What are the four main paradigms in Educational Research?

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This is a summary of the four main paradigms that exist within education research that you can think in reflecting upon your own teaching practice.

Each paradigm is connected with their own views on how learners learn (or should learn) and how teacher should teach (or should teach).

This is about taking a step back and taking an outside view on your own assumptions as a teacher, and how you think you can become a more effective teacher. Take a look below:

1. Positivism: (realist ontology, objective epistemology)

– Positivism has taken experimental physics as its model in trying to track down casual relationships in the social world. Positivism attempts to look at what influence intervention y has on effect x, and so takes a lot of quantitative data in order to run statistical tests to find the casual relationship.

This is a summary of the four main paradigms that exist within education research that you can think in reflecting upon your own teaching practice.

Each paradigm is connected with their own views on how learners learn (or should learn) and how teacher should teach (or should teach).

This is about taking a step back and taking an outside view on your own assumptions as a teacher, and how you think you can become a more effective teacher. Take a look below:

1. Positivism: (realist ontology, objective epistemology)

– Positivism has taken experimental physics as its model in trying to track down casual relationships in the social world. Positivism attempts to look at what influence intervention y has on effect x, and so takes a lot of quantitative data in order to run statistical tests to find the casual relationship.

– This means that positivism assumes that there is an external and objective reality out there (ontology); and in attempting to find casual relationships among broad slabs of people it reduces people to variables. (I have thought that this meant that positivists don’t care about the individual, in the sense that even if individual A and individual B were switched in the positivists’ equations nothing would change, as long as they had the same variable (e.g. IQ). But I think now that positivists do know that individuals do matter (but not in the same way as interpretivists), because they use the experimental model (with control groups) in order to cancel out the effects of individuals on their dependent variable, and to single out the intervention (the independent variable) they are attempting to research.)
– Anyway, this relates to the epistemology of positivists in the sense that they believe that what you see (empirically, with the five senses) stays the same across different contexts – which kind of makes sense, but not really if you read my questions above. Because they assume things remain the same across different contexts and they gather quantitative data, it means they attempt to generalise their findings across different contexts. This must mean that positivists think they can pluck out some kind of data (variables) from people, e.g. IQ or attitudes using things like large scale surveys, and assume that if the data that was plucked out from different people is the same then the two people are also the same (even though people who produce the same answers can have very different life histories, etc. and even different reasons or explanations why they choose that answer).

– Looking at the above, that must also mean that positivists believe that learners are passive (they have no agency) because even if two people do different things but still produce the same results in a survey it means that they are the same in the view of positivists (because if the answer is the same, it means that the variables that positivists look at in their casual relationships are the same).

2. Interpretivism: (relativist ontology, subjective epistemology)

– Interpretivists have argued against positivists because they believe in the social character of the social world. There can’t be a logical process of just plucking out the empirical data from the external world ‘out there’, because in that process people interpret the data (and also different non-physical concepts, e.g. intelligence?) in different ways before information from our five sense can become empirical data. So interpretivists reject the conception of cause as mechanical, the assumption of uniformity in nature, and rejected the use of linear casual models.

– So in rejecting the positivists assumptions, ontologically, interpretivists don’t believe there is a single, external world ‘out there’ but believe that reality is multiple and relative, and that these multiple realities are held within the interpretations of different people (the learners or subjects of their study).

– Thus, epistemologically, interpretivists don’t think that the multiple and subjective realities they are trying to understand can be understood so easily by quantitative data. Instead, interpretivists look at qualitiative data because in order to understand the multiple, subjective realities they need to look at people’s interpretations of the world, that is, people’s perceived knowledge of the world (and not some kind of external constructs that are brought out from people). In other words, the object that interpretivists are looking at in their research are the interpretations or subjective experiences of different people about the world.

– This means that interpretivists look at the specific context in-depth using case studies etc. and don’t assume that their results can be generalised across different contexts. Whereas, positivists look at the broad context taking in vast amounts of empirical data and assume their results can be generalised across different contexts because the data they have taken from the external world is assumed to be the same despite different individuals.

3. ‘Critical’ Studies:

– Whereas positivism and interpretivism look what happens only “within the school”, ‘critical’ studies takes a broader view and attempts to look how the school as an institution works within the social context, and how the social context affects what happens in the school. That is linked to needing science or research to be located within ‘grand’ theories – those theories that included the social context and individuals and how they related to each other.

– ‘Critical’ studies were influenced by marxism, feminism, etc. and assumes that there is (social?) bias in research, and that every action is political. That is, research by positivists and interpretivists were assumed to be biased in that they were usually undertaken by/for certain types of people (normally male, white, rich) with certain kinds of biases that produced certain kinds of results, and because these research results were a political act it had certain effects on people that were not included in the research agenda (e.g. the ‘powerless’? – normally, female, non-white, poor). Those that had power were unaware of their biases and so the research agenda perpetuated social wrongs that needed to be righted by… ‘critical’ research. So ‘critical’ research was the kind of research that had a political aim (to restore the balance of power – to give a voice to the powerless; or to look at the unfair conditions of the powerless).

