Understanding Educational Research (For Teachers, Decision-Makers And Parents

Making Sense Of Educational Research Not A Simple Task

We always want to make decisions about how children or taught, or the best was to improve education based on the best available knowledge. To that end, we try to inform ourselves by looking at educational research, and "trust" it to guide our decisions. That makes sense.

But it's not that simple. Scientific research, and particularly research in the social sciences is not always easy to interpret, and it's even harder to use it to make instructional decisions. In this series, we'll try to help you understand what research CAN tell us, and what it often doesn't tell us about education. We'll look at basic principles of research, how research is published, how bias gets introduced, and look at the ways that most of us "read" research. We'll try to draw implications for practice.

Research Is NOT About Finding The Truth

It seems counter-intuitive that research in any field isn't at all about finding out the "truth" of an issue. In fact, the purpose of science in general is first to publish research that will stimulate other researchers to do more research. The notion is that by stimulating more and more research, we WILL become better at getting closer to the truth, but in the Philosophy of Science, that's not the goal.

This is important because it means that we approximate the truth through many many studies of essentially the same thing. It's not about the results of any ONE study, but the results of an ongoing collection of studies that come at the same issue in both similar and different ways.

So, when you read one study, or two, in essence they mean nothing. In order to improve educational practice, one must look at many many studies before drawing any conclusions.

The problem for practitioners is that there can be thousands of studies, on let's say, how learning styles work in a classroom, and practitioners don't have the time, and often the expertise to examine this overwhelming volume, and draw their own conclusions. So, we tend to take the word of "experts" who we believe WILL look at the totality of the research, and tell us what the research says.

Scientific Research Is Never Unbiased

There's a misconception that research is free of bias, and nothing could be further from the truth. There are mechanisms in place to make research as objective as possible, but wherever there are humans involved, bias exists. For example, the research questions that research pose, and examine, are often biased. Humans DO have a tendency to hope that the research comes out a certain way, and are influenced, either intentionally, but more often unintentionally by their own biases.

As you'll see later, not only do researchers have biases they might be unaware of, but journals that publish research have their own built in biases.

Implications So Far On Educational Research

No one study can be conclusive, or stand on its own to inform teaching practice. You have to look at a lot of research on a topic. The more you look at research in a field, the more you'll realize that there's almost nothing in the social sciences that can end up with a conclusive result: That is, if we do this, we'll get that. Often that's because in social sciences, the answer to many research questions is: It depends. Humans are complex.

Biases are always there. Often it's unintentional, but that's another reason we have to look at studies on the same problem that come from different researchers, with different perspectives, and published in different journals. The idea is that the more diverse the research collection, the less likely any ONE bias will contaminate our conclusions.

In Part 2 of the series, we'll look at how most of us find out about research, and where educational research gets published, because that should affect how we interpret the results.