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Educational Research in Practice, 4

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

Chapter 3 is by a postmodernist, Elizabeth Atkinson. I chose not to read it. I did take a look at the start where she states the main points of what she means by postmodernism that she advocates. Here's what it's like:

p 35 opposes and scare quotes "certainty" and presents postmodernism as a voice of dissent against too much certainty. It also says the author does work to do with "social justice".

p 36 has a list summarizing postmodernist ideas. Here is the complete list:


  • resistance towards certainty and resolution
  • rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge or method
  • acceptance of complexity, lack of clarity, and multiplicity
  • acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony
  • irrevernce for traditions of philosophy or morality
  • deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions
  • refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking
  • disruption of binaries which define things as either/or
So if you were wondering how postmodernists see themselves, now you know.

While I appreciate the goal of criticism, I disagree with their values like: lack of clarity, not resolving issues, ambiguity ("multiplicity"), rejection of philosophy, and rejection of values (disrepect for morality). And I do not think unclear criticisms that don't resolve any issues are valuable, so I don't think that really leaves anything to like.



Chapter 4, by John Pratt, says on p 54
A Popperian approach has an important benefit for research into policy. Policy is concerned with doing things. In policy, it is important to do the right things. Policy-makers need to choose policies that are likely to be successful. Merely to experiment is dangerous, and, in this context, even immoral.
If one wishes to take a Popperian approach, first one must understand Popper's epistemology. But Pratt does not. This passage says to act on probabilistically-justified ideas rather than unjustified conjectures. It says it's dangerous to act on ideas without enough epistemic status, and that epistemic status is a matter of probability.

But Popper is the philosophy that taught us epistemic status and justification are mistakes. And that we are fallible and do not know how good our ideas are. We can't justify our ideas as true, nor as probable. And we don't need to in order to act.

The Popperian method is to act on ideas that survive criticism, not ideas that are "likely to be successful". Popper repeatedly emphasized that surviving criticism does not make ideas likely to be successful.

Lack of understanding of Popper by self-declared Popperians -- even ones who do understand a fair amount -- is common. Here's Swann, earlier on p 30
Recognize that although it might feel good to find evidence that supports an idea, the discovery of such evidence plays no direct role in learning.
One can see here an intention and attempt to be Popperian. But this statement assumes, contrary to Popper, that there is such thing as evidence that supports ideas. Popper refuted the concept of epistemic support.

Back to Pratt, he continues not to be a Popperian, e.g. p 55, immediately after quoting Popper we're told:
...we should have some grounds for believing that the outcomes of policy will be what we hope...
This is seeking "grounds" or in other words foundations or support for one's ideas. That's just the sort of thing Popper primarily criticized and rejected. E.g. Popper's comments about science being built on a swamp in LScD, with no solid ground underneath.

p 55 also arrogantly claims that "I and others ... have gone beyond Popper..." Don't you need to catch up to Popper first? Otherwise you're not going past him but simply in a different direction.


If you want to be a Popperian, that's great, but please study Popper adequately first. What's the point otherwise? Popper has valuable ideas to teach, but only if one makes the effort to learn them.

I realize that people can understand parts of Popper, and benefit from this partial understanding. Pratt learned something from Popper about a problem-centric approach to life. That's good. But people ought to pay more attention to the limits of their knowledge. Knowing about one's ignorance gives one the option to do something about it. If one wants to be a Popperian, then it's important to be self-critical about how well one understands Popper or one will never achieve his goal.


Popper's most important idea, and largest contribution, was his non-justificationist epistemology. This challenges and corrects many of the assumptions of virtually everyone. Philosophers would do well to take note.



Chapter 5 is by a Hegel quoting Marxist who thinks discussion between Marxists, neo-Marxists and postmodernists will be fruitful. No further comment.



Chapter 6 makes no mention of Popper. It is in favor of science having a role in educational research. It ends on pp 95-96 with a list of "Key points we wish to convey to new researchers":


  • Develop a solid understanding of critical meta-theoretical issues in the philosophy of science.
  • Do not adopt a radical postmodernist view of science.
  • Reject the incompatibility thesis.
  • Understand that scientific research can involve either quantitative or qualitative data (or both).
  • Learn how to develop a clearly defined research question that stems from a well-developed theoretical framework.
  • Always let the research question dictate the research methodology, not the other way round.
  • Follow Quine and Ullian's dictum that 'whatever there is to be said can, through perseverance, be said clearly
  • Avoid naive, retrograde empiricism (that is, hypotheses without theory)
  • Learn the basics of research design and statistics, even if only to understand the published research of others.
  • Realize that educational research is more than just telling stories or analyzing discourses.
Pretty basic and agreeable.




Chapter 7 starts out by saying Western ideas are biased and hinting they are bad. It talks about the Maori a bunch and doesn't mention Popper. No further comment.


Chapter 8, p 119
In place of the scientific generalization, which states what is, I have introduced the idea of a fuzzy generalization, which states what may be. With this perspective it is possible to generalize (in fuzzy terms) from a single case.
So it's like induction but with more making up whatever you want without any pattern, and even less clarity. This guy would do well to study Popper.

Elliot Temple on April 9, 2012

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