Monday, December 5, 2011

Four types of knowledge that research contributes to education


Many research studies are based on the description of natural or social phenomena by studying their form, structure, activity, change over time, relationship to other phenomena, etc. These descriptions have resulted in important discoveries. For example the observation of different parts of the universe by astronomers have resulted in the discoveries of galaxies and the structure of the universe. These discoveries have subsequently lead to the origin of the universe and its course.

The descriptive function of research relies strongly on instruments for observation and measurement. Researchers spend a great amount of time to develop instruments. Once developed these instruments are used to describe phenomena studied by researchers.

Descriptive studies increase the knowledge of education in schools. Some important books about education are based on descriptive studies for example Life in Classroom by Philip Jackson, The Good High School by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, etc.

Some descriptive educational studies produce statistical information of interest to policy makers and educators. The National Center for Education Statistics publish descriptive studies in an annual journal called the Digest of Educational Statistics. These published studies about the delivery of education are information available to anyone concerned about the quality of education in schools.


Another type of research knowledge is the ability to predict a phenomenon that will happen at time Y from information available at a time X. For example lunar eclipses can be predicted with precision from knowledge about the relative motion of the Moon, Earth and Sun. The next stage of an embryo's development can also be predicted from knowledge about the current stage of the embryo. A student's performance in school can be predicted with a fair amount of precision by an aptitude test administered previously a year or two,

Educational researchers have undertaken a lot of prediction studies for the acquisition of knowledge about factors predicting student's success in school and in the world of work. One of the reasons of doing such research is to provide guidance for the selection of students who will be successful in some particular academic disciplines. For example Universities use the Scholastic Aptitude Test along with other data for the selection of students who are likely to be successful in their academic programs. More knowledge is needed about the level of accuracy of these tests for different groups of students to determine if new instruments are needed to improve the predictability of success in some particular fields.

Another purpose of prediction research is the identification of students who can be unsuccessful in the course of their schooling so that academic prevention programs can be put in place. For example this type of research can be used to solve the problem of school dropouts. The collection of information about students from sixth grade until graduation can provide information about the best predictions. The predictive knowledge can be used to determine sixth graders who are likely to become high school dropouts. This knowledge can be used to develop programs that can help them to be successful in schools.

Educational research has produced a large body of predictive knowledge about factors predicting issues of social importance (examples: academic success, career success, criminal conduct). Several procedures have been developed for doing predictive research.


The third type of research knowledge deals with the effectiveness of interventions. Some examples of interventions are: drug therapies in medicine, construction materials in engineering, marketing strategies in business, and instructional programs in education. Many educational research studies are realized to identify interventions or factors able to be transformed in interventions in order to improve student's academic performance. Walberg and his colleagues have summarized the results of nearly 3,000 studies on interventions or potential interventions undertaken for the purpose of improving student's performance on various measures of academic achievement. Such intervention variables are: reinforcement, reading training, cooperative learning, personalized instruction, tutoring, individualized science, individualized mathematics, etc.

Walberg's synthesis of research have demonstrated that educational researchers have found many effective interventions that can improve student's learning. However studies need to be done to improve the effectiveness of these interventions. Research has to be undertaken also to turn potential interventions into actual interventions. For example class morale is not an intervention per se. However when it is used it becomes an intervention to improve student's performance. Various research approaches are used to generate "improvement" research knowledge such as evaluation research, experimental research and action research.

Another approach for the improvement of education through inquiry has become popular in recent years. Cultural studies, a branch of critical theory, is a type of social science inquiry that investigates the power relationships in different members of a society in order to help them to deliberate from different forms of oppression. Researchers engaged in this type of inquiry should state their purpose not as improvement of education but as emancipation of some oppressed members of the educational system. A branch of historical research called revisionist theory also examines oppressive power relationships. These power relationships reflect some strong cultural and social forces that affect student learning.


The fourth type of research knowledge, explanation, is the most important one because it includes the three. Being able to explain a phenomenon researchers can describe it, predict its consequences and intervene to decrease or eliminate harmful consequences.

Researchers generally called theories the explanations about the phenomena being investigated. A theory is an explanation of a certain set of observed phenomena in terms of a system of constructs and laws that relate these constructs to each other. In other words a theory is a system that consists of a set of constructs and their relation to each other. For example, Piaget's explanation about intellectual development is a theory. Let's demonstrate it.

What phenomena does Piaget have to observe and explain? He has to observe and explain the behavior of infants and children with respect to their environment. For example Piaget observed how children of different ages responded to a particular task. The children's responses constitute a set of phenomena that Piaget has to explain by establishing a theory.

