What is Research Capacity?

What is research capacity? Research capacity and TEL SPNECRE Tens of things

Research Capacity Building in Education

Discussions of Research Capacity in Education in the UK conventionally take, as one of their starting points, an important report commissioned a decade ago by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and authored by Donald and Anne McIntyre (1999). This has framed both the theorisation of capacity building and the practices that have been encouraged and supported. It distinguishes between four types of educational research, each of which presents particular challenges for capacity building:

  • research aimed at applying knowledge from social sciences to policies and practices for teaching and learning
  • educational research aimed at achieving improved understanding of teaching and learning practices, processes and contexts
  • research designed to provide direct evidence of effective approaches to teaching and learning
  • research which sees schools and other educational settings as research and learning institutions through established models of practitioner research or through more recent view of educational settings as ‘knowledge creating’ or ‘learning organisations’

Staff and student researchers on the Ensemble Project

The McIntyre report argues that there are particular tensions between the first of these types (which is primarily concerned with research which draws upon and contributes to the theory of the social sciences) and the more applied orientations of the others.  The report concludes with a series of recommendations including the encouragement of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary working within higher education institutions in order to develop understandings of the relationships between education and other social science and science disciplines; mobilisation and support of the large numbers of teacher educators in order to engage them in research into teaching and learning; establishment of coherent career paths for contract researchers, including requiring funded research projects to provide development opportunities for students, contract researchers and other junior staff; and provision of opportunities for the development of quantitative methods in order to strengthen the research base for studies of effective teaching and learning.

Research Capacities: Individual and Collective

These distinctions between types of research and the recommendations for capacity building that follow from it exemplify the range of different understandings of what educational research capacity might mean and ideas about what building that capacity might involve. In some cases, this involves improving the capacities of individuals already engaged in educational research; others are focused upon encouraging and supporting teachers and teacher educators to engage in research activities; and others still are concerned more with supporting postgraduate and postdoctoral activities with the intention of addressing the problem at a sector-wide and demographic level.

These variations reflect different understandings of what is meant by capacity and capacities more generally, and echo debates in the fields of international and community development where the concept has been articulated and problematised both in policy and practice (see, for example, Harris (2004) on the need to see capacity building as more than ‘technology transfer’ and  Nuyens (2005) on the ‘systems approach’ to development of coherent policies, and coordinated strategies across sectors).

Eade (1997), provides a useful conceptual overview which distinguishes capacity building first as a means, process or outcome, and then in relation to specific organisations (in this case, non-governmental organisations, but these could as easily be institutions, projects or research programmes) or to society more broadly.

Conceptualising Capacity Building (derived from Eade, 1997)

Capacity Building as Means Capacity Building as Process Capacity Building as Ends
Capacity Building in Organisation Strengthening organisation to perform specified activities Reflective activities to develop greater coherence between organisation’s mission, structure and activities Strengthening organisation to survive and fulfill its mission
Capacity Building in Wider Society Strengthen capacity of  stakeholders to perform specified activities Supporting communication, debate, relationship building and ability to deal with challenges Strengthen capacity of stakeholders to participate in political and socio-economic arenas in pursuit of specified objectives

This provides elements of a matrix although as Eade comments, “the differences between the points are often a question of emphasis or degree … balance between these shifting over time … but it is a useful tool for disentangling central objectives from secondary aims” (1997, p. 35).

While some educational research capacity initiatives have concentrated on developing strength in specific aspects of research within higher education institutions, faculties and departments (Eade’s ‘organisations’); others have, as suggested by the OECD (OECD, 2002; Wolter et al., 2004),  identified a ‘wider’ community of research ‘users’, practitioners, or emergent or potential researchers and have focused efforts on developing their capacities to use research, or on their acculturation into established research practices and organisations.  When we then talk about research ‘projects’ or programmes like the TLRP TEL programme, it is important to recognise that these may be seen as: temporary ‘organisations’ with research capacity building needs of their own; as ‘processes’ by which established or new researchers gain experience and expertise; or as elements in extended communities of stakeholders, participants and research users.

In educational research in the UK, the view of research capacity that has emerged from initiatives such as the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, the Applied Educational Research Scheme (in Scotland) and the Teacher Education Research Network is one of research capacity building as a particular aspect of professional learning (Rees et al, 2007) and one that needs to be ‘embedded’ in the social practices of educational researchers (Pollard, 2010, p.42).

But what of Research Capacity Building in TEL ?


  • Eade, D. (1997). Capacity-building: An approach to people centred development. Oxford: Oxfam Publications.
  • Harris, E. (2004). Building scientific capacity in developing countries. European Molecular Biology Organization Reports, 5(1), 7-11.
  • McIntyre, D., & McIntyre, A. (1999). Capacity for research into teaching and learning: Final report. Cambridge: ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme and University of Cambridge School of Education.
  • Nuyens, Y. (2005). No development without research: A challenge for capacity strengthening. Geneva: Global Forum for Health Research.
  • OECD/CERI. (2002). Educational research and development in England: Examiners’ report. Paris: OECD.
  • Pollard, A. (2010). Directing the Teaching and Learning Research Programme: or ‘Trying to Fly a Glider Made Of Jelly’. British Journal of Educational Studies, 58(1), 27-46.
  • Rees, G., Baron, S., Boyask, R., & Taylor, C. (2007). Research-capacity building, professional learning and the social practices of educational research. British Educational Research Journal, 33(5), 761-779.
  • Wolter, S., Keiner, E., Palomba, D., & Lindblad, S. (2004). OECD Examiners’ Report on Educational Research and Development in England. European Educational Research Journal, 3(2), 510-526.

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