Qualitative Research in Education in Canada

Developments in the Eye of a Vacuum

The Japanese government established a national council on education reform in 1984. Former U.S. President George Bush started calling himself the "education president" in 1988 and promoted a radical plan for school choice. His successor, Bill Clinton, earned his reformer's stripes by raising teaching standards in Arkansas schools in the mid-1980s. But nowhere has education reform been more sweeping than in Britain. In fact, reform is too pale a word. British schools are in the grip of a revolution - with all the clamour and tumult that entails. The revolution began in earnest with the Education Act of 1988 ... Social policy trends, like spring, come late to Canada. The current vogue for educational reform - Ontario's new high school tests, New Brunswick's back-to-basics curriculum, Ottawa's "federal learning strategy" - has been the fashion in other countries for a decade or more (The Globe and Mail, May 3 1993, p. A16).
This paper will argue that paradoxically the vitality and range of Canadian qualitative research in education arises from an 'absence' - for education is not a focus for national control and policy making. Qualitative research in education in Canada is therefore conceived, conceptualised and conducted in the eye of a vacuum.

The unique features of Canadian educational policy, namely the absence of national control, seem to delay adoption of general trends, as the quote above hints. Yet in due course Canada tends to follow general patterns of western change and reform. At the moment in Canada whilst there are a number of nominally socialist provincial governments across the country, fiscal conservatism is dominant. Public education and specifically teacher education are two areas where deficit cutting conservatives seem to be taking particular aim. This change in economic context towards economic restructuring and deficit reduction is part of a much wider process of western and indeed global change. The recent election of a Liberal Government in October 1993 in Canada is therefore unlikely to reverse fiscal conservatism.

A Nation at Rest

In many ways the peculiar absence of national educational policies, whilst it allows a degree of time lag in change, leaves Canada extremely vulnerable to global restructuring tendencies. Without any clear tradition of national policy making and articulation, there are few sources of tradition and power to stand against global forces. Hence, with suitable time lag, global tendencies tend to run through Canadian educational policy with extreme virulence once they are underway. Deficit reduction measures tend to hit those areas of the public sector which are deemed most easily expendable.

It is worth focussing on the position of Canadian Faculties of Education to show why this vulnerability is beginning to rework patterns of teacher education in quite substantial ways. Canadian Faculties of Education are fairly recent additions to the landscape of university life. Most of them served long apprenticeships as normal schools outside the hallowed gates of the university. Only in the 1960s or in some cases the 1970s were they allowed inside the edifice of the university and often even then they remained physically distant from the main campus. This physical isolation continues to represent the marginality and vulnerability of some Canadian faculties. In Ontario for instance teacher training began to locate in universities in the 1960s.

In March 1966 the Minister of Education announced that the government intended to transfer the major responsibility for preparing all elementary school teachers from the Department of Education to the universities in an effort to improve both the quality and the range of the programs (Ministry of Education, 1990, p. 12).

In analyzing American schools of education, Clifford and Guthrie (1988) have talked in detail about the devil's bargain, which Faculties of Education face as a result of their enshrinement within universities:

Our thesis is that schools of education, particularly those located on the campuses of prestigious research universities, have become ensnared improvidently in the academic and political cultures of their institutions and have neglected their professional allegiances. They are like marginal men, aliens in their own worlds. They have seldom succeeded in satisfying the scholarly norms of their campus letters and science colleagues, and they are simultaneously estranged from their practicing professional peers. The more forcefully they have rowed toward the shores of scholarly research, the more distant they have become from the public schools they are duty bound to serve. Conversely, systematic efforts at addressing the applied problems of public schools have placed schools of education at risk on their own campuses (pp. 3-4).

In short, the schools of education may have entered into a devil's bargain when they entered the university milieu. The result was their mission changed from being primarily concerned with matters central to the practice of schooling towards issues of status passage through more conventional university scholarship. The resulting dominance of conventional "disciplinary" modes has had disastrous impact on educational research (See Goodson, forthcoming).
Date of publication:
Taylor and Francis London
Education Policy
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Appears in:
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 7, No. 3