Evidence, Beliefs, and a Science of Education

For those of us who like to consider ourselves rational beings, we read nutrition labels on yogurt, buy Consumer Reports for car ratings, search the Internet for explanations of that ache in the upper arm, listen to experts, and then make reasoned judgments about purchases, work, education, health, and safety. We believe in the importance of scientific research to advance knowledge and subsequent technological applications; we believe in collecting and sifting evidence before we decide what to do; we prize being logical, making rational decisions based upon scientific evidence.

Sure we do.

Yet each of us knows that so much of what we do in life is not only a matter of rationality, logic, and evidence but also actions anchored in beliefs, feelings, habits, and instincts. Choosing friends. Picking a college. Deciding on a job. Voting for a president. Getting married. Having a child.

Neither wholly rational nor emotional, our decisions and actions are a combination of both. We prize new knowledge derived from hard and soft sciences and their applications to life insofar as what they can do for us individually and collectively. We listen to experts. Yet every day in so many ways we pursue our beliefs, apply our values, and follow our emotions. Nothing new here except on those occasions when rationality, science, and emotions light up policy issues that touch our daily work and life.

Consider creationism and whether it should be taught in schools alongside Darwinian evolution. Or global warming where lightning and thunder generated by dueling scientific studies have paralyzed governmental policymaking as tornadoes, hurricanes, glacial melt and rising coastal waters make headlines every month. Partisan debates over restricting or expanding stem-cell research continue. Often science and beliefs clash. Ideologies–emotionally and value-driven ideas–arouse passions and dominate policy debates and decision-making.

Similar clashes over science and beliefs have occupied educational researchers and practitioners.  Ideological struggles over the purposes of tax-supported schooling and which pedagogies should dominate classrooms (see: Pathways to Reform-Start With Values) have fueled public debates and influenced policy decisions for nearly two centuries. Efforts to make education into a science, first begun during the Progressive era in the early 20th century remain a live issue today even after the U.S. Department of Education renamed its research arm as the Institute of Education Sciences in 2002.

New names, however, seldom quell doubts.  Just as economists have asked of themselves whether the discipline is scientific, so have educational researchers (RESEARCH-2002-Berliner). What makes it especially difficult for educational researchers and practitioners to view education as a science are the constant disputes over diverse research results particularly when results have little to do with what practitioners face daily.

That practitioners both relish and reject research studies (see doyle, practicality ethic) is not news. The common teacher skepticism of research is rational in that so many studies answer questions that teachers seldom ask about their students or classroom practices. But it is also emotional in that teachers highly value, even prize, their accumulated experience and often choose those practical experiences over studies that suggest certain of their practices fail to help students.

How far should one go in being skeptical of  educational research and the degree to which it is scientific?

I value research. I have asked questions investigating the history of teaching, curriculum, school reform, and technology. I have designed studies, and, using different methodologies, collected evidence and published my findings. I know that truth is elusive and that biases including mine–another way of admitting emotions enter into rational decision-making–can slant even the best designed study. Still, a careful, rigorous, and honest search for truth is essential, I believe, for improved teaching and student learning.

Then the practitioner part of me kicks in and says that so much educational research fails to ask, much less answer, puzzling questions that teachers, principals, and superintendents face daily. Instead,to get answers to these questions, hardworking professionals have to rely on their experiences and that of peers, as I had done.

I have worked in both worlds and find it tempting to agree with those studies that support my biases while rejecting those that challenge those very same biases. And when research findings are mixed, I am tempted to ignore the findings. So I am torn by conflicting evidence and emotions. In truth, what I often end up doing–the compromise I have worked out–is to rely upon my experiences in classrooms and schools while keeping an eye peeled for rigorous, high-caliber studies.

Do I believe that there is a science of education and schooling? No. The contexts, the value-driven purposes, and the emotional life of classroom interactions make schooling different from physics and biology.   But I do believe that a frank awareness that both rational and emotional factors come into play in making policy, putting policy into practice, and doing research can help us figure out which scientific studies are applicable to teaching and learning.



