As head of research, this past year I have spent a huge amount of time reading papers and increasingly coming up against terms like “interrater Reliability” or “Box-and-whisker plot.” (The latter sounds like some sort of racy cat based detective novel.) The majority of papers I seem to be reading are from the field of cognitive psychology and whilst they provide fascinating insights into the workings of the brain and have deeply enhanced my understanding of how we actually interpret sensory data, I feel we are losing sight of something.
“8 out of 10 education researchers prefer whiskers.”
Despite doing a course in statistical methods in my first year of my PhD in education, I’m often left cold. Whilst I can work with the abstracts and conclusions, I find I often struggle with the very methodological terms used to justify the claims made. Someone recently told me that to work in education research you should ideally have a degree in cognitive psychology and statistical methods. My response was that unless he has read Homer, Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare or Locke then he shouldn’t be allowed near a classroom. (Unreasonable I know, but it sounded good at the time.)
A key element of education research is about representation. You are attempting to represent a process (and an unfathomably complex one at that) and then test particular approaches or observe specific phenomena. Using solely an empirical method to represent and describe this deeply complex relational phenomenon can seem akin to “measuring a transistor to make sense of a joke in a YouTube video.” (Eagleman)
In the education research arena, I find myself more and more listening to people who are not so much talking about this complex process but rather lecturing us on how they have simply measured a transistor. I’m always reminded of Chris Morris tricking Noel Edmonds on Brass Eye into telling us that the “made-up” drug “cake” affects a part of the brain known as “Shatner’s Bassoon.”
It is great that there have been so many advances in our understanding of how the brain works and the relationship to student learning, but there sometimes seems to be an absence of discourse about to what end this information is useful or how it exactly it empowers children. There are some fantastic practitioners in cognitive psychology such as Nick Rose and Mark Healy who take findings from the field and then apply it insightful and erudite ways informed by other disciplines, but it feels that in the case of many others we are becoming literally “brainwashed.”
Why is this field so dominant now? Is it commensurate with a school culture that seems to audit itself solely now in terms of quantitative ‘measurable’ data? There is much more to be said on this and I just wanted to briefly put down some thoughts here but to my mind there are four areas in education research: philosophy, anthropology, sociology and of course psychology and at the moment I worry that we seem to have hedged all our bets on the latter.