Engaging with educational research: View as single page (2022)


Printable page generated Friday, 25 Nov 2022, 01:21
Use 'Print preview' to check the number of pages and printer settings.
Print functionality varies between browsers.

Unless otherwise stated, copyright © 2022 The Open University, all rights reserved.
Printable page generated Friday, 25 Nov 2022, 01:21

◀︎Engaging with educational research


‘Doing research’ is a process but it is a malleable one that can be reworked and revised along the way. It must start with a problem which raises questions, but these can be revised and refined, even discarded as any process of research or investigation is complex and any one stage will expose further questions and require further decisions as it progresses. Each stage of the research depends on decisions made in the previous stage: the process is cumulative.

In this free course, Engaging with educational research, you are going to build your understanding of how to evaluate research by thinking about a fundamental part of the research process – research perspectives and approaches. Learning about some of the different ways of researching situations concerned with teaching and learning and the different theoretical tools used in the research process, will enable you to begin to interrogate research literature and address your own research questions. The way research is conceptualised informs the decision about the approach to the research process. In this course we examine two distinct and influential ways in which people have in the past, and continue in the present, to think about and study the complex phenomenon of learning, and the practices and structures which support it. These two examples introduce you to the concept of research paradigms and a framework for thinking about the beliefs and theories about learners, learning and what it is to know, that lie behind researchers’ questions and choices about what to pay attention to and how to do this.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of postgraduate level study in Education.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand what a research paradigm is and how paradigms are distinguished from each other by the beliefs and theoretical perspectives drawn on

  • understand how a choice of research paradigm and associated methodology relates to how a research problem is conceptualised

  • understand how different paradigmatic and methodological positions have led over time to different views about what counts as evidence and, as a consequence, what is judged to be valuable educational research.

1The meaning of theory

How research is reported and how the process is enacted demonstrates many of the tools specific to doing research in an educational community. In this course we adopt a broad understanding of tools that goes beyond the physical that we apply to natural objects and includes the psychological and semiotic that we apply to ideas and concepts. Tools, in this broad view, enable us to engage in certain activities in certain ways – they are the mediational means with which people act. The choice and use of tools shape the activity. The activity we are interested in is educational enquiry and the specific tools we focus on here are the theories that researchers draw on.

This issue about the nature and role of ‘theory’ has been at the heart of much debate over educational practice and the contribution that research can make to it. A research question emerges from, and/or is positioned within, the way in which the researcher sees the world – that is, the set of beliefs and concepts that inform the research. The intention in this course is for you to start to explore what such stances or perspectives mean for how research is conducted. But first let us consider what we understand a theory to be.

Activity 1 Thinking about theory

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

  • When you think about engaging with theory what comes to mind? Does it make you groan, smile or something in between? If so, why is that?
  • What does this say about your understanding of theories, their nature and function? For example, you may consider that they have no function.
  • Think of a learner with whom you work ­ this could be a colleague you support, a pupil, etc. What things about them, and what you have to help them to do, influence how you support them? Can you identify where you got these ideas from?
  • Are there practices that you typically use because you know they work? Can you say why they work? If you could identify them, would it help? How might it help? You might want to post your ideas in the Comments section below.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


The distinction we make between world views/perspectives and theories, is that the former is larger and combines different theories to create an orientation, a lens through which we organise experience. Theories are attempts to explain aspects of that experience. Mercer (1995) describes theories as simplified explanatory models used by people to make sense of a complex world. Whilst Mercer describes theories as simplified, it is perhaps more helpful to think of them as partial as they address particular aspects of experience. The role of theories in helping ‘make sense’ is a crucial one. Mercer, in describing theories in this way, is also taking a particular theoretical perspective. This is because he assumes that people want to, and do have to, ‘make sense’ and that this sense-making is a process. Sense is not received ­ i.e. symbols do not carry meaning. People learn to attribute meaning to them as they engage with them in interaction with others. In this theoretical view, people are also understood in a particular way. As Bruner describes it, people are recognised to have an exceptional talent to understand the minds of others, ‘whether through language, gesture or other means. It is not just words that make this possible, but our capacity to grasp the role of the settings in which words, acts and gestures occur’ (Bruner, 1996, p.20).

