It is often argued that science is no good for analysing educational practices. The use of science is dismissed as ‘positivism’ or perhaps ‘scientism’. The claim is that human relationships are really complicated and so cannot be subjected to the same analytical techniques as atoms and molecules. We cannot possibly know how any given individual will react to a particular approach and so the determinism of science is profoundly flawed. Some have even argued that such complexities mean that there is no such thing as a teaching method.
Although I accept the limitations of science – we cannot use it to decide what is moral – I am sceptical about the idea that science has little to offer education. It is similar to claims that people used to make about medicine. The whole point of using a statistical approach is to tease out underlying mechanisms. Statistics take account of the fact that students are not identical. True, I can never claim that if I use a specific technique with a particular student then I will obtain a certain result. However, I can makes claims about the likely effect based upon a large number of students and I can make generalised claims about the relative effectiveness of technique A compared to technique B.
Yet I would accept that there are problems that arise: There is the replication crisis in the social sciences more generally where different groups of researchers cannot reproduce the findings of an original study. This may relate to ‘p-hacking’ – the tendency to analyse and reanalyse a data set until something turns-up that appears to be statistically significant. Some things will appear to be significant just by chance so perform enough analyses and you can manufacture ‘significant’ results out of nothing. We could point to these issues and argue for better quality research or we could use them to bolster a claim against science.
So let us conduct a thought-experiment and assume the anti-science case. Let’s accept the argument that science is simply the wrong tool for examining education and think about what this would imply. I think there are two logically consistent positions that someone could take if this is what they believe.
We cannot make any causal claims about different educational approaches
We might suggest that, essentially, nothing can be known. We may be happy to toss out the scientific evidence for explicit forms of instruction but we would have to do the same with the evidence for collaborative learning. We would not even be able to make claims that there is ‘no best way’ to teach because that would imply knowledge of the relative effectiveness of different educational approaches.
This would be a hard path to follow because people make causal claims about teaching all of the time, including those who eschew science. It is almost impossible to talk about education without doing so. A mentor might suggest that a student teacher should ask more ‘higher order questions’. Why? On what basis?
Adopting this stance would require us to accept that anything goes apart, perhaps, from methods barred on ethical grounds. Even then, some techniques will cause obvious harm such as the use of physical punishment yet we could argue that approaches that lead to less learning or that waste time and resources are unethical and yet we would have no way of judging this.
We have something better than science
The other logical stance is to assert that there is some process superior to science that we can use to assess causal claims in education.
There are two main candidates that appear in the literature and are often intertwined. The first we might paraphrase as, “A great philosopher once wrote…” This is the practice of taking the writings of (usually French) philosophers and borrowing from them. We read phrases such as, “Using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus…” and so on.
I am not sure why I or anyone else should accept an argument from authority. How do we know that these guys are right? What should we do when different researchers’ exegesis of their works leads to different conclusions? It all seems a bit scriptural to me.
The second approach is the use of qualitative studies. Such studies have descriptive value in fleshing-out what different practices may look like in the classroom but they are weaker than science in teasing out causes because they are subjective and therefore prone to the myriad biases that plague human thought. For instance, if we are favourably disposed to something then we are likely to accentuate the positives and deemphasise the negatives. In contrast to science, which has the potential to determine whether effects transfer to different contexts, a subjective description of a particular classroom is simply a subjective description of a particular classroom.
Such descriptions represent a sophisticated version of the personal testimonial. Many teachers are utterly convinced of the effectiveness of a method through their own experience of employing it. Yet testimonials are the hallmark of quack science and for good reason. They are not systematic and are effected by various biases such as the sunk cost fallacy – you don’t want to think that something in which you’ve invested 20 years of your career is a load of old rubbish – and regression to the mean.
Sticking with science
For my part, exploring these alternatives makes me want to stick with science. I don’t mind being called names for doing so because it seems like the best bet. If someone can develop a process that is better than science for establishing causal relationships in the social sciences then I am happy to change my position. Simply highlighting science’s flaws is not enough. I want to know that you have something better.
It also strikes me as a dodgy argument to highlight the flaws in science and suggest that nothing can really be known, only to then turn around and claim that adoption of a particular pedagogy will lead to greater motivation or deeper learning.
How do you know that?