Saturday, December 17, 2011

Epistemological issues in Educational Research

Educational Research is not an unified enterprise. Two main approaches that are studied in Educational Research are known as Quantitative Research and Qualitative Research. Quantitative Research studies samples and populations and uses statistical analysis to represent data and model the relationships between them. Qualitative Research makes little use of statistical analysis and relies on verbal data and subjective analysis. The reason for these different approaches originates from the different epistemological issues underlying scientific inquiry.

Let's see what has preoccupied epistemologists for a certain period of time. First let's define the word epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of Philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired and validated. The epistemologists interested in the natural and social sciences, also called philosophers of Science, have looked for answers to some very pertinent questions. These questions are so formulated: are the objects (neutrons, self-concept) studied by researchers real? How does research knowledge different from other forms of knowledge and does it have any authority? What is theory and how can it be validated? What does it signify to find laws enabling to predict individual and group behavior? Is inquiry in the social sciences different from the inquiry in the natural sciences?

Following their long investigations about these questions during many centuries they have established different schools of thought (empiricism, phenomenology, positivism, etc). Researchers have been influenced by these streams of thinking and have come up with their own epistemological views of how research should be conducted in different branches of social sciences (Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, etc). Educational researchers have their own epistemological approaches at this present time. Other Educational researchers have quite a different stand about these current issues and how they conduct their own research.

The model of Social Science Inquiry include the following elements:
A is the person being studied. This person's environment includes: a physical reality B and a social  reality C.
D is the researcher
E is the research report
F is the reader of the report.
This model can be illustrated by a diagram that can't be drawn here. In this diagram A, B, C, D, E and F are surrounded by ellipses. The diagram can be drawn in the following order:
On the right A is surrounded by an ellipse.
Above A on the left is the person's environment surrounded by an ellipse. Below this ellipse are B and C surrounded by an ellipse each: one on the left and the other on the right. Arrows relate the person's environment ellipse to ellipses B and C. This mini-diagram by itself shows that the person's environment is related to a physical reality B and a social reality C. In the first part of the diagram A, B and C are aligned.
Below between A and B is D
Below C  is E.
Below E is F so that D, E and F are aligned vertically. It is not important if someone cannot draw the diagram. The model is explained below and can be understood without the presence of a diagram.

One of the elements of the model in the diagram is the individual person designated by (A). Let's called her a teacher. The teacher interacts in an environment that is both physical (B) and social (C). The teacher uses a textbook which is a physical object made of ink and paper whose reality is defined by some chemical properties, The teacher uses this textbook to perform a social function which is to instruct students. Teacher's and students' roles are defined by society and constitute a social reality.

Educational researchers (D) and other social scientists such as Psychologists, Sociologists, Anthropologists, etc conduct investigations about  persons or group of persons, their environment or the interaction between people or group of people and their environment. For example Piaget study how children interact with their environment during different stages of their development. Some educational researchers study different social interactions in the classroom. Social scientists do not generally study physical reality although some might do. For example investigation has been conducted to study the relationship between the brain functions and the cognitive processes (attention, problem solving) while individuals work on intellectual tasks.

Following a study a research writes a report (E) about his findings, which is read by other individuals (F). These individuals can be other researchers, educational practitioners, policymakers, funders of the research. Different reports can be written for different audiences.

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