In a recent special issue in the journal Exceptionality on the philosophy of special education, I read an exchange beginning with an opening by Kauffman and Sasso (2006a) followed by a reply by Gallagher (2006) and finishing with a rejoinder by Kauffman and Sasso (2006b). The arguments struck me as having applicability to deafness, especially as we try to accommodate a growing diversity, not only in the students we teach and the academic placements in which they find themselves, but also in the world views and philosophies of education evinced by those of us with responsibility for their instruction.
In a few paragraphs I will attempt to encapsulate the positions of the authors. If I am not successful, the fault lies with me and not the authors. The debate, to a large extent, centered on the meaning of knowledge-in essence, is there an external knowable reality and, if so, how can it be measured, particularly in special education? Can the scientific method lead us to better ways to teach and facilitate learning? Of course, this issue is particularly relevant today, and has been since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the subsequent emphasis on evidencebased and scientifically validated methods of instruction, with resultant emphasis on phonics and phonemic-based instruction in reading.
Kauffman and Sasso argue that education requires applying science to problems in teaching and learning and that principles of the scientific method can be applied in the social sciences such as psychology and education as well as in so-called "hard" sciences such as physics and chemistry. Carefully controlled research should be the basis for instruction. They continue that absolute, objective knowledge may not be attainable, but that science has never claimed to eliminate uncertainty, only to reduce it for specific hypotheses. Therefore, reasonable confidence in the scientific method is a good thing.
Kauffman and Sasso concentrate most of their attention on what they consider to be the failings of various schools of postmodern thought, especially those which hold that the findings of science are not objectively or universally true and which hold that reality is a construct, leading to the idea that all ideas have equal value. They maintain that postmodern constructivist ideas are intellectually bankrupt and lead to "abysmal instructional effectiveness."
Kauffman and Sasso cite the commitment to whole language instruction in reading as the prime example of the negative impact of postmodern "constructivist" approaches to education. They state that the whole language, literaturebased advocates erroneously believe that reading cannot be taught in component parts and that a phonics or phonetic code-breaking is ineffective. Kauffman and Sasso argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the superiority of teacher controlled, phonics-based, direct instruction in reading and that postmodern educators reject the evidence simply because it does not fit their bias.
Gallagher responded that over the past 20 years special education debates have often been pitched battles where those on opposite sides appear to suspect the other of dubious motives and distorted values (R 91) and called for free, open and noncoercive discussion and debate. She continued that, like it or not, it is not possible to obtain absolute objectivity and that science is neither neutral nor objective, supplying examples of the misuse of the scientific method, including difficulties in control of the independent variable, and her perceptions of the limitations of over reliance on its procedures. In short, according to Gallagher, all research is subject to interpretation.
I believe the arguments of Kauffman and Sasso on one hand and Gallagher on the other have great relevance to us, Gallagher's reference to pitched battles in special education where people appear to suspect each other of dubious motives and distorted values has special import. …