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“There are differences of opinion about the purposes of education, based on ideological factors. Some see education as primarily for the benefit of the individual and others see it as the means of producing the human resources necessary to maintain the economy. Research has to work within and around these different conceptions of education.”

Researching in Education

How is educational research conceptualised and conducted?

How can educational research be critically read and evaluated?

- Bridget Somekh, Erica Burman, Sara Delamont, Julienne Meyer, Malcolm Payne, Richard Thorpe, Theory and Methods in Social Research -

This page provides resources and information about the vocabulary used in educational research, approaches to educational research, and the critical evaluation of published research. 

“Educational research represents a variety of different perspectives but has in common attempts to “understand, inform or improve the practice of education” (Arthur, Waring, Coe & Hedges, 2012). Whether explicitly or implicitly, educational research is used at all levels of education, from classroom practice to curriculum development and policy at the level of ministries of education.”  - Dr. Mijung Kim, EDEL 567, Fall 2016, University of Alberta

Getting the terms straight first...

Some useful glossary links for research terms: 

"​This glossary provides definitions of many of the terms used in the guides to conducting qualitative and quantitative research. The definitions were developed by members of the research methods seminar (E600) taught by Mike Palmquist in the 1990s and 2000s."

Glossary of research terms for the social and behavioural sciences, provided for university students.

"The research glossary defines terms used in conducting social science and policy research, for example those describing methods, measurements, statistical procedures, and other aspects of research; the child care glossary defines terms used to describe aspects of child care and early education practice and policy."

As an example of terms, Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2009) summarise 5 research philosophies using the following table (pp. 136-137):

research onion 2009.jpg

The Research Onion

The Research Onion diagram has been used, reused, and modified since it's creation by Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill in 2007. It is a visual guide to locating research terms in relation to each other, and illustrates the layers of decisions a researcher must go through as they plan and conduct their research. 

Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2009) introduce it this way:

"Most people plan their research in relation to a question that needs to be answered or a problem that needs to be solved. They then think about what data they need and the techniques they use to collect them. You are not therefore unusual if early on in your research you consider whether you should, for example, use a questionnaire or undertake interviews. However, how you collect your data belongs in the centre of the research ‘onion’, the diagram we use to depict the issues underlying the choice of data collection techniques and analysis procedures in Figure 4.1. In coming to this central point you need to explain why you made the choice you did so that others can see that your research should be taken seriously (Crotty 1998). Consequently there are important outer layers of the onion that you need to understand and explain rather than just peel and throw away!" (p. 122)

5 philosophies part 1.jpg
5 philosophies part 2.jpg

For an interactive version of the research onion, created by the University of Derby, click on the image to the right, or

research onion interactive.jpg

A closer look at a few terms


Two commonly discussed paradigms in educational research are:

Positivists seek verifiable, objective truth from their observed data of the real world, independent of the observer. Controlled experiments are possible and can enable understanding of causal relationships which generalise to other contexts.


Constructivists look for ideas and meanings embedded in socially-complex contexts through socially-constructed knowledge and language, and thus ideas - and the researchers themselves - cannot be abstracted from their contexts. Multiple perspectives are therefore beneficial in shedding more light on a specific context from different angles to gain a clearer insight (Department of Elementary Education, 2016).  


Both of these philosophies: 

  • Can employ qualitative and quantitative data AND analysis*, 

  • Seek to address specific questions through their research, 

  • Require rigorous academic research, and 

  • Are deliberate in their data-collection and analysis to provide a new and deeper understanding (Department of Elementary Education, 2016). 


*Note: Qualitative data can be analysed qualitatively or quantitatively, and vice versa (see Table 1).

Table 1.jpg

Coe’s explanation of Pragmatism is one way of ‘reconciling’ these two paradigms - whereby the reasons for research are ‘likely to be influenced by the values and beliefs of the researchers (including their, perhaps implicit, metaphysical beliefs); [and] the particular questions or aims they select will also influence the research methods they use’ (2012, p.8).

But which is the best?

‘Good’ research is not the domain of a particular paradigm; basic principles underpin ‘good’ research regardless of the paradigm (Rolfe and Naughton, 2010, pp.9-10).


From Coe’s (2012) questions to ask, to Rolfe and Naughton’s (2010) list of principles, all research can be tested and evaluated despite the varied researchers’ philosophies, aims, and methodologies.