Needless to say there are other theories that challenge this. In these theories knowledge is understood to be pre-existent; there is an external, objective reality and what you see and experience is stable across contexts and people, and is therefore shared. This kind of theorising legitimises assessment practices that assume that a test item has the same meaning for all those taking the test, i.e. that what it measures is stable. Hence, failure to respond appropriately can be interpreted validly as an indicator of a lack of knowledge or a lack of ability. The problem rests with the person taking the assessment and not with the assessment instrument and the very different backgrounds and experiences of individuals. This theoretical position is often referred to as a ‘deficit’ view of learners.

Within an alternative view of learning and of knowledge, in which meanings are not stable and received but have to be negotiated between people and emerge in these interactions, a failure to respond to a test item correctly can have many explanations. It could be that the meanings of the words in the item were not available to the learner, for example if asked to write about a holiday when they have never had one. Or they may not have had the opportunity to learn what is being assessed. It might also be because they assume they cannot do certain things because of other learning about what, for example, girls and boys are ‘good’ at, so they assume incompetence and do not respond. In national surveys of 13 year olds in the UK, one skill measured was the ability to read information from tables. Boys and girls were equally well able to do this but the type of data included in the table mattered for some girls and for some boys. So on a table taken from a spare-parts manual to do with washers and the types of material they were made from, a large number of girls did not respond so that overall boys outperformed girls. The reverse was the case when the information was about the flowering times of different spring bulbs. These gender gaps in performance arose because of the increased confidence of the boys combined with the lower response rate of the girls and vice versa (Murphy, 1997).

Think about the practices you identified to support learners and your views of them in Activity1. Do they resonate more with one or other of these theoretical views? Is there any difference between what you understand your personal theories to be and what is reflected in your practices? Engaging with theories requires some commitment as they challenge our personal frameworks for making sense. These frameworks reflect our unique history of participation in the world and include our ‘common-sense’ ways of understanding the world.

1.1 Common-sense theories

One such example of a common-sense theory is reflected in how we talk about girls and boys and which subjects we associate or dissociate them with, and indeed how they in turn learn to take on these extended identities. Note we say ‘learn to take on’ identities reflecting a theoretical view that biology does not determine gendered ways of being in the world. Historically, the status attributed to knowledge has reflected the categories of people associated with its use and production. In broad terms this aligned femininity with labours of the body, for example the unpaid work involved in maintaining and nourishing the body ­ such as preparing food, washing clothes, caring for the young and infirm. This distinguished it from the work of the hands ­ producing artefacts for use and payment and mental work (thinking) that was associated with males, in the latter case the monks and priests and later the male aristocracy for whom education was made available. Note these make huge assumptions about the relationship between these forms of knowledge, not least the separation of mind from body, but there was a reason for this.

Mental work, i.e. the product of thinking or cognition, can be realised as texts, and texts transcend the life of the author, both in the present and in the future, providing a lasting trace – a bid for eternity. For this reason, text-based knowledge and the producers of texts became highly valued from the earliest of times. The purpose of education was to train the rational mind and, to achieve this, mind and body had to be distanced to enable human reasoning. Think of the monks disciplining the flesh to come closer to God in order to cultivate the ideal rationale, non-emotional mind. Work of the hands involved craft knowledge realised in artefacts, rather than texts. The products of this knowledge lacked the transcendent properties of texts but nevertheless extended the impact of the maker into the near future. This knowledge was therefore significant but of lower status than text-based knowledge. Labours of the body had to be constantly redone and left no tangible trace. Women have traditionally undertaken this work and the knowledge associated with it has been least valued.

