On edu-positivism and a move to the middle ground: a second response to David Didau

This is a response to David Didau’s further thoughts on evidence. First of all I would like to say that this is the latest in a number of BLOGS exploring the view that there is a tendency to edu-positivism amongst edu-BLOGGERS. I define this as the adoption of what I would regard as a populist view in society, that science is the only way to generate facts, and the best science is quantitative and offers verifiable propositions. It also includes the view that the  social sciences do not offer anything that is particularly reliable being little more than opinion.

Or as David puts it:

….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.

In my last BLOG I made the point that David had, in effect, argued that the natural sciences cannot derive evidence that educationalists can use, and therefore educationalists need to adopt a “no evidence” stance. In his second BLOG on the issue he clarifies this position and seems to suggest that educational research cannot produce evidence but psychologists can, in labs, using predictive science as opposed to the traditional “hypothetico deductive” model.

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.

I agree that the scientific method would have limited uses in social research, albeit I would not reject it completely.  There are simply far too many variables in education to reduce it to the level of causal relationships however it is certainly a useful methodology in certain circumstances. It’s quite probable that biological reductionism will inexorably suffer many of the problems of scientific reductionism

I am also somewhat confounded as to why David would reject qualitative studies so easily, and on such grounds. It seems to me, that the notion that interpretative research is simply “persuasion and rhetoric” is a little harsh to say the least. In fact this view is confounded by David himself. As he alludes, if cognitive science demonstrates that the brain stores information in a way that is sympathetic to “rote earning”, and we construct a theoretical position that rote learning is the solution to improving learning, how then are we to explain if it turns out that it works up to the age of six, and then starts to fail? This may well not be because the science is wrong but because after the age of six other aspects of cognition, such as the need to have a greater sense of self, or indeed, they just find it boring can conflict with the predicted assumptions. Cognition is complex to say the least.

There seems to me to be little option other than using qualitative research to discover that this is a potential problem? Is it possible to predict “boring” from cognitive studies in labs? Indeed culture could play  a part, young people may think that rote learning is boring because that is how it is perceived culturally, whilst in other cultures it’s not regarded as such. How are you going to find that out from predictive studies based in Psychology labs?

In fact it’s perfectly possible to conduct a study into primary school children to find out what is going wrong with our notional theory that rote learning is the way forward. It’s also quite possible to generalise it. It would be a perfectly authentic classroom study that tests a theoretical proposition about rote learning in practice.  A well designed qualitative study could show  that 5 – 6 year old’s will accept rote learning but 10 -11 year olds less so because of reason; a , b and / or c thus generating 3 new variables for the predictive study.

The reason why David rejects interpretative research is found in this passage, and it seems to me to reflect popular discourse about interpretative research:

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?

Social research is not really about ethics and morality, they are really philosophical concerns but it’s the last sentence that bother me. Few in social research think that reality is entirely subjective. There are a variety of opinions but even the most extreme relativist doesn’t think that everything is subjective. Rather a relativist thinks that there is no meaningful world external to how we think about it. Without wishing to get into arcane research language subjectivism is an epistemic perspective rather than ontological one. We come to know the world subjectively not that the world itself (or reality) is subjective. Some researchers simply see ontology as irrelevant but there are a number of realist approaches in educational research that do not hold this view.

In reality I think David has come to the conclusion that educational research is “on the whole a waste of everyone’s time and effort”. Albeit I have no doubt that some of the comments on his BLOG are more polemical than his actual beliefs. I’m not going to challenge the view that the only valid research way of knowing, is that, which is conducted in Lab’s in the field of psychology but I would say that there is one thing that is unquestionable, that any such research could not be conducted without some reference to social research.

Predictive cognitive research could be a useful tool in generating theory but you would also need qualitative data to test the theory. You would also need to find out the social and cultural factors that have impacted upon the theory, that could not have been predicted from our notional predictive study. Indeed predictive studies could be integrated into grounded studies in the situated context, I have described Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM) here and also here where I have previously discussed the issues of interpretative data.

