“Educational research denialism”

According to McGlynn, denying the value of educational research is akin to rejecting climate change or evolution. But what warrants the comparison between educational research and science? According to what definition of “science” is educational research one of a kind with physics? In that it has a track-record of hundreds of years of undeniable success? Far from it. In that it has numbers in it, and something it calls “data”? It does indeed, but so does astrology. In that it is “peer-reviewed” academic “research” done by “experts” who “do this for a living”? If you think this is a guarantee of anything you are quite the fool, and if someone constantly needs to refer to phrases like this to justify their authority then you have every reason to be suspicious.

McGlynn’s example of a finding uncovered by educational research is that “after fifteen minutes, students start learning less in a lecture.” This is supposedly a scientific “fact,” because it is proved by experiment. I have not read the study cited, nor do I intend to, because the very notion of this being a “fact” is ridiculous. Everybody knows that it is easy to zone out after a while of trying to absorb new information, or after a while of listening to something we don’t find particularly interesting. What does this so-called “research” add to these obvious things known to everyone? Was this a mere “intuition” before educational “experts” turned it into a “fact” by publishing it in a “peer-reviewed” journal? Or is the great leap forward that “science” has proved that the drop happens precisely at the fifteen-minute mark? If not these absurd proposals then what? The truth is that, in this case as in so many others, educational “research” adds nothing of any value to common sense. Indeed, the majority of educational “research” is a baroque exercise in proving the obvious using pretentious methods.

This is McGlynn’s own example of an educational equivalent of climate change, but the differences between the two cases are innumerable. Which can be measured more objectively: temperature or quantity of learning? Which is more obvious to common sense: that people can get tired when listening to a lecture or that the global temperature of the earth is increasing? Which is the less problematic assumption: that it makes sense to study the global temperature of the earth, or that it makes sense to study the effect of a generic “lecture” on a generic student, as if “lecture” was a monolithic concept and all lectures were alike?

McGlynn gives a 1-10 list of standard arguments against educational research, most of which are perceptive and accurate. I would exclude 2, 9, and 10, but by and large I would subscribe to the rest with only minor modifications. The 15-minute example shows why 1, 3, and 5 are justified, and 4, 5, 7, and 8 summarise quite well my reasons for leaving a PhD program in mathematics education after having spent two years in this world.

Educational research is held in low regard by many, and rightly so. This is not “denialism” but rather a sound and balanced judgement of the value of the field. If educational researchers wish to convince us otherwise it will not be enough to bombastically repeat over and over how they are “experts” doing “science” and exhibiting as proof only naive formulations of obvious facts.