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Educational research: the hardest science of them all

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DOI: 10.3102/0013189X031008018
2002 31: 18EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER
David C. Berliner
Comment: Educational Research:The Hardest Science of All
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Comment
Educational Research:The Hardest Science of All
by David C. Berliner
Under the stewardship of the Department of Education, recent acts
of Congress confuse the methods of science with the process of
sci-
ence,
possibly
doing
great
harm
to scholarship
in
education.
An
other-
wise exemplary National Research Council report to help clarify the
nature of
educational science fails
to emphasize the complexity of
sci-
entific work in education due to the power of contexts, the ubiquity
of interactions, and the problem of decade by
findings
interactions.
Discussion of these issues leads to the conclusion that educational
science is unusually hard to do and that the government may not be
serious about wanting evidence-based practices in education.
S
cientific Culture and Educational Research (this
issue),
as
well
as
the National Research Council (NRC) report from
which it
draws,
are important documents in the history
of
educational research. I commend the authors and panelists who
shaped these reports, and I support their recommendations. But
it is not clear to me that
science
means the same thing to all of us
who pay it homage, nor do I think that the distinctions between
educational science and other sciences have been well made in
either report. There are implications associated with both these
issues.
Definitions of Science
I admire Richard Feynman’s (1999) definition of
science
as “the
belief in the ignorance of authority
(p.
187).
Unrestricted ques-
tioning is what gives science its energy and vibrancy. Values, re-
ligion, politics, vested material interests, and the like can distort
our scientific work only to the extent that they stifle challenges
to authority, curtailing the questioning of whatever orthodoxy
exists.
Unfettered, science will free itself from false beliefs or, at
the least, will moderate the climate in which those beliefs exist.
As
politicians recognize that “facts are
negotiable,
perceptions are
rock solid, so there is no guarantee that science will reduce
ignorance. But as long as argument is tolerated and unfettered,
that possibility exists.
Another admirable definition of
science
was provided by Percy
Bridgman (1947), who said there really is no scientific method,
merely individuals “doing their damndest with their minds, no
holds
barred
(pp.
144–145).
I
admire Feynman’s and Bridgman’s
definitions of science because neither confuses science with
method or technique,
as
I believe happens in recent government
proclamations about the nature of appropriate, and therefore
fundable, educational research. World-renowned scientists do
Educational Researcher,
Vol.
31,
No.
8,
pp.
18–20
not confuse science with method.
As
Peter Medawar said, “what
passes for scientific methodology is a misrepresentation of what
scientists do or ought to do.
The “evidence-based practices and “scientific research men-
tioned over 100 times in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
are code words for randomized experiments, a method of re-
search with which I too am much enamored. But to think that
this form of research is the only “scientific approach to gaining
knowledge—the only one that yields trustworthy evidence
reveals a myopic view of science in general and a misunderstand-
ing of educational research in particular. Although strongly sup-
ported in Congress, this bill confuses the methods of science with
the
goals
of science. The government
seems
to be inappropriately
diverging from the two definitions of science provided above by
confusing
a
particular method of science with science
itself.
This
is a
form of superstitious thinking that
is
the antithesis of science.
Feuer, Towne, and Shavelson, representing the entire NRC
committee, clearly recognize this
mistake,
and
we
should
all
hope
that they are persuasive. To me, the language in the new bill re-
sembles what one would expect were the government writing
standards for bridge building and prescription drugs, where the
nature of the underlying science
is
straightforward and time hon-
ored. The bill fails to recognize the unique nature of educational
science.
Hard and Soft Science: A Flawed Dichotomy
The distinctions between hard and soft sciences are part of our
culture.
Physics,
chemistry, geology,
and
so
on
are
often contrasted
with the social sciences in general and education in particular. Ed-
ucational research is considered too soft, squishy, unreliable, and
imprecise to rely on as a basis for practice in the same way that
other sciences
are
involved in the design of bridges and electronic
circuits, sending rockets to the moon, or developing new drugs.
But the important distinction is really not between the hard and
the soft sciences. Rather, it is between the hard and the easy sci-
ences.
Easy-to-do science
is
what those in
physics,
chemistry, ge-
ology, and some other
fields
do. Hard-to-do science is what the
social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational
researchers do. In my estimation, we have the hardest-to-do sci-
ence of them
all!
