Who won the paradigm wars?

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A new paper has been published in the American Educational Research Journal that may go some way to explaining the state we are in.

The authors analysed the text of 137,024 education PhD dissertations from the United States from 1980 to 2010. They used text-level computational techniques to identify ‘topics’ within the text i.e. groups of word stems that occur together. Selected theses were then reviewed by experts as to their content so that the experts could come-up with a name for that topic. For example, one topic contained the stems, “environment, intrins, visitor, motiv, intent,” and the experts labelled it, “Motivation.”

The authors then analysed how these topics changed over time and, crucially, how these were connected to career prospects. The pattern was very clear. Quantitative studies that use randomised controlled trials, quasi-experiments or other data analysis to try to tease out cause-and-effect relationships gradually declined over this time and became less valuable in terms of career prospects. Qualitative studies aimed more at description and teasing out differences between groups and contexts increased in proportion and potential career value over this time. Membership of a more prestigious university tended to magnify these effects. There was a period in the late 1980s where these two effects crossed-over and, apparently, authors at the time were aware of the conflict between the two: the paradigm wars.

These wars have long been lost by the quantitative side. That explains why it make sense to go on about French philosophers while contributing nothing useful to advancing education if you want to get ahead. And that explains why so many people are doing this.

One thought on “Who won the paradigm wars?

  1. Considering that a post-graduate degree in education is so often the symptom of ambition allied to a desire to escape the classroom, I don’t think this study should surprise us. Quantitative research requires a level of numeracy which I suspect is no more common in American staffrooms than English ones. I’ve not made a study of it, but I expect that a very high percentage of the citations I’ve used came from psychologists and not educators. Perhaps a more revealing study would reveal the growth of jobs in education with little or no contact time in schools.

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