Voices in Education

Binding Education Science to the Practice of Teaching
I can't remember when people first started talking about “what works.” Was it 15 years ago? Whenever it was, it’s probably time to reconsider our espousal of this enticing idea.

If I am looking for a new vacuum cleaner, I am certainly going to be interested in what works. And I’ll be guided by the consumer association assessments of different products’ efficiency and reliability.

If, however, I am thinking of purchasing something more significant than a vacuum cleaner—such as a car—I’ll be interested in more than simply knowing what works. I’ll be interested in how the car looks, how much it can carry, how comfortable it is, how much fuel it consumes, its impact on the environment, and much more. All of these considerations will make my decision not simply a matter of what works, but also a determination of what works for me.

In yet more important situations, such as friendship, the notion of what works becomes even more questionable. I don’t actively go about choosing who “works.” Friendships live and grow. It’s not as if I can select my friends from a group of people somewhere who would “work.”

Teaching is a bit like this. We grow into the teachers we are, and we cultivate the teaching personalities that suit us. Something that works for me may not work for you. It seems to me that this individuality really marks the landscape of our inquiry in education.

In examining our work—in researching it and analyzing it—I think that we have lost sight of this. There has been a lot of talk recently of a “scientific” approach to education research. Science is wonderful and I’m all for it. But the science being promoted reflects a folk view of science: big datasets, lots of clever formulae, and certainty. Surely science isn’t necessarily like that. The methods of science are flexible enough to answer the questions posed in any given field: there is no overarching scientific method.

A science of education inquiry should reflect the reality of the education endeavor, binding itself intimately with practice and enabling reflection on individual methods. Our shared understandings of such practice lie at the heart of our inquiry, and we should strive to forge a new science of education based on these understandings.

This blog post continues the conversation from the
Harvard Educational Review article “Changing Our Landscape of Inquiry for a New Science of Education.”

About the Author: Gary Thomas is a professor at the University of Birmingham, UK, where he recently completed a term as head of the School of Education.  He is a contributor to the Spring 2012 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.