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Educational Research in Practice, 1

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

I liked the introductory chapter 1 and want to share two criticisms.

p 3
... working [doing research] on the basis of inadequate or false assumptions could result in unnecessary difficulties, delays or even invalid outcomes. [bold mine]
The word "even" here is used to emphasize something surprising or extreme. But it wouldn't be surprising or extreme if one's false assumptions led to false outcomes for one's research. The passage would work better with "even" deleted.

p 3
What people do in the name of research is influenced by their assumptions about knowledge...
Our own assumptions about the growth of knowledge draw on the philosophy of Karl Popper...
The correct word is "ideas" not "assumptions". "Assumption" is a negative label suggesting lack of rational consideration. But our research can be influenced by our well-considered ideas -- which may still be mistaken -- rather than by assumptions. And Swann and Pratt's own views about Popper are not assumptions but things they've thought through.


The rest of this post is about chapter 2, "A Popperian approach to research on learning and method", which is by Swann.

p 11
Personal and broader social purposes sometimes conflict, as in the seemingly rare cases in which researchers falsify findings in order to further their reputation.
But is falsifying research an effective way to achieve personal success or fulfillment? Not at all. It's a terrible and ineffective approach. The approaches which actually work personally are also good more broadly -- there is no conflict.

Whether or not there are conflicts of this type is an important issue. If there are, they are insoluble problems because there are legitimate interests on both sides, and the meaning of conflict here is that both sides can't get what they want, so at least one side has to lose, and if someone loses that isn't a solution.

But all problems are soluble as explained in The Beginning of Infinity, and this is important to liberal political philosophy. If there must be winners and losers, that implies there will be force. There can't be a way to agree on who will be the losers because no one will agree to lose. Conflicts of interest means persuasion can't be a universal method of conflict resolution -- as liberalism wants it to be -- and therefore opens the door for the use of force.

(Force is something like the opposite of persuasion. And there isn't a neutral, middle ground, similar to how actions can't be partially voluntary.)

Further, the idea of such conflicts contradicts the idea of objective moral truth. Either there is a best thing to do -- which, being the truth, everyone can agree to and which is best for everyone -- or there isn't. To say there isn't an objective moral truth is basically to say that men must struggle for the outcome best for them and bad for others, and fight over who shall win. And that they have no way to resolve their differences by persuasion, because persuasion requires reference to one truth.

The very concept of criticism is about deviation from the truth. If there is no truth, there can be no criticism. If there are multiple truths best for different people, then why should you care if your ideas deviate from my truth? We'll each offer criticism with regard to the truth we care about, and we won't persuade each other.

So it's important to deny that there are any conflicts of interest, even in rare cases. People do sometimes believe there are conflicts of interest, and have conflicting ideas, but that is a mistake and they can get past it by learning better ideas. And if they do get past it, they will be better off and it won't hurt anyone.

A good source for persuasive arguments against the conflicts-of-interest idea is The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand (chapter 4). Another good philosopher on this topic is William Godwin (who, by the way, did educational philosophy around 1790 that is still ahead of its time today).

pp 14-15 has a good summary of part of Popper's epistemology. Two things I would add are discussion of explanations and that the majority of criticism of scientific theories is arguments not experiments. The approach of criticizing ideas with arguments does not set philosophy apart from science.


p 15 says the word "knowledge" in the education field is often used to mean "true belief". I found this comment a little odd. The usual description of the conventional view of knowledge -- by both its advocates and opponents -- is "justified, true belief". Why omit the "justified"? Do most educational philosophers drop it for some reason?


p 15 follows Popper in using the word "theory" to refer to all sorts of ideas (including things not always considered ideas such as "implicit assumptions and unstated expectations"). I think this is a mistake because the word "idea" is better suited to the task.

p 15-16 attributes the invention of the idea of induction to Francis Bacon. But Popper blames Aristotle and considers it a much older idea. Swann doesn't tell us why she differs from Popper here. I wonder if she's aware of his The World of Parmenides (see e.g. p 265) (there are a lot of Popper books in the bibliography, but not this one).

p 19
Central to understanding a Popperian account of learning is the recognition that learning is often - indeed, mostly - an unconscious activity, implicit in situations
I agree and want to add an example. When we have conversations we have to learn what ideas the other person is trying to communicate. There is no other way to know them but learning what they are. Like all learning, it must be done with trial and error, guesses and criticism, piecemeal refinement and improvement of ideas. We can't simply know what they are talking about, we must think and learn and figure it out.

But we aren't normally aware of all this. Most learning is an unconscious activity.


p 20
What distinguishes a learning organism from a non-learning organism is the ability of the former to acquire new expectations, that is, expectations which are not purely the outcome of genetic inheritance.
I think Swann overuses the concept "expectation". Not all learning is the creation of new expectations. Learning is about creating all types of new ideas, not all of which are expectations. Some are new perspectives on problems, others are new mathematical derivations, others are understanding of what a conversation partner is talking about. Expectations are an important type of idea but not the only important type.

I do not, however, think that Swann's criterion turns out to be wrong. Due to universality (see: The Beginning of Infinity), organisms either can use the method of guesses and criticism to create new ideas of all types, or can't. If it can create new expectations then it's using a universal method and could create other new ideas too. Because it's an all-or-nothing issue, looking at capability in one area turns out to reveal the whole answer.

Elliot Temple on March 24, 2012

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