumstances should children be recompensed?
6 Involvement and accountability To what extent can children or carers contribute to the research aim and design? What safeguards and checks are in place?
7 Information Are the aims and implications clearly explained? Is written documentation available in other languages?
8 Consent How well are rights to refuse cooperation explained and respected? Are informal ‘pressures’ used? What is the correct balance of parental and child consent?
9 Dissemination Do participants know about and comment on the findings? How wide is the audience for the research – academics, practitioners, policy makers, the public, research participants, etc.?
10 Impact on children How does the research affect children through its impact on thinking, policy and practice? Are children’s own perspectives accurately conveyed?

Source: Hill, 2005: 66


1 welfare – the purpose of the research should contribute to children’s well-being, either directly or indirectly (for example, through increasing adult’s understanding of children so that their interactions or interventions are more sensitive to childrens wishes and needs);
2 protection – methods should be designed to avoid stress and distress; contingency arrangements should be available in case children become upset or situations of risk or harm are revealed;
3 provision – children should whenever possible feel good about having contributed to research as a service which can inform society, individuals, policy and practice;
4 choice and participation – children should make informed choices about the following:
  a.   agreement or refusal to taking part;
b.   opting out (at any stage);
c.   determining the boundaries of public, network and third-party confidentiality;
d.   contributing ideas to research agendas and processes, both for individual research projects and to the research enterprise as a whole.


While ethical dilemmas in research with children may sometimes be hard to resolve (Roberts-Holmes, 2005: 75), there is a general legal framework that applies, and professional bodies may have guidelines and codes of conduct that aim to protect both children and researchers. In addition, and most importantly for the graduate student, universities usually now have specific and detailed ethical clearance requirements for each project. These requirements will normally be based on the legal framework and codes of conduct mentioned. Education researchers need to be alert to the ethical issues their research inevitably carries, and to use the various guidelines indicated in planning how to deal with them.


Political context: local and general dimensions for many projects

Practitioner-researcher: teachers as researchers; increasingly common; multiple models

Small-scale studies: importance in training; contribution to knowledge

Researching your own workplace: advantages and disadvantages; positionality and reflexivity in research

Research with children:historical dominance of qualitative methods; new emphasis on qualitative (and mixed) methods; differences between adults and children (competence, power, vulnerability)

Ethical issues:centrally important, especially in research with children; multiple issues involved; frameworks for dealing with these issues




Burgess, R.G. (ed.) (1989) The Ethics of Educational Research. Lewes: Falmer.

Campbell, A., McNamara, O. and Gilroy, P. (2004) Practitioner Research and Professional Development in Education. London: Paul Chapman.

Christensen, P. and James, A. (eds) (2000) Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices. Abingdon: Falmer.

Fox, M., Green, G. and Martin, P. (2007) Doing Practitioner Research. London: Sage.

Greene, S. and Hogan, D. (eds) (2005) Researching Children’s Experience: Approaches and Methods. London: Sage.

Grieg, A.D., Taylor, J. and MacKay, T. (2007) Doing Research with Children. 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Hammersley, M. (ed.) (2007) Educational Research and Evidence-Based Practice. London: Sage.

Hill, M. (2005) ‘Ethical considerations in researching children’s experiences’, in S. Greene and D. Hogan (eds), Researching Children’s Experience: Approaches and Methods. London: Sage. pp. 253–72.

Israel, M. and Hay, I. (2006) Research Ethics for Social Scientists. London: Sage.

Mauthner, M., Birch, M., Jessop, J. and Miller, T. (2002) Ethics in Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Miles, M.B. and Huberman, A.M. (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis. 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Punch, M. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork: Muddy Boots and Grubby Hands. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Punch, M. (1994) ‘Politics and ethics in qualitative research’, in N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoin (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 83–97.

Sapsford, R. and Abbott, P. (1996) ‘Ethics, politics and research’, in R. Sapsford and V. Jupp (eds), Data Collection and Analysis. London: Sage. pp. 317–42.

Sieber, J.E. (1982) Planning Ethically Responsible Research: A Guide for Student and Internal Review Boards. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.




  1. What is meant by the political context of education research? When would the local political context be most relevant? When would the general political context be most relevant?
  2. Do you think the teacher-researcher concept is a good idea? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  3. What are the strengths of small-scale empirical studies? What are their weaknesses? How does your answer apply to each of qualitative and quantitative research?
  4. Discuss the different advantages and disadvantages of researching your own classroom, school or college. Can you think of other advantages and disadvantages than those shown in section 3.4?
  5. What does the ‘positionality’ of a researcher mean? What are different ‘positions’ a researcher might come from, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  6. Describe and discuss the major methodological change that has occurred over the past two decades in research with children. To what extent does this fit the overall pattern of methodological change in education research?
  7. Briefly design a piece of research involving a classroom or school with which you are familiar. Identify the central research question, and what data you would need to answer it. What ethical issues arise?
  8. Study the AERA or BERA code of ethics for education research (www.aera.netwww.bera.ac.uk). On what are they based, and what are their implications, especially for research with children?