Saturday, March 24, 2012

Action pseudo-research

My district's recent incursions into action research have been interesting. I have the extreme fortune of sharing my prep room with a retired bench research scientist, published in multiple peer-reviewed science journals. We are tackling a specific method of inquiry, but quickly realized getting any reasonable data will require far bigger numbers than we will likely generate in our classes.

Our administration responded reasonably, explaining that the process of looking at data generated in our classrooms will encourage teachers to look critically at specific classroom practices. No one is pretending that will will develop statistically significant findings (p <0.05).

In education, a field where Marzano's and Gardner's "research" cause real (and possibly destructive) changes in the classroom, the lack of concern for the validity of the studies used to measure effective outcomes scares the crap out of me. Charismatic personalities trample over available evidence.

On Twitter I stumbled onto a group of ed folks setting up an action research project. At least one university professor was involved, someone I've met, so I figured I'd jump in on the open invitation.

I wondered aloud about how we might generate statistical significance from our work; to be fair I wasn't clear if that was even the goal. I was told that my medical background imposed a biased logical positivistic view, one too narrow for endeavors such as this one, and that I need consider other ways of viewing the world, including "intentional observation," which is, ironically, exactly how science works.

Experiment is in fact intelligent and intentional observation.
Robert Boyle, Epoch Men, 1868

(I also happened to major in philosophy, leaving Michigan with a B.S. in philosophy back in 1982--logical positivism was declared dead back in the 1970's. *sigh*)

Medicine and education have scary parallels. Medicine only recently advanced beyond the snake oil stage, with doctors kicking and screaming every step of the way.

Docs like to treat things. Patients like to be treated. Docs like to get paid. Patients are not quite as happy to pay. Our motto is primum non nocere--"Above all, do no harm"--which is a whole lot different than "Make them better!"

Snake oil is (mostly) harmless for self-limited illnesses, it makes patients feel like they're getting something, and docs make money. You don't need antibiotics for the vast majority of cases of sinusitis. Most docs will prescribe it anyway.

Medicine started looking at itself back in the 1970s, around the same time logical positivism was declared dead by professional philosophers. I was in medical school when evidence-based medicine starting taking a hold, and it was both liberating and frightening--most of what we did we did because, well, that's the way it's always been done. Sound familiar?

Education also finds snake oil useful--and it is for those selling it. Lots of folks make lots of money selling snake oil.

But in education, snake oil is harmful. A child's education is not a self-limited illness.We need to pay more attention to what we know through our research than we know "in our hearts." We need to pay particular attention to the folks who hide behind pseudo-research, tossing out fluorescent graphs, cooked numbers, and charismatic smiles.

I'd be glad to participate in some research. Medicine abandoned leeches not so long ago. It's time we pushed some leeches out of education.

Photo of leeches from LiveScience


John T. Spencer said...

Logical positivism was making a comeback when I majored in philosophy in the late 90's - as a sort of antidote to the cyclical loop of postmodern deconstructivism.

I'm way too classical, vintage, spiritual, whatever to place my bearings on any one of those camps. But I reveled in the nuance and the questions asked. I was struck by Plato and the fact that he could be a Logical Positivist, damn-near Witgensteinian in his view of language, pragmatist, idealist, postmodern in his questioning.

I switched my major at that point, finding myself in love with narratives and the voices of the past - history and lit.

Maybe I should have just called it Humanities.

John T. Spencer said...

One more thought:

I get into a lot of trouble with research. I ask people who invoke it (like a Bible) to explain it. I want to know the context. I want to know the methodology. I want to know the variables. I want to know if they are properly distinguishing between causal relationships and correlations. I want to apply Geertz's notion of thick description to the bias of those who collect and analyze the data.

As a result, I am known as the guy who "doesn't believe in data." And they're right. It's not a belief. It's a rejection or acceptance. I hold research at a high enough standard that I don't easily accept the counterfeits.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I liked your comments so much I threw them on the latest post.

As always, thank you for your insight!