Disciplines of enquiry in education

Shulman, L, S. 1981. Disciplines of Enquiry in Education: An Overview. Educational Researcher, 10 (6), pp5-23

I spent too long mulling over these readings on curiosity, so here’s a more punchy approach to recording my thoughts on this one:

The article, digested into three key points:

  1. Education is not a discipline in itself, but a field of study that draws on rules of discovery and verification from a range of disciplines; e.g. anthropology, linguistics, psychology, genetics, various subdisciplines of sociology (e.g. demography, symbolic interaction), and philosophy.
  2. Different disciplines are interested in answering different types of question, and may assume different starting points i.e. what can be assumed to be true, or ‘taken as given’. A distinctive feature of philosophy, for example, is that it takes very little as given; practically anything may be up for question.
  3. Modern understandings of the aims of correlational and experimental research in the field of education are influenced by the Social Darwinism movement, which applied Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest principle to human ‘fitness’. Correlational research reveals how different variables ‘naturally’ relate to our respective ‘fitness’, while experimental research aims to identify the causality of fitness through intervention.

What here is most useful for me?
I found this a very matter-of-fact, but very open-minded overview of disciplines of inquiry. My favourite sentence: “some of the most excellent inquiry is free-ranging and speculative in its initial stages, trying what might seem to be bizarre combinations of ideas and procedures, or restlessly casting about for ideas.” (p6)

I found the link with Social Darwinism so very interesting in an explanatory/historical sense. Darwin’s conceptualisation of ‘fitness’ was inextricably linked to competition, which some might argue has no place in humanity; the morality we have developed around equality and caring for the weakest members of society counters ’natural’ competition and sets us apart from the animals! As a selfish teenager, fed up of disruptive, apathetic youths disrupting my state school education, I might have agreed with Galton’s Conservative Darwinist argument – that we need to study variations in human abilities and performance in order to focus resources on the brightest and best. Nowadays I am more aligned with Reform Darwinism – experimenting with methods of rendering more individuals more ‘fit’. However, my thesis project moves away from the Darwinian concept of ‘fitness’ altogether; it is not so much about the qualities of individuals, but about the role of the university in developing a more equal society. I wonder whether, therefore, I can call it educational research? I think it is more of a social experiment.

I have become increasingly thoughtful about how much I need to frame my thesis as educational research, and I found this paper reassuring. Shulman presents different viewpoints but highlights that, while they may be hotly debated, they may not actually contrast too starkly! He makes no value judgements but succeeds in not coming across as bland.

One of the key take-home messages for me was that, whatever research question I end up with, I am obviously trying to impact on the environment, and I’m clearly going to need highly subjective, qualitative methods. Therefore I need to ask myself – how do I ensure my findings are rigorous? That they are unquestionable? I still need to incorporate as much objectivity (checks, etc) as possible (I liked the Solow quote about conducting surgery in a sewer).

Another train of thought I should explore about my research is – given that enquiry is finding the regularities in apparent disorder, what regularities am I looking for?

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2 Responses to Disciplines of enquiry in education

  1. Dilly says:

    Interesting and thoughtful post. I’m wondering why you think it’s important for findings to be unquestionable, or to find regularities? How about exploring and expressing unanswerable questions and irregularities in fresh, generative ways? That’s the kind of research that lights my fire 🙂

  2. Thanks Dilly!

    Hmm… I felt I’d spent far too long chewing over these readings on enquiry and curiosity, and was trying to draw a line under them, hence a bit of shorthand – ‘I need to’ for ‘Shulman would suggest I need to…’

    Saying that, I do think Shulman has a point in both cases, otherwise I wouldn’t have made that note to myself. What was interesting about his paper was that it didn’t give away anything about his own epistemological standpoint, but spoke across a number of different perspectives in what I saw as neutral language. I think that universality has become lost in translation in my clunky notes, and words like ‘regularities’ and ‘unquestionable’ seem to indicate a certain kind of epistemology, whereas they didn’t when Shulman wrote them 🙂

    I think it’s great to do research that raises questions. I guess our ‘finding’ in that case is that ‘this raises an interesting question…’, and what should be ‘unquestionable’ is that the question is indeed interesting, relevant, etc.

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