Daniel Willingham on the difference between education research and ‘hard’ sciences

Recently, I came across an interesting blog post by Daniel Willingham discussing an article by American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman. In his article Wieman compares the rigor of ‘hard’ science with education science. Quite surprising maybe for some of us, Wieman argues that education research shares many properties with the hard sciences, including predictive power.

To many people outside research, education science is not ‘real’ science. Education researchers cannot apply the same ‘objective’ analytical tools that are commonly applied in ‘hard’ sciences such as physics. It is also argued that classrooms are infinitely more ‘messy’ than the clean laboratories, which atomic physicist Carl Wieman is used to.

However, as Willingham argues in his post, the differences do not amount to all that much:

Wieman begins by making clear what he takes to be the outcome of good science: predictive power. Can you use the results of your research to predict with some accuracy what will happen in a new situation? A common mistake is to believe that in education one ought to be able to predict outcomes for individual students; not necessarily so, any more than a physicist must be able to predict the behavior of each atom. Prediction in aggregate — a liter of gas or a school of children — is still an advance.

Well-performed experiments can be just as rigorous in education science as in physics or chemistry. Cutting edge research can be just as messy in physics as in education, because when you step on to new ground, “you don’t have a very good idea of which variables are important in gaining the predictive power that characterizes good science.”

Yet, we must be aware of the important differences between the natural and the social sciences, says Ziyad Marar in a contribution to Guardian Professional:

A social scientific scrutiny of the human, rather than natural, world doesn’t easily lend itself to generalisable laws, cast-iron predictions, nor can it always preserve a distinction between fact and value. Defenders of social science need to say that, and to argue that careful, theoretically and methodologically rigorous exploration of these subjects are fundamental to a healthy society even if finding unarguable evidence is extremely difficult.

The comments to Willingham’s post give similar arguments.

And so, for educators, it remains important to be critical when following the scientific literature, and therefore the motto of this blog collective holds:

“We aim to verify the results of education research against our daily teaching practice and to exchange experiences of what works and does not work in the classroom. We want to be informed by research, not led.”

Wieman, C. E. (2014). The similarities between research in education and research in the hard sciences. Educational Researcher, 43, 12-14.

Abstract of Wieman’s paper

In this commentary, the author argues that there is a considerable degree of similarity between research in the hard sciences and education and that this provides a useful lens for thinking about what constitutes “rigorous” and “scientific” education research. He suggests that the fundamental property of hard science research is its predictive power, a property that can equally be applied to large- and small-scale and quantitative and qualitative research in education. Although variables may differ and methods of collection may not be the same, researchers do their best to measure and/or control those variables that matter, and design experiments and subsequent tests to ensure that those that can neither be measured nor fully controlled are unlikely to change the results in significant ways. He concludes that although fields like physics or chemistry are mature sciences, the “cutting-edge” work in these fields is often “messy,” as researchers struggle to determine which variables are important. He suggests that education research often resembles the patterns seen in cutting-edge research in the “hard” sciences, as researchers are struggling to identify variables that are important to the problem.

Read more here.

Thanks to Dan Willingham for permission to cite parts of this blog, which also appeared in RealClearEducation under the title “People Aren’t Stupid; Science Is Just Hard — Why We’re Wrong to Quickly Dismiss Ed Research”.

About Dan Willingham

Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, and Raising Kids Who Read (forthcoming). His writing on education has appeared in thirteen languages.

About Dick van der Wateren

Ik sta voor de klas op het Eerste Christelijk Lyceum in Haarlem en begeleid dagelijks talentvolle en begaafde leerlingen die meer uitdaging nodig hebben, of coach leerlingen die een probleem hebben waar we samen een oplossing voor vinden. Daarnaast ontwikkel ik digitaal lesmateriaal en video's voor Flip de Klas. Buiten het onderwijs heb ik een jarenlange ervaring als aardwetenschapper (o.a. in Antarctica en Afrika) en wetenschapsvoorlichter. Werken met jongeren is mijn passie. Voor mij zijn pubers zo'n beetje de leukste mensen. Ze hebben een enorme levenslust, zijn creatief, hebben originele ideeën - soms op het bizarre af - en kunnen zich nog alle kanten op ontwikkelen. Ik beschouw het als een voorrecht aan die ontwikkeling te kunnen bijdragen.

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