APA Division 15


War: What Is It Good For?

Education can only profit when its researchers have truly open minds.

Posted Jan 14, 2015

Article by Dr. Paul A. Kirschner, professor of educational psychology and director of the Fostering Effective, Efficient and Enjoyable Learning (FEEEL) research program at the Welten Institute on the Open University of the Netherlands. Dr. Kirschner's core research interests are instructional design for complex learning and the social and cognitive aspects of collaborative learning. Those interested may follow Dr. Kirschner on Twitter (@P_A_Kirschner).

In her pre-presidential statement, Dr. Karen Harris (a self-described “theory junkie”) confesses her inability to stop studying theories, and even confides that she has never found a theory from which she couldn’t learn. This is echoed in the combination of the two themes for her presidency: to 1) “maintain and enrich the ways in which Educational Psychology enhances and impacts education from pre-K to gray” by 2) “set[ting] aside paradigm biases and reject[ing] false dichotomies…”.

We are entrenched in educational paradigm wars: constructivists with instructivists, proponents of traditional math with those pushing real/reform math, phonics people with ‘whole language’ people, and so forth. These wars adversely affect both education (i.e., learning and instruction) as well as the educational sciences as a whole. It’s time we beat our pens (or word processors) into ploughshares, and see education (and the sciences that try to describe and even predict it) as a true ecological system where different paradigms ‘work’ at different levels for different things.

Take the natural sciences, for example. In physics, researchers and engineers can not only live with both quantum theory and classical Newtonian physics, but thrive by studying, designing, and developing artifacts which make use of both. Why can’t we educational scientists, for instance, accept that young kids love sing-song repetition—anyone who has sung nursery rhymes to their children has experienced this—and thus teach the multiplication tables with classical drill and practice (behaviorism), understand that without proper schemas and schema automation that problem solving and argumentation are impossible (cognitivism), and accept that one can only sharpen one’s argumentation skills via argumentation with others (constructivism)? Only the best chefs study and embrace new tools and techniques to create perfect meals, and only the best educators study and embrace new methods to positively impact learning, instruction, and education as a whole.

Education is a complex ecology of learners, educators, and technologies/media in a dynamic (and often whimsical) environment. The goals of research in this ecology are the improvement of the quality of education, making contributions to the design and development of tools for education, and expansion of our knowledge and expertise in the field. To this end, research should describe any and all phenomena that can (and do) affect learning and teaching, explain those phenomena with emphasis on how they can be affected by the internal and external learning environment, and attempt to predict the effects of interventions in the learning and teaching process in a way that the interventions will lead to their evidence-informed implementation. This means that research should lead to the formulation and expansion of general and/or specific theories that are testable; that is, theories capable of (1) predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind though not yet observed, and (2) being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation. In other words, it leads to theories and models that can be empirically tested and that are falsifiable.

Taking an approach similar to Biggs’ Constructive Alignment (1999), constructive research alignment requires that the research question studied, the experimental method employed, the statistical techniques used, and the conclusions that the researcher can draw are aligned.

Although it seems simple, in every research situation there needs to be an alignment between the four relevant elements. And—as is the case with Biggs’s constructive alignment—it really doesn’t matter what question is being asked (from eye-movements while studying hypertext to the social effects of argumentation), what method is used (from small scale laboratory interventions to large scale observational studies), what statistical technique is applied (if any), and what conclusions are being drawn—as long as they are properly aligned! However, it must:

  • span the laboratory situation, small scale learning environments and ecologically valid educational settings;
  • integrate all of the components of the educational ecosystem; and
  • involve relevant stakeholders at all levels in the research process.

As Dr. Harris stated in her presidential message, we need to “set aside paradigm biases and reject false dichotomies in order to best understand the complexities of education and effectively conduct educational research.” In other words—and as I wrote in a recent article in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning—we in the educational sciences (including educational psychology, learning sciences, instructional design, etc.) need to stop turning our paradigms into paradogmas, lay down our rhetoric, and work together. Only then can we integrate all of the knowledge and the different perspectives that enrich our field (e.g., theories of brain, learning, cognition, collaboration, instructional design, technology, new media, networking, social behavior, regulation, etc.) to carry out theoretically sound scientific research of the complex, practice-relevant issues that make up the ecology of education.

In the immortal words of Lennon and Marx:

“War is over ... If you want it” - John Lennon

“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others” - Groucho Marx

This post is part of a special series contributed in response to Karen R. Harris’ Division 15 Presidential theme, “Impacting Education Pre-K to Gray.” President Harris has emphasized the importance of impacting education by maintaining and enriching the ways in which Educational Psychology research enhances and impacts education at all ages. Such impact depends upon treating competing viewpoints with thoughtfulness and respect, thus allowing collaborative, cross/interdisciplinary work that leverages what we know from different viewpoints. She has also argued that we need to set aside paradigm biases and reject false dichotomies as we review research for publication or funding, develop the next generation of researchers, support early career researchers, and work with each other and the larger field.

Kirschner, P. A. (2014). When a paradigm becomes a paradogma. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, 297-299. doi: 10.1111/jcal.12074

Photo: "Schwerter zu Pflugscharen - Bronze - Jewgeni Wutschetitsch - Geschenk der Sowjetunion an die UNO - 1959" by Neptuul - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons