Philosophy vs. Research

This post is reaction to people constantly saying “it’s research-based” and expecting me and others to blindly follow whatever strategy they are promoting.  Unfortunately, nearly any claim one wants to make can be supported empirically.  Therefore, I believe it is more important to consider our own and the researchers’ philosophies as well as their data.

One reason to consider a researcher’s philosophy is that research data will be interpreted in light of their educational philosophy.  If a researcher or teacher believe a good lesson is one where students aquire information, they will interpret the effectiveness of strategies accordingly.  Similarly, if a teacher or researcher believes an effective lesson is one where students are not disruptive and are sitting quietly listening to the teacher, they will not likely believe any of my lessons are effective.  While these cases might seem extreme, and we hope that teachers and education researchers would not simplify education to such a degree, the examples serve to illustrate the point that what we believe to be effective will affect how we view data on classrooms.  Essentially, research is made sense of based on what someone believes to be true – this applies to the natural sciences as well as the social sciences – research is not objective.  These connections between philosophy and research go on, even the kinds of questions asked by researchers are affected by their philosophies – the philosophy provides direction to the research.

The phrase “research-based” is too often thrown around to support ideas – yet most of the research being cited is in book form and has not undergone peer review. (ie: Marzano, Gardner, Payne, brain-based learning, etc).  These are all secondary sources and cite primary sources, but within their own framework of thinking.  Oftentimes, primary sources are cited out of context and quotes are plucked out in isolation to support the secondary source author’s philosophy.  Of course, I am not suggesting that we as teachers ought to be going out reading primary sources only.  My point is that we need to realize all research (primary and secondary) is philosophy-laden.  Instead of promoting ideas simply because they are “research-based”, we ought to be able to articulate how the strategy promotes our goals for students and fits into our own well-developed philosophies.

Lastly, I’ll note that instead of holding up researchers as “the” authorities, we ought to realize the importance of educational philosophers (my personal favorite is John Dewey).  Too often philosophers are dismissed because of a lack of empirical evidence.  Yet, without philosophers, education research would have no direction and new ideas would not be possible.  New ideas do not come from data, they come from the act of thinking (philosophizing).

Of course, this doesn’t mean education research has no validity.  We need to try to understand how the various research studies can be fit together.  More use can be made out of the whole than the individual parts.  Unfortunately, this task is indefinitely difficult.  Yet, working to make sense of the vast amounts of research can help us develop a well-founded philosophy of teaching that can guide our classroom decisions.

So instead of asking, “is it research-based?’ perhaps we ought to ask, “how does this fit with my philosophy of teaching?”

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One Response to Philosophy vs. Research

  1. Matt says:

    I agree that any “research-based” philosophy needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But you know that and I know that, but it doesn’t seem like administrators, AEAs, and the general public know that. In my district we have been bombarded with the research-based craze and frankly it’s quite irritating. We were subjected to a whole semester of Marzano-centered in-services that seem to contradict my better judgement. Again, since my district has performed sub-par over the years we as teachers are no longer trusted to make our own decisions regarding our classroom philosophies. I feel that when a teachers autonomy is taken away so are the things that make that teacher great. In my opinion I feel like I am educated enough to make sound decisions based on the data that I gather.

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