FROM THE EDITOR: This At Issue contains an essay by Jeffrey Flesher outlining an alternative conceptual framework for formulating research agendas. In his view, a framework structured using a motivational criteria could serve to extend agendas driven by research, teaching, and service components. Responses to this or previous At Issue essays are encouraged. Instructions for authors are provided in the Bits & Pieces section of each issue of the Journal.
A Conceptual Framework for Research Agenda Development
Jeffrey W. Flesher
Iowa State University
The role of research in education, and particularly vocational education, has been a matter of continuing debate (Johnson, 1995; Moore, 1992; Schmidt, 1991). That debate has examined setting agendas for specific content areas (Thomas & Litowitz, 1986), the value of research endeavors (Moore, 1992; Swanson, 1991), and the relationship of those efforts to practice (Frantz, 1991). The purpose of this essay is to suggest a conceptual framework for research agenda development based on researcher motivation and the integration of the research, teaching, and service components of university missions.
Educational research is often defined by the types of research design used for specific supporting methodologies (Best & Kahn, 1993). The purpose for inquiry is generally described by the continuum from theory to practice represented by basic to applied or action research (Crowl, 1996). The definition of research has developed an institutional characteristic as well. Universities are categorized by research productivity related to levels of funding, and faculty members are evaluated by grants awarded and subsequent articles published. According to Frantz (1991), much of the research in vocational education in this nation is completed at land grant universities. However, the final value of those efforts may be limited by, reward structures and graduate preparation programs of most land grant universities, which place emphasis on the dissemination of research primarily in refereed scholarly publications (p. 39). This problem has also been recognized by Johnson (1995) who encouraged dissemination activities that include not only professional journals, but also practitioner-based reports, activities, and articles to link research efforts to practice.
It may be that the process of research agenda development is a major contributing factor to the gulf between university activity and its value for schools and society. Research universities tend to promote a focused approach intended to efficiently develop national prominence for faculty members in their discipline. The research component of the faculty role is the critical element with teaching and service seen as secondary activities that may receive more attention after promotion and tenure reviews. This effective isolation of research efforts does not seem to fit with the tri-mission espoused by most universities and the arguments made to taxpayers and parents that good research complements and enhances good teaching. It appears that we may worry that junior faculty members cannot be successful unless they are motivated to conform with narrow definitions of research instead of seeking to integrate their faculty roles with a broader definition that focuses more on applying the tools of disciplined inquiry in all of their activities. Possibly we might improve the value of our research efforts, and perceptions of our critics, if we recognized the value in multiple motivations for the conduct of research efforts and included them in our agenda development.
I would propose that there are three categories of research activity that should be included in agendas that recognize broader value and motivations. The three categories are: research of interest, research of obligation, and research of opportunity. Research of interest is closest to the current agenda-based efforts that we pursue to create new knowledge in a specific area of content expertise. Certainly there are efficiencies to be gained by focused efforts. Research is generally an incremental process and this long-term focus does enable a greater utility. This focus, however, does not particularly create balance or serve the needs of constituencies such as students or taxpayers and it may not lead toward a greater mastery of research processes.
Recognizing the value of research motivated by obligation and opportunity may address these deficiencies and also increase faculty productivity. Particularly in state-supported institutions, there is an obligation to address societal needs and problems identified by government bodies and community groups. Although direct funding may not be involved, in most states significant support continues to be provided from taxing authorities. Recognizing the need to collaborate and contribute our research skills can reinvigorate the land grant mission and improve public perceptions of universities and the professoriate. Research of obligation, in effect, is applying the tools of inquiry to the service component of our missions. In vocational education and related disciplines, that obligation extends beyond the school environment to the workplace and economic development activities. Research of obligation also extends to supporting student inquiry beyond narrow faculty expertise both in student research efforts and classroom activities. While supervising graduate students with closely related areas of interest is certainly efficient, opportunities must exist for broader efforts related to strong interest or developing need. Additionally, teaching practice needs to continually reflect the state of new knowledge and methodology.
Sometimes research efforts are motivated by the opportunity they provide to learn new methods, support colleagues, or improve institutional or unit reputations. Consulting relationships often enable individuals to realize some financial gain as well as develop greater insight into the business and education environments. Conducting this type of research extends faculty credibility in the classroom and may lead to more traditional granted projects. Additionally, opportunities to pursue collaborative efforts with colleagues from other departments, universities or outside academia strengthen relationships, understanding, and support. Maintaining some flexibility in agendas promotes not just opportunism but also the realization that the tools of research may be broadly applied to create value not only for ourselves but our professional, economic, and civic communities as well.
Developing research agendas that recognize multiple motivations may help us to further integrate research, teaching, and service activities. Recognizing that research processes and tools can contribute to each of those areas is a critical first step. Certainly, individuals need to maintain efforts that will result in local definitions of success, specifically promotion and tenure. However, setting agendas that include more balance can increase the value generated by our efforts and promote greater growth for individual faculty members and our profession as a whole.
Flesher is Assistant Professor, Department of Industrial Education and Technology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Best, J. W., & Kahn, J. V. (1993). Research in education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Crowl, T. K. (1996). Fundamentals of educational research. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
Thomas, R. G., & Litowitz, L. (1986). Vocational education and higher order thinking skills: An agenda for inquiry. St. Paul: University of Minnesota, Minnesota Research and Development Center for Vocational Education.
Reference Citation: Flesher, J. W. (1996). A conceptual framework for research agenda development. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(2), 102-105.