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.