Associating femininity with the body necessarily dissociated females from the mind and rationality which increasingly became associated with scientific reasoning. Thus males are rational by assumption, and by default females are irrational and emotional and the subjects that they become associated with reflect this cultural legacy. Have you ever invoked this stereotype or experienced being treated on the basis of it? Common-sense theories might account for why, in spite of the wealth of evidence of the similarities between males and females intellectually, these historical associations remain prominent in our explanations of the world.

For example, Larry Summers, the then President of Harvard University, gave a speech in January 2005 on gender disparities to explain the gender gap among the top tier of tenured science professors. In his view, one of the most likely explanations was that men have more intrinsic aptitude for high-level science (Ripley, 2005). Do you think there might be an alternative explanation for this? Common-sense theories about gender might also explain why the 15-year-old girl who was achieving so highly in her electronics class commented: ‘although I enjoy electronics and am fascinated by it, I am not thinking of doing it more seriously, I don’t see the point’ (Murphy, 2006, p.235). Or why a teacher of design and technology took pains to help girls engage with the machinery so that girls talked of ‘being trusted to use the machinery’ and ‘knowing how to work it’. Yet the boy who was anxious to drop the subject as soon as possible because ‘I am just afraid of hurting myself’ was assumed to need no help and, more importantly, felt unable to seek it (Murphy, 2006, p.244).

Culler (1997, p.4) defines a theory to be: ‘what changes people’s views, makes them think differently about their objects of study and their activities of studying them.’ It is, he suggests,

often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common-sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to make sense to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory.

It is in this way that theories function as research tools. They enable you to be reflexive and this allows you to assess how, and to what extent, your interests, position and assumptions influence both how you read research and enact it.

2The role and nature of theories

In this section we explore the theoretical tool kit that is an essential part of engaging in educational enquiry. We consider the theories and the work they do, drawing on two of the key perspectives that have been deployed by educational researchers.

Research perspectives or world views are often described as ‘grand’ theories, though grand theories go beyond what is generally used to inform research decisions in educational enquiry as they attempt to explain the ‘nature of man and society’ [sic] (Wright Mills, 1959, p.23). Philosophy is a term, like ‘grand theories’, and is similarly concerned with fundamental problems to do with existence, knowledge, values and reason, though philosophy is often used more narrowly as being about knowledge – how we know and what we know – which can be confusing. A term you will meet widely in the educational research literature, which is commonly used to mean world view, or as Thomas (2009, p.77) describes them, ‘positions on the best ways to think about and study the social world, is research paradigm. A paradigm involves a system of beliefs and practices that draw on theoretical assumptions – ontological and epistemological – and justifications from particular disciplines. A choice of paradigm influences:

  • what is considered problematic, i.e. what warrants researching
  • the types of questions that follow from this
  • what kind of data, and therefore what kind of methods, are chosen and, importantly,
  • within those methods, how the concepts/constructs to be explored are operationalised and analysed.

A world view, or paradigm, is broad based. It is possible to take up different research positions within a paradigm, even though those researchers who locate themselves in a paradigm are agreed about the way particular problems exist, and agree about the ways they can be investigated. What distinguishes paradigms from each other are the beliefs and theoretical perspectives drawn on. We consider two paradigms that are particularly significant in educational enquiry. There are many which will not be discussed.

Within research paradigms, we will consider the theories that relate to knowledge and to existence which tend to characterise their differences. Epistemology is the term used to describe theories about what we know about the world and how we know it – it is the consideration of knowing. These theories try to explain such questions as what is knowledge, how do we know things, are there different kinds of knowledge and what kinds of knowledge enable us to act productively. Theories about existence or being (ontology) that are relevant to educational enquiry concern how we understand learners and what should be studied in the process of supporting learning. Ontological theories are concerned with how we understand the social world, what it is we should pay attention to in the learning process to better understand it. Bruner’s (1996, p.20) description of how people excel at developing ‘intersubjectivity’: the human ability to understand the minds of others, is one such ontological position.

