Educational Research: In Time and Space

By Brookhart, Susan M. | National Forum, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Educational Research: In Time and Space


Brookhart, Susan M., National Forum


Many of the readers of this column work in colleges and universities where teaching and research are the stuff of their work. Education is unusual in that much of its research is about teaching and learning. What is educational research? What is its relationship with educational practice?

WHAT IS EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH?

Education is commonly referred to as a highly applied field. This language borrows some assumptions from natural science: it implies that there are some "pure" principles that can be discovered in a "lab" and then "applied" in the "field." This way of speaking about education can be helpful. But this way of speaking about education also can draw our attention away from some important truths about teaching and learning. If education is an academic field in its own right and not, as some once held, completely an application of theory that properly belongs to psychology, sociology, and the other behavioral sciences, then it follows that educational research must exist (or be invented). One of the characteristics of a discipline in the academy is that its subject matter is the object of both teaching and research.

Educational research at first grew from the methods of experimental psychology. In 1963, the American Educational Research Association published its first Handbook of Educational Research, including a chapter by Campbell and Stanley detailing experimental designs for educational research. The concepts of control, comparability, and arguments for causation were treated according to the scientific method. While currently recognized as only one among many methods of educational research, experimental design did allow educational research to be developed as a "new" field. It supported the development of major bodies of theory and literature in several basic, important areas of education - for example, academic learning time (including "time on task" and "opportunity to learn"), classroom interactions, and teacher concerns.

Many have pointed out that the differences between real educational settings, where teaching and learning occur, and controlled experimental conditions are so pronounced as to call into question whether the experimentally validated principles can be generalized to real classrooms. Teachers and students themselves are variables, subject to all kinds of internal and external influences on their attitudes, behaviors, and achievements. Anthropological and other methods that describe teaching and learning in its various settings, instead of looking for invariant cause-and-effect relationships, have proved useful. There are "paradigm wars" (as they have been dubbed, a misnomer in my opinion) among some proponents of the various methods, who claim that the epistemological assumptions of one negate the possibility of the other, and there are "assimilationists" who would like to use multiple methods together to learn about teaching and learning from different perspectives.

The point for this column is not to recapitulate the arguments for and against various methods, but simply to set the scene for readers. Educational research today, I think, is best described as varied in methods and approaches, changing and growing in focus and purpose, and intentionally seeking epistemological grounding.

Educational research typically begins with a research question or research purpose, some statement of what an investigator wants to know about teaching, learning, schools, teachers, students, or any of the wide array of people, processes, or settings that comprise education. Some method of disciplined inquiry appropriate to the question under study is applied to gather and analyze information to advance an answer to the research question. The inquiry must be "disciplined" in that it must apply rules of evidence, consider (and try to explain) errors and contradictory evidence, and otherwise follow and document the method of inquiry selected for the problem. …

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