In my view fields, other than educational research could become important for generating predictive data but the classroom will always be the place where the theories are tested. The field of educational research is where all these disparate fields should cohere into something meaningful for practice. It is upon this issue that a view that, educational research is “broken”, should be debated. Does educational research actually do that, why are we listening to DT Willingham rather than educational researchers. It’s a good question.

I did set out with the view that there is a discourse amongst edu-BLOGGERS that is essentially edu-positivist. Subsequent tweeting and BLOGGING has hardly changed my mind on that point nonetheless I will  be interested to see how David’s ideas develop. At least he has the courage of his convictions to outline the various aspects of his thinking.


@Suzyg001 makes the point I am trying to get at in this blog, in a response to my last BLOG. I can’t say it better myself so I’ve simply cut and paste it. (Hope she doesn’t mind). My own personal view is the middle ground resides here:

“Traditionally, what’s out there has been viewed as a physical reality determined by mechanistic, highly predictable ‘laws’. By contrast, our perceptions and knowledge of what’s out there have been seen as fuzzy, shifting, variable and unpredictable. The problem has been figuring out the correspondence between what’s out there and what’s in there.

Mechanistic linear models of perception and learning, like behaviourism and artificial intelligence (brain-as-computer) shed some light on what might be going on, but both models ran into problems. The breakthrough came with the realisation that information about what’s out there is processed in the brain via interconnected networks of neurons and that the connections between neurons get stronger the more they are used.

A close-ish analogy would be the way footpaths, minor roads and major roads link up with each other. Because of the linkages between them there are multiple ways you can get from one place to another. In the UK, most routes began as footpaths but some have morphed into major roads as a result of the amount of traffic they’ve carried.

Because we each have a unique experience of what’s out there, and because we each have subtle – or sometimes not so subtle – variations in sensory processing, each of us has unique knowledge about what’s out there, although obviously much of that knowledge is common to most of us.

To take your £5 note analogy, although everyone seeing your £5 note would see the same note, their knowledge about it would depend on their knowledge about currency – that knowledge being carried in physical linkages within networks of neurons in their brain. And it wouldn’t be limited to some hypothetical abstract Platonic kind of knowledge about £5 notes; it would involve all their experiences associated with £5 notes, even if they can’t recall those experiences.

Hard and soft sciences are often caricatured in terms of their use of quantitative vs qualitative methodologies. That is clearly a caricature since a great deal of data in physics, chemistry and biology relates to the qualitative properties of things.

And many psychologists and sociologists, for example, use qualitative and quantitative research designs depending on which is most appropriate. For example, unstructured interviews relating to a particular phenomenon can give insights into factors research participants see as salient, repertory grids can highlight differences between participants’ perceptions, and card sorting can show how people categorise their perceptions. Each of those qualitative methods can give you data that can then be analysed quantitatively if that’s appropriate to the research question.

Hope that answers your question.”


3 thoughts on “On edu-positivism and a move to the middle ground: a second response to David Didau

  1. Is there any part of this that isn’t a straw man? I mean, who actually believes any of the ideas that you are attacking? Who believes that knowing is not subjective? Who believes that science is the only source of facts?

    And even if every criticism of quantitative methods and the philosophy of those who use them was accurate, would that, in itself, do anything to justify any qualitative method?

    1. Most of it is a direct response to DD’s BLOG so I’m not sure of your point really: But I will respond anyway.

      1) I’m not attacking anything or anyone
      2) I am identifying a discourse that I describe as edu-positivism and defining it
      3) Not sure I said that there is anyone believes that knowing wasn’t subjective

      I have said that some seem to think that science is the only source of facts” but that’s a discursive tool and largely ironic

      I clearly outline my justification of qualitative research in this BLOG and in other BLOGS.

      In reality I am simply describing a view that is held by a number of BLOGGERS including myself to make a point about the nature of edu-blogging discourse. If it has no resonance with anyone then rest assured no one is going to be interested.

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