Deeper insights

MA in Education Programme Director, Dr Clare Brooks, talks to Peter Quinn about research, policy agendas and pre-publication exclusives
The Institute of Education
The Institute of Education tops the league table for education research in UK universities
With the MA in Education we draw upon lots of research from people across the Institute

A postgraduate College of the University of London, the Institute of Education (IOE) is the UK's largest research centre in the field of education. The IOE’s commitment to influencing and shaping education around the globe can be seen in the extent and impact of its research internationally. Based on the most recent evaluation of British research published in December 2008, subject rankings for education published in the Times Higher Education show that from a total of 82 UK universities evaluated, the IOE ranked in top place, with 35 per cent of its research judged world-leading.

Sitting in her office on the IOE’s eighth floor, Dr Clare Brooks (pictured below left) – Programme Director for the MA in Education by distance learning – explains how ideas generated from this research feed into IOE's study programmes.

Dr Clare Brooks“My background and my research have always been in geography education, because I was a geography teacher”, Clare tells me. “But my research has always been about teachers - about how teachers use their subject knowledge, how they engage with what they do, and how that helps them to be better teachers. So it's about professional development.

“I did a lot of work in initial teacher education”, Clare continues. “As I was doing that I became increasingly interested in how experienced, mature teachers became better at what they do. And research is such an important part of that for the individual teacher, both to develop their own professionalism and to develop an approach to their work which has research at its heart.

“It's about taking problems and issues and things that are part of what you do, and looking at it in what is called 'inquiry as stance': thinking about things in an inquiry way. Of course the difference between problem solving and research is the systematic nature of that inquiry. In some sense that's been my drive. But then with the MA in Education we draw upon lots of research from people across the Institute. The core modules situate the student right in the middle and say, “Right, we've got all of this research going on, how do we make sense of it? And how can we use that to think about our own practice in a more informed way?”

Given the sheer number of externally funded research projects that are in progress at the IOE – around 250 in a typical year – how does Clare decide which pieces of research will be used within the MA in Education programme?

“We have some guiding principles. One is the six core questions that guide the module. These questions are taken from Fielding and Moss (2011) and are fundamental to understanding educational change. They are:
1. What is education for, what is its purpose, both here and now and looking to the future? 2. What should be its fundamental values and ethics? 3. What do we mean by knowledge and learning? 4. What is our concept of education? 5. What is our image of the child, the teacher, the school? 6. Who is responsible for education, and what does it mean to be responsible?

"We want high quality academics whose research has had an  impact. That's why we've got people like Stephen Ball and Michael Young, because they're really big names in the field."

"What we do on the module is look at the research that's going on and ask if it responds specifically to those questions. We also want high quality academics whose research has had an impact. That's why we've got people like Stephen Ball and Michael Young, because they're really big names in the field and everybody's familiar with their research. We are also looking for research that has a cascading effect - research that synthesises other research and pulls other research together, and leads to deeper understandings.

“That's one approach that we use”, Clare notes. “What we're also looking for are people who are good at explaining their research to students. That's really important, because for a lot of our students on the programme this is the first time they'll be engaging in postgraduate research. We want them to be able to engage with these ideas in a meaningful way.”

Working with a student cohort that is spread across the globe, is an international element to the research important?

“That's a really tricky one for us. My gut reaction is to say yes. But then I'm also aware that we've got some brilliant research that's going on here that is based in the UK, but that has impact internationally. We take the stance that if it's got an international impact - if it speaks to other places - then we'll include it.”

In terms of ongoing research within the IOE that impacts the MA Education programme, Clare reveals that, for her, Stephen Ball’s work is the most exciting.

"We used Stephen [Ball] last year and the buzz on the discussion forums about his ideas was incredible."

“He's looking specifically at the neoliberal policy agendas and how that's affecting education internationally. So he's looking at things like the academies and how that's being influenced by international trends such as the Charter Schools in the United States and by companies like Kunskapsskolan, and then looking at how that's being interpreted within other contexts. He draws out some really interesting features and key ideas that are applicable everywhere. We used Stephen last year and the buzz on the discussion forums about his ideas was incredible. People from Malaysia, the United States and from all around the world, saying, ‘Wow, these ideas are helping me to articulate what I see going on in my context. I haven't really understood what it is before, but now I see it in this light’. I think that's really exciting.

“And it has a knock-on effect, because when students are talking to other students in that international community – talking about similar things happening in very different places – a real synergy starts to grow. And through their discussions they start coming to their own conclusions and deeper insights into their own context, all supported by international collaboration.”

Clare herself leads the two core modules on the MA Education programme, 'What is Education?' and 'Introduction to Social Research'. The former “opens the doors to the IOE and brings everybody in”, as Clare puts it, whereas the latter involves students working through a piece of research step by step together. “I've really enjoyed that because I've had far more input into the content, into the discussions, into the teaching and one to one conversations with the students about their research, their interests and how they can take a hunch and turn that into a systematic piece of research for their dissertation.”

"People really want to share their ideas and see how they're working in other contexts. They want the student feedback, they want to know if these ideas have mileage in other places.”

Asked whether it’s been difficult to get other IOE academics on board, she replies that she’s been amazed how easy it’s been. And the reason? “Everybody wants to talk about their research! But also, people are really excited to be a part of this programme, because of the international reach of the students. And because people really want to share their ideas and see how they're working in other contexts. They want the student feedback, they want to know if these ideas have mileage in other places.”

The interesting point here is that students can then extract these ideas and apply them in their own context. “And also reject them”, Clare remarks. “They can also say: this is a really interesting idea but it just doesn't work for us here. That's also exciting for the students, to be able to be critically reflective on the ideas they're being introduced to.”

And for the forthcoming term, it appears that Clare has something of an exclusive planned.

Gordon Stobart, a fantastic academic who's done lots of really great work in formative assessment, has just written a new book. He's giving us some pre-publication highlights and is going to be talking about some of the ideas about being an expert teacher and what expertise means in education. He's given us a small part of his new book and he's going to be talking about it in his lecture. And he's excited because he's trying out these ideas and obviously we're absolutely thrilled.”

  • Find out more about the MA in Education.
  • Read a profile on current MA in Education student Ellen Bretherton in London Connection.
  • Listen to Professor Gordon Stobart take part in the panel discussion 'How Should We Educate Our Children?' on BBC Radio 4's Bremner's One Question Quiz.
  • The MA in Education has gained recognition for the International Baccalaureate advanced certificate in teaching and learning research. If you are an International Baccalaureate teacher, or interested in gaining this additional qualification, please visit:
Watch Dr Clare Brooks give an overview
of the MA in Education
Watch Professor Stephen Ball discuss
'Addressing inequality through education policy'