We do our science under conditions that phys-
ical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and
must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and
theory building—problems that are different from those faced by
the easier-to-do sciences. Let me explain this by using a set of re-
lated
examples:
The power of context, the ubiquity of interactions,
and the problem of “decade by
findings”
interactions. Although
these issues are implicit in the Feuer, Towne, and Shavelson ar-
ticle,
the authors do not, in my opinion, place proper emphasis
on them.
18 EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER
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The Power of Contexts
In education, broad theories and ecological generalizations often
fail because they cannot incorporate
the
enormous number
or
determine the power of the contexts within which human beings
find
themselves.
That
is
why the Edison
Schools,
Success for All,
Accelerated Schools,
the
Coalition
of
Essential Schools,
and
other school reform movements have trouble replicating effects
from site to
site.
The decades old Follow-Through study should
have taught
us
about
the
problems
of
replication
in
education
(House, Glass, McLean,
&
Walker, 1978).
In
that study, over a
dozen philosophically different instructional models
of
early
childhood education were implemented
in
multiple sites over
a
considerable period
of
time. Those models were then evaluated
for their effects
on
student achievement.
It
was found that
the
variance in student achievement
was
larger within programs than
it was between programs.
No
program could produce consis-
tency
of
effects across sites. Each local context was different, re-
quiring differences
in
programs, personnel, teaching methods,
budgets, leadership,
and
kinds
of
community support. These
huge context effects cause scientists great trouble in trying to un-
derstand school life.
It is the
reason that qualitative inquiry
has become
so
important
in
educational research.
In
this
hardest-to-do science, educators
often need knowledge
of the
particular—the local—while
in the easier-to-do sciences the
aim
is
for
more general knowl-
edge.
A
science that must
always be sure the myriad par-
ticulars
are
well understood
is
harder
to
build than
a
science
that can focus
on
the regularities
of
nature across contexts.
The
latter kinds
of
science will always have a better chance to under-
stand, predict, and control the phenomena they study.
Doing science and implementing scientific
findings
are
so
dif-
ficult in education because humans
in
schools are embedded
in
complex
and
changing networks
of
social interaction. The par-
ticipants
in
those networks have variable power
to
affect each
other from day to
day,
and the ordinary events of life (a sick child,
a messy divorce,
a
passionate love affair, migraine headaches, hot
flashes, a birthday party, alcohol abuse,
a
new principal,
a
new
child
in
the classroom, rain that keeps the children from a recess
outside
the
school building)
all
affect doing science
in
school
settings by limiting the generalizability
of
educational research
findings. Compared
to
designing bridges
and
circuits
or
split-
ting either atoms or
genes,
the science to help change schools and
classrooms is harder to do because context cannot be controlled.
The Ubiquity of Interactions
Context
is
of
such importance in educational research because
of
the interactions that abound.
The
study
of
classroom teaching,
for example,
is
always about understanding
the 10th or 15th
order interactions that occur in
classrooms.
Any teaching behav-
ior interacts with
a
number
of
student characteristics, including
IQ,
socioeconomic
status,
motivation to
learn,
and
a
host of other
factors. Simultaneously, student behavior
is
interacting with
teacher characteristics, such
as
the teacher’s training in the subject
taught, conceptions
of
learning, beliefs about assessment,
and
even the teacher’s personal happiness with life. But
it
doesn’t end
there because other variables interact with those just mentioned
the curriculum materials, the socioeconomic status
of
the com-
munity, peer effects in the
school,
youth employment in the area,
and
so
forth. Moreover,
we
are not even sure in which directions
the influences work, and many surely are reciprocal. Because of
the myriad interactions, doing educational science seems very
difficult, while science
in
other
fields
seems easier.
I
am
sure were
I a
physicist
or a
geologist
I
would protest
ar-
guments from outsiders about how easy their sciences are com-
pared to
mine.
I
know how “messy their
fields
appear to insiders,
and that arguments about
the
status
of
findings
and
theories
within their disciplines can
be
fierce.
But
they have more often
found regularities
in
nature across physical contexts while
we
struggle
to
find regularities across social contexts. We can make
this issue about
the
complexity we face more concrete
by
using
the research
of
Helmke (cited
in
Snow, Corno
&
Jackson,
1995).
Helmke studied
students
evaluation anxiety in elementary
and middle school classrooms.
