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On evidence and edu-positivism: a response to David Didau

I read David Didau’s latest BLOG with interest, as I usually do. And as usual I agree with some of it but not all. I agree with the basic assumptions he makes, in that, he effectively highlights a real problem, but in my view fails to identify the essential nature of it.

Wittgenstein sets the scene. For those not familiar with Wittgenstein he was writing at the height of logical positivism. At first, writing in favour but later against. He neatly identified a problem that exists, namely that research methods have to be appropriate to the problem being investigated.

As true today as when it was written, albeit, it was written in the field of Psychology and not education. The problem for early psychologists was that they considered that qualitative observation needed to be re-interpreted into quantitative data because that is how other, older, fields such as physics had established themselves.

David identifies the same problem in education but then says:

I’ve been thinking hard about the nature of education research and I’m worried that it might be broken. If I develop a theory but have no evidence for it then it is dismissed as ‘mere speculation’. “Show me the evidence!” comes the crowded shout, and currently in the sphere of education evidence is all. But can we really trust the evidence we’re offered?

I wonder where this shout for evidence comes from? Is it the field of educational research or policy makers; talking heads or edu-BLOGGERS? Egan in his book; “Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget”, makes a case that progressive educationalists made the same mistake outlined by Wittgenstein.

Egan, in his book, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding,  he acknowledges that his ideas are not new, his general point seems to be that educationalists emulated the mistakes of the field of psychology,  in that, they tried to turn observation into quantitative data.

This is particularly true of Piaget, whose theoretical contributions will probably be condemned, by his inability to turn them into a quantitative proposition. Egan seems to suggest that rather than observing learning in the natural world, and then quantifying it, we should consider the epistemological nature of learning, and the tools we use to bring knowledge into being. In simpler terms how we observe learning in the natural world is not how we learn. I think David has written very effectively on this in the past.

Since Piaget we have seen the development of much more sophisticated approaches as to what constitutes evidence. And this is where I disagree with David.  Rather than try to understand what constitutes evidence he seems to dismiss evidence on the basis that scientific evidence is the only true evidence.

This might suggest that instead of relying so enthusiastically on evidence we could instead put a little more faith in reasoning and analysis

In fact, reading David’s article, if you didn’t know any better, you would consider that the social sciences  do not exist at all. Having established that the scientific method is not appropriate for education he cannot get past the view that evidence can only be defined within the context of the scientific method.

This then forces him to re-invent social research by using terms such as “reasoning” and “analysis”, which is really just another way of describing theory. I think he does this because, as he aptly describes in his opening paragraph, theory is not accepted as a valid way of knowing by edu-positivists.

In essence he has fallen into the edu-positivist trap. The debate then becomes one of  “evidence versus no evidence”, which is a zero sum proposition.  There are a number of ways of defining evidence, educationalists do not need to adopt a “no evidence” position.

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5 thoughts on “On evidence and edu-positivism: a response to David Didau

  1. I certainly don’t mean to do away with theory, suggest social sciences don’t exist or that empirical evidence is the only game in town – maybe I can be forgiven in the name of brevity? I had to stop writing at some point! Maybe there’s opportunity to expand in a 2nd part?

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