What are Piaget's theoretical constructs? First let's define a theoretical construct and its two types. A theoretical construct is a concept that is inferred from observed phenomena. It can be defined constitutively or operationally. A constitutively defined construct is one that is defined by referring to other constructs. For example Piaget's construct of conservation can be defined as the ability of an object to have some of its properties remain unchanged while other properties of the object (e.g., substance, length, volume) undergo a transformation. The notion of conservation is being defined here by referring to other constructs (e.g.,  property, transformation, or length).

An operationally defined construct is one that is defined by specifying the activities used to measure or manipulate it. For example the concept of conservation (constitutively defined above) can be defined operationally by referring to a particular task, for example, putting a constant amount of liquid into different-sized containers and then asking a child whether the amount of liquid remains the same.

Some researchers used the term variable in their investigation rather than construct. A variable is a quantitative expression of a construct. Variables are usually measured in terms of scores on an instrument of measure such as an achievement test or an attitude scale or in terms of categories of construct (e.g., public vs. private schools).

Let's continue about proving that the explanation of Piaget about child's development is a theory. Other constructs in Piaget's theory are the stages of intellectual development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations and formal operations.

What is the law that relates the stages of intellectual development? First, let's define a law. A law is a generalization about the causal, sequential, or other relationship between two or more constructs. "Piaget proposes the law that these constructs are related to each other as an invariant sequence: the sensorimotor stage is always followed by the preoperational stage; the preoperational stage is always followed by the concrete operations stage and the concrete operations stage is always followed by the formal operations stage".

Uses of theory

Theories serve several purposes. First they identify commonalities in isolated phenomena. For example Piaget identify the effects of sensorimotor intelligence on many infant behaviors. Theoretical constructs identify the universals of experience in order to make sense of that experience. Second the laws of a theory allow us to make prediction and to control phenomena. For example certain astronomic laws enable astronomers to make predictions about eclipses and other phenomena in the universe. The laws of a theory of learning allow special educators to make interventions that lead to positive changes in student behavior.

Approaches to theory development

The two main approaches of theory development are: grounded theory and scientific method. In grounded theory the constructs and laws are grounded in the set of data collected. In other words the constructs and laws dreved from the immediate set of data collected. The usefulness of constructs and laws are tested in a subsequent research.

The other approach is called scientific method. It consists by formulating a theory and then testing it by collecting data. The process unfolds in three steps.

1. One formulates a hypothesis
2. One makes deductions of observable consequences of the hypothesis.
3. One tests the hypothesis by collecting data.

Example of Theory testing

The three steps of theory testing are demonstrated in a study of self-attention theory led by Brian Mullen. This theory focuses on self-regulation processes that occur when an individual projects his attention on himself. Some manifestations of these processes are self-consciousness and embarrassment at work. One of the functions of self-theory is to explain the effects of groups on individuals. The theory states in part that when individuals are in groups they become more self-attentive as the size of the group decreases. This can be explained by the fact that when the size of the becomes smaller individuals can focus their attention more on themselves in relation to the group and therefore tend to follow the standards of the group.

The first step to test the validity of this theory is to formulate a hypothesis, which is a tentative proposition about the relationship between two or more theoretical constructs. "In Mullen's study, the hypothesis is that individuals would be more self-attentive in smaller groups than in larger groups" (Educational Research, an Introduction). The two theoretical constructs stated in the hypothesis are group size and self-attention. They are formulated in the hypothesis in inverse relation  to each other meaning that as group size decreases self-attention increases,

The second step in testing theory is to make deductions of observable consequences of the hypothesis. This process of deducting requires the existence of a real or simulated situation. In this perspective Mullen was able to obtain transcripts of 27 high school discussions of which size varies. Self-attention was operationally defined as the multiple uses of first person singular pronouns (I,me) by students when they talked in the discussion groups. The measure of group size was done by counting the number of students in each discussion group. Mullen was able to define and measure each construct stated in the hypothesis by using the available data.

The third step in testing a theory is to collect empirical data and determine whether they support or reject the hypothesis. Mullen counted the number of students and the number of first singular pronouns stated by the students in each discussion group using all the data available to him. Mullen uses the correlation method to show the relationship between the two sets of data obtained by counting the number of students and the number of pronouns. The result of the statistical analysis was: a higher frequency of first-person singular pronouns was encountered in the smaller groups than in the higher ones.

The hypothesis was supported by available data. Therefore that part of the theory corresponding to the is hypothesis is reinforced. This increases confidence that the theory provides a valid explanation on how people act in social situations.

Several weaknesses arise from the scientific method in spite of its power to test hypothesis.  "One of them is that the researcher may deduce inappropriate observable consequences from the hypothesis, and thus make an inappropriate testing of the hypothesis".

The other weakness is very difficult to overcome. "Any observable result potentially can support multiple, sometimes conflicting theories".  Therefore a researcher can never prove a theory but can only support it.           


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