Rolfe and Naughton’s discussion of ‘amateur’ researchers (2010, pp. 6-7), can help to protect against jumping into new teaching strategies or systems without critical evaluation of the research itself.


While research can be powerful for challenging embedded or unquestioned perspectives or processes and providing the justification and impetus for change, educators and administrators also need to be ‘informed consumers of the research of others’ (Rolfe and Naughton, 2010, p.7).

Resources for evaluating research

Some useful questions to go through when critiquing research papers: 

"The quality of social science and policy research can vary considerably. It is important that consumers of research keep this in mind when reading the findings from a research study or when considering whether or not to use data from a research study for secondary analysis. This section includes information and tools to help evaluate the quality of a research study. It also includes information on the ethics of research.

A how-to document by Flinders University to assist university students in critiquing published research.

Ethical responsibility when researching with human beings

This is a broad topic that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, including the responsibilities of the researcher(s) and the research ethics board to protect their participants, their families and communities, themselves, and the reputation of the field of research. Martin (2010) makes the point that “[r]esearch can help understand problems, or it can perpetuate problems” (p.86) but I would go even further to say it can, even with the best and most honorable of intentions, create new problems.


The Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS2) is the Canadian guideline how to ethically conduct research involving humans or human biological material. The TCPS 2: CORE online research ethics training emphasises the importance of being aware and cautious of any power dynamics involved between researcher and participants, particularly when gaining consent. It also discusses the importance for the sake of justice and fairness that no people groups be excluded from the benefits of being involved in research, even if they are more vulnerable; instead, extra precaution with explanations and consent and research structures should be in place. However, Martin goes on to say that research is a tool of colonialism because of the multiple power dynamics that exist which almost always benefit the researcher and thus it has the power to “erase, erode, silence or marginalise Aboriginal people” and that “[u]nless these power dynamics are first made conscious, then made explicit and then addressed, research will never deliver on the promise of equity and equality” (2010, p. 86). While research ethics boards attempt to protect both the researcher and the researched and to promote justice and fairness, perhaps the power dynamics are so inherent and ingrained that they are not even noticed when research proposals are being evaluated.

The problem goes deeper than this, back to differing paradigms, and here is where the differences can become significantly problematic: how do we even define “truth”  and “justice”? Is it possible? Is it inherently political, or is it possible for researchers to side only with the “truth”. As Davies and Peterson (2012) explain, “[t]here exists, then, fundamental philosophical disagreement about what researchers can and should do in regard to truth, and at times these differences lead to a great deal of contestation between researchers as to what constitutes ‘legitimate’ research in education” (pp. 108-109). 


Researchers need a humble willingness and an open mind to pay careful attention to what various people groups have to say and then respond accordingly. This is very complex when working with a variety of people groups, but the first step is at least to acknowledge power imbalances and attempt to address them together. Martin states with regards to Aboriginal research, “postcolonialism requires the researcher to know about, and make decisions not to perpetuate, the types of power differentials that have been identified within the assumptions, positioning and research relationships’ of past and relatively current perspectives and approaches” (2010, p. 95).



Coe, R. (2012). The nature of educational research. In Arthur, J., Waring, M., Coe, R., & Hedges, L. V. (Eds.), Research methods & methodologies in education (pp. 5-14). London, UK: Sage.

Davies, I. & Peterson, A. (2012). Issues of truth and justice. In J. Arthur, M. Waring, R. Coe, & L. Hedges (Eds.), Research methods & methodologies in education (pp. 108-113). London, UK: Sage Publications.

Department of Elementary Education (2016). EDEL567 Lecture note. University of Alberta.

Martin, K. (2010). Indigenous research. In G. Noughton, S. Rolfe, & I. Siraj-Blatchford (Eds.), Doing early childhood research: International perspectives on theory and practice (pp. 85-100). Berkshire, UK: McGraw-Hill.


Panel on Research Ethics. (n.d.). TCPS 2: CORE (Course on research ethics). Ottawa, Canada: Government of Canada.

Rolfe, S. & Naughton, G. (2010). Research as a tool. In G. Naughton, S. Rolfe, & I. Siraj-Blatchford (Eds.), Doing early childhood research: International perspectives on theory and practice (pp. 3-12). Berkshire, UK: McGraw-Hill.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Understanding research philosophies and approaches. In Research methods for business students (5th ed.), (pp. 122-161). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education. Retrieved from

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