In 54 elementary and 39 middle
school classrooms, students
scores
on
questionnaires about
evaluation anxiety were corre-
lated with
a
measure
of
student
achievement. Was there some
regularity, some reportable
scientific finding? Absolutely.
On average,
a
negative correla-
tion
of
modest
size was
found in
both elementary
and
middle
school
grades.
The generalizable
finding was that
the
higher
the
scores
on
the evaluation anxiety
questionnaire, the lower the score
on
the achievement test.
But this simple scientific finding totally misses all
of
the com-
plexity
in
the classrooms studied. For example, the negative cor-
relations
ran
from about
-.80 to
zero,
but a few
were even
positive, as high as +.45. So
in
some classes students evaluation
anxiety
was so
debilitating that their achievement
was
drastically
lowered, while
in
other classes the effects were nonexistent. And
in
a
few
classes
the evaluation anxiety apparently
was
turned into
some productive motivational force
and
resulted
in
improved
student achievement. There were 93 classroom contexts, 93
dif-
ferent patterns
of the
relationship between evaluation anxiety
and student achievement, and
a
general scientific conclusion that
completely missed the particularities
of
each classroom situation.
Moreover, the mechanisms through which evaluation anxiety
resulted in reduced student achievement appeared to
be
quite
dif-
ferent
in the
elementary classrooms
as
compared
to the
middle
school classrooms.
It
may be stretching
a
little,
but
imagine that
Newton’s third law worked well in both the northern and south-
ern hemispheres—except of
course
in Italy or New Zealand—and
that
the
explanatory basis
for
that law was different
in the two
hemispheres. Such complexity would drive
a
physicist crazy,
but
it is a
part
of the
day-to-day world
of the
educational
re-
searcher. Educational researchers have
to
accept the embedded-
We do
our
science
under conditions
that physical scientists
find intolerable.
NOVEMBER 2002
19
by guest on June 10, 2014http://er.aera.netDownloaded from
ness of educational phenomena in social life, which results in the
myriad interactions that complicate our science. As Cronbach
once noted, if you acknowledge these kinds of interactions, you
have entered into a hall of mirrors, making social science in gen-
eral, and education in particular, more difficult than some other
sciences.
Decade by Findings Interactions
There is still another point about the uniqueness of educational
science, the short half-life of our findings. For example, in the
1960s good social science research was done on the origins of
achievement motivation among men and women.
By
the 1970s,
as the feminist revolution worked its way through society, all
data that described women were completely useless. Social and
educational research, as good as it may be at the time it is done,
sometimes shows these “decade by findings” interactions. Solid
scientific findings in one decade end up of little use in another
decade because of changes in the social environment that invali-
date the research or render it irrelevant. Other examples come to
mind. Changes in conceptions of the competency of young chil-
dren and the nature of their minds resulted in a constructivist
paradigm of learning replacing a behavioral one, making irrele-
vant entire journals of scientific behavioral findings about edu-
cational phenomena. Genetic findings have shifted social views
about race, a concept now seen
as
worthless in both biology and
anthropology.
So
previously accepted social science studies about
differences between the
races
are irrelevant because
race,
as a
basis
for classifying people in a research study, is now understood to
be socially, not genetically, constructed.
In all three cases, it was not bad science that caused findings
to become irrelevant. Changes in the social, cultural, and intel-
lectual environments negated the scientific work in these areas.
Decade by findings interactions seem more common in the so-
cial sciences and education than they do in other scientific fields
of inquiry, making educational science very hard to do.
Conclusions
The remarkable findings, concepts, principles, technology, and
theories we have come up with in educational research are a tri-
umph of doing our damndest with our minds. We have con-
quered enormous complexity. But if we accept that we have
unique complexities to deal with, then the orthodox view of sci-
ence now being put forward by the government is a limited and
faulty one. Our science forces us to deal with particular prob-
lems,
where local knowledge is needed. Therefore, ethnographic
research
is
crucial,
as
are
case
studies,
survey research, time series,
design experiments, action research, and other means to collect
reliable evidence for engaging in unfettered argument about ed-
ucation issues. A single method is not what the government
should be promoting for educational researchers. It would do
better by promoting argument, discourse, and
discussion.
It
is
no
coincidence that early versions of both democracy and science
were invented simultaneously in ancient Greece. Both require
the same freedom to argue and question authority, particularly
the government.
