"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Quality Education Research

Research productivity in education and psychology in the Philippines is dismal. A previous post in this blog highlights the fact that in the past forty years, the Philippines has managed to produce only 214 papers (75 in education and 139 in psychology). On the other hand, the National University of Singapore produced 430 papers during the same time period. Of course, writing and publishing papers is only the first step. An equally important issue is quality. There is indeed a long way to go. What is surprising is the number of "so-called experts" in education in the Philippines. One must therefore wonder.

The journal Educational Researcher has devoted an issue to a discussion of quality in education research:

The issue contains commentaries from five scholars. Surprisingly, the focus of these opinions is on science and how the education field can learn from the sciences. In a way, it answers why a chemist like me seems to be preoccupied with issues and challenges plaguing basic education. Physics Nobel laureate Carl E. Wieman is among those who provided an article in this special issue. In his article, The Similarities between Research in Education an Research in the Hard Sciences, Wieman writes:
"...The way research goes bad is also quite similar between the hard sciences and education. Here, by “bad research,” I mean that which provides incorrect or useless predictions. The serious errors in hard science research occur when important variables are overlooked, and this is also true in education research. Usually these variables are overlooked for the same reasons in all fields; the researcher is just sloppy, or more often, the researcher is failing to adequately address his or her inherent biases. Every researcher in every field has a result he or she wants to see and a belief as to what does and does not matter. In all types of research, it is essential to recognize these inherent biases and to have tests and procedures to prevent those biases from unduly influencing the results and conclusions..."
Carl E. Wieman (Photo taken from Nobelprize.org)
An important part of publishing in science is peer review. It is through this mechanism that such tests and procedures that prevent biases really work. Peer review requires submission of one's work to the scrutiny and closer examination of experts or even competitors. Wieman also notes that presently, education research may lie closer to research in biology:
...Although there is descriptive, hypothesis-generating research/observations carried out in all fields, in fields like physics or chemistry, such work is seldom considered publishable until it is followed up by quantitative controlled experiments, typically with proposed mechanisms and explanations. Many areas of both biology and education research are similar to where many areas of chemistry and physics were 100 to 150 years ago, in that descriptive observations that generate new hypotheses for basic models of phenomena are recognized as valuable and necessary and hence publishable as a stand-alone results."
It is useful to keep the above in mind when one reads a research article on education. A hundred years ago, there were not that many journals in either chemistry or physics. Right now, there are just so many, even in the fields of education and psychology. It is therefore difficult to spot diamonds in the rough.

In my own reading of papers on education, it seems that the field is still at a stage of collecting good data. Education is still trying to figure out what is basically going on. Identifying the problems is of course the first step in solving the problem. Unfortunately, this may seem less interesting. Seemingly new ideas or approaches tend to attract more attention. Who wants to listen to a laundry list anyway? But we must stay grounded. It is important to know what we are confronting before we can even suggest solutions.

In this special issue of Educational Research, there is a research article that perhaps, for some people, is telling the same old story. Poverty affects education. Maternal educational attainment influences education. The article "An Investigation of the Relations Between School Concentrations of Student Risk Factors and Student Educational Well-Being" takes this discussion to a higher level. This paper not only looks at how students with such risk factors perform in school, but also how the classmates of such students perform. Children who are neither experiencing poverty nor poor parental influence also perform poorly if they are placed in a classroom where the majority of students are challenged. This maybe old news, but it still is very important. It highlights how factors outside school have so much of an effect on learning. In this case, such factors do not even exist in a child's home - It is simply the environment that is created when disadvantaged children are placed together in one school.

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