Is education research all dreck? -- Willingham
By Daniel Willingham
Sharon Begley, science editor at Newsweek, doesn’t have anything nice to say about education research. In a recent article, she refers to it as "second-class science" and "so flimsy as to be a national scandal."
I agree that there is a problem, but I don’t think she’s diagnosed it correctly.
There is a lot of excellent research in education. I spend most of my time reading basic scientific work and trying to understand what it means for classrooms and for policy, and much of what I draw on is education research.
There is, however, also a good deal of dreck.
There is a certain amount of poor science in other fields as well. Go to the psychology section of a large book store and you’ll see plenty of nonsense. Books with crazy suggestions on dieting, love, self-actualization, and so on.
The difference between psychology and education is that psychology, as a field, is more vigilant in its self-regulation, particularly through its professional societies.
Suppose that I’m a legislator and I want to know what the latest research says about repression of childhood memories and whether recovered memories should be admissable as court testimony. Naturally, a legislator is not going to dig through the research literature himself or herself. There ought to be a national organization to which policy makers can turn for answers. Such an organization would stand ready to provide the best information available on a particular topic.
Within psychology there are two--and only two--such organizations. Both are deeply committed to scientific rigor, they are run by scientists, and they publish very high quality research.
If I’m a legislator--or teacher--interested in a question such as, "What’s the latest research on how kids learn to read and how they respond to different ways of teaching reading?" where do I turn?
The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) ought to be logical place, but it has not shown a lot of interest in taking on the job.
I think a large part of the reason for this is that it is an enormous organization that includes scholars from very different disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, critical theory, history, feminist studies, etc. These different fields not only have different criteria by which evidence is evaluated, they have different definitions of what it means to "know" something. Small wonder, then, that AERA is seldom ready to make a flat statement on a research issue.
This reluctance leaves a vacuum into which opportunists are happy to leap.
People ask me: "If it’s really true that there is no evidence supporting learning styles, how can there be professional development activities on them, and books published about them, and all the rest?" Because the people who do research on this sort of thing don’t speak with one voice to say: "We’ve looked into this and there doesn’t seem to be much to it.”
And, on occasion, when a high-profile research article clarifying the lack of research base is published, organizations like ASCD stand ready to publish outlandish defenses of discredited theories--for example, that even though a clear prediction of the theory is not supported, that doesn’t matter because teachers don’t want to use that prediction anyway.
Education researchers ought to care about this issue. It’s not enough to shake our heads sadly at how misinformed Sharon Begley is. Letting commercial interests and frank snake-oil salesmen influence or even take control of the national conversation on research issues damages the field, and ultimately harms students.
A start would be for the AERA membership to decide how to come to agreement on important issues. The easiest place to start with would be to decide which issues within education are amenable to a scientific analysis. There is precedence in other branches of science regarding how to come to some agreement on complex questions.
Education researchers frequently lament policy makers cherry-picking research findings to support positions that they advocate for non-research-based reasons. Until researchers get their act together, we continue to invite them to do so.
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| May 17, 2010; 12:26 PM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research | Tags: Daniel Willingham, aera, education research, value of education research
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