4. Constructionism:

cognitive constructivism (realist ontology + subjective epistemology),
or radical constructivism (relative ontology + subjective epistemology),
or social constructivism (relative ontology + subjective epistemology)
– Ontologically, constructionism can be related closely with interpretivism assuming that there is no single, external, objective reality, but instead multiple, subjective realities (-> radical constructivism); some constructivists also assume that there is still a an external world out there (the readings don’t actually say which constructivists these are….I think it’s cognitive constructivists because they believe that learners make internal mental representations of an external world; but that the world is not objective..).

– Whereas positivists assume that the learner is passive (not agentive), and interpretivists assume that learners interpret their world and it is these interpretations that are important, constructivists make a point to say that learners are agentive (have a will and are co-constructors in the building of knowledge). So, I think the key difference between other paradigms and constructivists is that other paradigms don’t assume that the learners have agency (although interpretivism does assume that learners interpret their world so the individual may have an impact on their world – because their interpretation is what is essentially their world in the first place; I’m not sure if this necessarily means they are agentive or passive..but probably agentive?). Anyway, constructivists talk about the interaction between the learner and the environment as being important in the construction of knowledge, whereas positivists just assume that learners learn with no agency (passively – learners don’t have any impact on how they learn; instead it is how the teacher teaches that influences the learning that takes place) and interpretivists assume the learner is agentive in the sense that the learner can interpret in whatever way they want according to their personal histories, biases, etc. Constructivists in contrast, assume learners are agentive and they can shape how and what they learn.
– I think for point above; first cognitive constructivism comes as a critique of the behaviourist school in psychology. The behaviourist school in psychology believed that am environmental stimuli would generate a reactive (i.e. not agentive) action in subjects. Think ringing a bell which makes a dog salivate at the mouth. For schools, this would relate to how rewards and punishments are used to control children’s actions (or more rather, how a teacher teaches impacts how children learn). So, cognitive constructivism came along and said, no, learners also co-construct knowledge through interaction with teachers (I think this idea first came from children’s interactions with their parents (vygotsky’s theories), then an attempt was made to push this theory into schools and classrooms (scaffolding, zone of proximal development, etc.)).

Anyway, the point is learners are agentive, co-constructors of knowledge and not just passive receivers of knowledge from an expert. The difference between the different constructivisms is how they believe learners co-create the knowledge (i.e. how learners and teacher both create shared knowledge) and what factors are important in the construction of that knowledge.

Cognitive constructivism:

– This comes from Piaget’s genetic epistemology, in saying that learners make (internal) mental representations of the external world and in doing so learners are adapting to their external environment.
– So, learners are agentive because in the process of learning they are taking in (or internalising) the external world by their own actions, going out and exploring what the world is.
– Learners undertake a progressive cognitive development by making more complex representations of the external world as they grow up or as they go out and test the world with their own actions (e.g. babies putting stuff in their mouth, or peekaboo).
-> Seymour Papert then came along and took Piaget’s ideas from developmental psychology and interpreted them to educational learning which he called constructionism – and based on that Papert said students should learn through ‘discovery learning’ (where a rich learning environment is seen as essential, rather than direct tuition by a teacher).

-> Children are seen as active in constructing their understanding of the world from an initial set of innate behaviours.

Social Constructivism:

– Piaget’s ideas were criticised because of Donaldson (1978)’s research into Piaget’s stage theory of development. Donaldson found that some children were able to perform at levels higher than those predicted by Piaget theory if certain conditions were met; these conditions were having a social or cultural reason for (for example, changing a beaker in one of Piaget’s experimental tests – the one about conservation of liquids).

– So then Lev Vygotsky came along and argued that children’s cognitive skills begin by social interactions between a child and a more able other (e.g. parent/teacher). Because Piaget’s ideas were critiqued by saying that Piaget neglected the social and cultural context in which learning occurs; then Vygotsky’s theories began to emphasise the social and cultural context in which agentive learning takes place (so, there is social constructivism).

– Thus, the key difference between cognitive constructivism and social constructivism is that although both assume an agentive role for the learner (rather than passive as some other paradigms do) is that cognitive constructivism looks at how learners internalise the external world through making internal mental representations of the external world (but neglects the social and cultural context where this internalising takes place); social constructivism emphasises the social interaction that takes place between learners and more-able experts (?) and argues that this social and cultural context is also important for how learners learn and teachers teach. (thus the ideas of scaffolding, zone of proximal development, and cultural tools (e.g. language) etc.).
– And so Wood comes along and takes Vygotsky’s ideas and talks about scaffolding and level’s of control (contigent interaction).
-> Cognitive development takes place within a social context and is supported by it.

Socio-Cultural theorising:

– constructivists consider the individual (cognitive constructivists: the learner has agency and internalises the external world; social constructivists look at the individuals of both the learner and teacher/expert and the interaction between them); but socio-cultural theory puts the emphasis on the institutional context in which this social interaction is happening between the learner and teacher/expert.

– Therefore, there is talk of the community/institutional plane of analysis (what happens in the institution and how it impacts learners/teachers) as well as the interpersonal plane (social interaction) and intrapersonal plane (what happens within the individual, e.g. internalisation/adpation to environment).



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