Facts as facts do not always create a spirit of reality, because reality is a spirit.

G. K. Chesterton

Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.

Hermann Hesse

I reached some tentative conclusions about evidence in education in my last post. One of the criticisms I keep coming up against is that my thinking is ‘positivist’ and therefore either limited or bad, depending on the biases of the critic. To understand this criticism we need to briefly explore some conceptions about reality, or ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being and reality, and if you stare at it for long enough it will melt your eyes! And any thinking about ontology also butts up against epistemology: the study of what constitutes valid knowledge and how we might go about obtaining it. If your nose has started to bleed in response to all this arcane vocabulary, don’t worry – you are not alone. For my own benefit as much as anyone else’s I’m going to attempt to simply matters by contrasting the methods of the scientist (positivist) with those of the detective (interpretive).

If we want to enquire into some aspect of education (or any other social science) then, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ll make decisions about the following:

  • Methods (What research tools will we use?)
  • Methodology (How do we plan to conduct our research?)
  • Theoretical perspectives (What assumptions about reality underlie the question we are asking and the kinds of answers we are looking for?)
  • Beliefs about epistemology and ontology (What do we believe reality is, and how can we find out about it?)

The scientific (positivist) approach is to use the physical sciences as a model for investigation and experimentation. They will likely believe that there is some objective truth which is discoverable through a deductive, theory testing approach. This is the ‘scientific method’. They will believe that facts are facts and can tell us something objective about the world which can help us explain how and why things happen. As a result they will choose research tools like surveys, random sampling, blind tests and the manipulation of variables. The advantages of such an approach are that it provides easily comparable data which is verifiable and replicable. The disadvantage is that is fails to account for social processes and ignores as irrelevant the meanings subjects ascribe to their own behaviour.

The approach of the detective (interpretive) is to start by critiquing the natural sciences as a model for investigating the social sciences. They are likely to believe that reality is subject to the context in which it is perceived and the may even take the relativist view that there is no such thing as objective truth at all; instead of seeking to establish facts, they conclude that people are people and as such we must attempt to understand why they behave as they do. Society is, obviously, socially constructed. Their methods will be ethnographic studies, interviews, observation and analysis. Although this approach accounts for complex contextual issues, the evidence collected is often so complex as to be resistant to clear meaning and can be shaped to mean whatever the researcher says it means.

This leads us to question whether we’ve establish a false dichotomy or a real one? Can we do a ‘bit of both’? Or are we left with dismissing the interpretivism as less credible and the positivist approach as inflexible? The problem with positivism, for all its hard data and emphatic conclusions is that if it flies in the face of our values, it isn’t worth a damn. No matter how much empirical evidence we could come up with proving the effectiveness of rote learning, corporal punishment, circle time or group hugs, if it comes into conflict with your moral and ethical beliefs about the world you will ignore it. If you believe rote learning is “vicious” and boring, who cares how effective it is a tool for learning? Interpretivism attempts to square this circle by thinking about meaning instead of facts. But if reality is entirely subjective doesn’t the concept of evidence become meaningless? If you can never reliably control for all the variables of a classroom (time of day, time of year, weather, motivation, dispositions of teachers and students) then context over rides any ‘objective’ truth and we can argue, “Well, it works for me.”

For my money, I agree with the interpretivists that we cannot and will not find objective truth by investigating classrooms with the tools of the physical sciences. Context and values will make even the most robustly controlled trial meaningless. But, my problem with their alternative is that ‘evidence’ means whatever anyone says it means and the person who shouts the loudest and the most authoritatively wins; it becomes a matter of persuasion and rhetoric.

So, what’s the alternative? Well, wrote in this post that

Good science has the power to make useful predictions; if research can be used to inform our actions then it is useful. It’s unnecessary to accurately control and predict how every student in every context will behave or learn, just as a physicist has no need to control or predict how every single atom will behave in a physics experiment. All that’s necessary is that we can predict an outcome that is both meaningful and measurable.

Could this be a workable third way?

Education research is, I think, on the whole a waste of everyone’s time and effort. Instead we should focus on the more controllable science of psychology and use the empirical evidence produced in laboratories to help us make educated guess, predictions if you will, in order to guide our values and beliefs with data that at least points us in the right general direction. Never mind that social sciences are different form natural sciences and education research is so saturated with values; laboratory research that offers meaningful and measurable outcomes is far more worthy of our consideration than a classroom study, no matter how randomised on controlled.

That said, teachers conducting research into their own classrooms, whether it’s positivist or interpretivist in approach can only be a good thing as long as no one seeks to generalise from such findings. While it may be very useful to experiment and test ‘what works’ in your own classroom, we can never discover what will work in anyone else’s classroom beyond certain testable hypotheses.

I could of course be entirely wrong and, as always, I would welcome any thoughtful critique.