It is also hard to take seriously the government’s avowed de-
sire for solid scientific evidence when it ignores the solid scien-
tific evidence about the long-term positive effects on student
learning of high-quality early childhood education, small class
size,
and teacher in-service education. Or when it ignores find-
ings about the poor performance of students when they are re-
tained in grade, assigned uncertified teachers or teachers who
have out-of-field teaching assignments, or suffer
a
narrowed cur-
riculum because of high-stakes testing.
Instead of putting its imprimatur on the one method of sci-
entific inquiry to improve education, the government would do
far better to build our community of scholars, as recommended
in the NRC report. It could do that by sponsoring panels to de-
bate the evidence we have collected from serious scholars using
diverse methods. Helping
us
to do our damndest with our minds
by promoting rational debate
is
likely to improve education more
than funding randomized studies with their necessary tradeoff
of
clarity of
findings
for completeness of understanding. We should
never lose sight of the fact that children and teachers in class-
rooms are conscious, sentient, and purposive human beings, so
no scientific explanation of human behavior could ever be com-
plete. In fact, no unpoetic description of the human condition
can ever be complete. When stated this way, we have an argu-
ment for heterogeneity in educational scholarship and for con-
vening panels of diverse scholars to help decide what
findings
are
and are not worthy of promoting in our schools.
The present caretakers of our government would be wise to re-
member
Justice Jackson’s
1950
admonition:
“It
is
not the function
of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error; it is
the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling
into error. Promoting debate on a variety of educational issues
among researchers and practitioners with different methodologi-
cal
perspectives would help both our scholars and our government
to make fewer
errors.
Limiting who
is
funded and who will be in-
vited to those debates is more likely to increase our errors.
REFERENCES
Bridgman, P. W. (1947). New vistas for intelligence. In E. P. Winger
(Ed.),
Physical science
and human values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Feynman, R. P. (1999). The
pleasure
of
finding
things
out. Cambridge,
MA: Perseus.
House,
E.
R.,
Glass,
G. V, McLean,
L.
D., & Walker, D.
F.
(1978).
No
simple answer: Critique of follow through evaluation.
Harvard
Edu-
cational
Review,
48, 128–160.
Snow, R. E., Corno, L., & Jackson, D. (1995). Individual differences
in affective and conative functions. In D. C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee
(Eds.),
Handbook of educational psychology
(pp.
243–310).
New York:
Macmillan.
AUTHOR
DAVID C. BERLINER is Regents’ Professor of Education, Arizona State
University, Tempe,
85287; berliner@asu.edu. His research interests
include the study of teaching, teacher education, and educational policy.
Manuscript received June 4, 2002
Revisions received July 8, 2002
Accepted July
11,
2002
20 EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER
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... However, any alternative selection and organisation would have its limits and critiques. More so in education that is contented to be the "hardest science of 35 all" (Berliner 2002). Its unique complexities make neat and linear classifi cation, selection, and generalisation challenging-often due to conceptual intersections, contextual situatedness of problems, the ubiquity of social interactions, and limits of available approaches and resources (Berliner 2002). ...
... More so in education that is contented to be the "hardest science of 35 all" (Berliner 2002). Its unique complexities make neat and linear classifi cation, selection, and generalisation challenging-often due to conceptual intersections, contextual situatedness of problems, the ubiquity of social interactions, and limits of available approaches and resources (Berliner 2002). This is perhaps one of the most signifi cant understandings about educational studies that (though not systematically discussed) can be inferred from the volume. ...
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... Overlapping systems thus act conjointly to cause outcomes that a single isolated mechanism cannot produce. Berliner (2002) referred this as the ubiquity of interactions and the power of context. Social systems and practices are thus emergent and are affected by their past. ...
Article
Follow Through has been the largest and most expensive federal educational experiment in this country's history. Conceived in 1967 as an extension of Head Start, Follow Through was designed as a service program to improve the schooling of disadvantaged children in the early elementary grades. Before it was under way, however, an expected $120 million appropriation was slashed to only $15 milion for the first year. A decision was then made by the U.S. Office of Education to convert the program into a planned variation experiment, which systematically would compare pupils enrolled in different models of early childhood education— the Follow Through models—to each other and to pupils from non-Follow Through classes.
New vistas for intelligence
  • P W Bridgman
Bridgman, P. W. (1947). New vistas for intelligence. In E. P. Winger (Ed.), Physical science and human values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.