Filed under Reforming schools

11 responses to “Evidence, Beliefs, and a Science of Education

  1. Larry, I’ve noticed as long as you stay away from your thoughts on technology, I find myself agreeing more than disagreeing. (Maybe it’s your practitioner bias and ignoring research on that one). I too share in your skepticism in the Science of Education since I see it as reducing individual teacher to technicians not experts. I think this is what teacher education does. But I passionately believe in the science of learning and instruction. This is where I turn first before I even consider whether technology is important. Is what is being does what is done in the classroom put learning first and are we using the best methods to promote that learning and does technology help to support that then extend it outside the classroom.

    • larrycuban

      Hmmmm, Dr. Bob, you reject a science of education but accept a “science of learning and instruction.” I find a “science of instruction” as implausible as a “science of education.” Sadly, Dr. Bob, my thoughts about technology will continue since high-tech “solutions” applied to teaching and learning come from theories and practices in sciences outside of education and get pushed into schools. Sorry about that.

  2. Paul Muench

    What about Psychology?

    • larrycuban

      The early history of psychology as a science, Paul, drove much educational research in the early 20th century. Edward Thorndike, Charles Judd, and other efficiency-driven progressives were psychologists. Skinner and the behaviorists had an enormous influence on teaching and learning between the mid-1920s through the 1960s. Cognitive psychologists from Howard Gardner through Jim Greeno and many others have exerted strong influence on teaching practices since the 1970s. Thanks for adding psychology.

      • Paul Muench

        I attended an elementary school named Mark’s Meadow which was attached to the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. By the 6th grade most students learned that the school was designed with an “observation deck” above and between the rows of classes. The observation deck was designed with one way windows. Most curious students found a way to sneak up to have a look. I assume researchers and I know teachers were making use of the facility. This school was clearly designed for direct observation of classroom activities. I assume at least some people put effort into trying to find patterns in the observations. This seems to be of a different nature than focusing on proscribed classroom inputs and test score outputs. I have no idea what became of any work done, but it seems to me to be a real attempt to make a science of education practice. I have no reason to doubt that might actually be possible.

  3. Bob Calder

    Our problem in education is more like that of global climate change than that of space flight for instance. The reason is there is good evidence that people who were employed to “create doubt” about the dangers of tobacco have been employed casting doubt on the science behind climatology. Similarly, the research behind education reform is squidgy. To put it bluntly, some of the same organizations put forth arguments against climate scientists AND in favor of various education reforms. The debate over space flight is sterile in comparison.

  4. Meg

    When I read “so much educational research fails to ask, much less answer, puzzling questions that teachers, principals, and superintendents face daily,” I hoped that you would give examples of research that DID ask these questions. What are some research questions and/or conclusions that would actually catch your attention?

    I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the politics of education research grants and how they might play a role in making research disconnected from everyday realities or irrelevant altogether. We all know how ideological and petty the grant game can get. What’s more, Season 4 of the Wire shows us how the “hard truths” found in Bunny’s education research can be ignored/silenced when people in power don’t like the answers.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the questions, Meg, about educational research that did answer important policy and practitioner questions. Here are two:

      Does preschool make a difference in the school careers and lives of 3 and 4 year-olds? The answer from the Perry preschool and the Carolina Abecedarian longitudinal research projects is that preschool does make a difference in later school grades and decades later in jobs, marriages, children, and contact with the legal system.

      Does holding students back a year (retention in grade) help or harm students?
      Lorrie Shepard and other researchers have found again and again that retention does not help individual students catch up academically and often leads to students dropping out of school.

      As for the politics of getting research grants, you said it all in your comments. Ideologies compete with statistics, logic, and fairness–the example of Bunny in “The Wire” is apt although we do not need to resort to fiction to make the same point.

      • Meg

        Thanks for the examples Larry. It seems like longitudinal, mixed method studies are more desirable because they can explore questions that deal with the complexities of long-term outcomes (changing class status or integration into mainstream society) instead of short-term ones (how to increase test scores). To me the short-term research questions are short-sighted if they are disconnected to long-term ones. If emphasized too much short-term questions suggest that we no longer care about students once they’ve left the school system and become members of society. Moreover it seems like election cycles throw a wrench into long-term research–by the time your longitudinal study has concluded, the political environment for education reform may be completely different than when it started.

  5. Pingback: Evidence, Beliefs, and a Science of Education | Larry Cuban on … - Angryteach

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