Epistemological and ontological theories determine how research problems and questions are conceptualised and how they should be addressed. Enquiry logics follow from these theoretical positions, and are typically referred to as research methodologies. Research methodology is defined by Teddlie and Tashakkori (2009) as a broad approach to enquiry ‘specifying how research questions should be asked and answered’ (p.21). The design of the research and the specific research methods used are determined by the overall methodological orientation.

Different ontological and epistemological positions lead to different paradigmatic positions. Thomas (2009) describes the relationship between ontology, epistemology and methodology in the following way. What is there to study (ontology)? How can we know about it (epistemology)? How do we find what we are looking for (methodology)? These three aspects are related and are nested within a research paradigm. Awareness of these theoretical aspects of the research process is important whether it is to evaluate research literature or to investigate personal practice.

2.1 Beginning the research process

Engaging with educational research: View as single page (1)

Figure 1 Relating ontology, epistemology and methodology

Show description|Hide description

This figure is the second segment of a larger figure to be shown in full later, in the conclusion of this course. There are four segments in the larger figure, each describing four phases in the research process. The first segment of the larger figure represented the first phase of the research process which considered the ‘Initial research questions’. This second segment, entitled ‘Paradigm’, represents the second phase in the process which considers the ‘Refined research questions’. The segment contains four arrows forming a cruciform shape. The first arrow points upwards to the question ‘What is there to study? (ontology)’. The second arrow points down to the question ‘How can we know about it? (epistemology)’. The third arrow emerges from the left-hand border between the first and second segments, and points to the right, to the centre of the cruciform shape. The fourth arrow emerges from the right and also points to the centre of the cruciform shape. It is pointing from the main descriptor of this segment, the ‘Refined research questions’. Further to the right of this descriptor, an arrow points towards the questions ‘How do we find out what we are looking for? What data is needed? (methodology)’. These questions are on the boundary between the second and third segments. This indicates that the initial research questions are refined when they are related to the researcher’s ontological and epistemological theories. The refined questions are then subjected to consideration about how to produce the data necessary.

Figure 1 Relating ontology, epistemology and methodology

In reading Figure 1 and thinking about ‘doing’ research do not think of the process as plucking a paradigm out of the air. A paradigm position evolves as a researcher makes explicit his or her ontological and epistemological positions using the research literature as tools in this process. It is also the case that over time as ontological and epistemological positions evolve and a researcher ‘learns’ then he or she may change their methodology or indeed their paradigm position completely.

Figure 1 delineates the important relationships and decision points you need to be aware of either in doing research or reading research; it does not represent the research process or the learning trajectory for a researcher. For example, research questions and purpose can precede the paradigm exploration but will then be refined after that. That is why we have the research questions located centrally in Figure 1. Similarly, once the methodology is considered, research questions may be refined further in the light of thinking about how to answer them. This reflects the iterative nature of the research process. In the literature the research process is typically represented more sequentially to show the logic underneath the process engaged in. It is worth remembering this distinction between the process engaged in and how it is then represented.

2.2 Thinking about epistemological positions

In this section we explore two dominant theoretical positions and locate them in their particular paradigm.

Activity 2 Personal views about theory and practice links

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

  • Go back to your response to the questions in Activity 1.
  • What does your response suggest about how you see the relationship between theory and practice?
  • Does what you have read so far alter how you might respond to these questions now?

Think about ontology and epistemology here as together you consider similarities and differences between your and their views about the nature of learners, how they learn and what they learn. You might like to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


How theory and practice are understood to be related is helpful in establishing different ontological and epistemological positions within research and, hence, paradigmatic differences. We consider this next with a focus on epistemology.

Activity 3 Theory – practice links – epistemological implications

Timing: Allow approximately 1 hour 30 minutes

Go to the link below and read the Teaching and Learning Research Briefing No. 80, ‘Quality criteria for the assessment of education research in different contexts’ (TLRP, 2009).

Quality criteria for the assessment of education research in different contexts

Compare the criteria for judging journal publications (Box 1.1) with the criteria for judging proposals for funding research projects (Box 2.1) and for judging the funding of developmental and practice-based research (Box 2.3). In particular look for, and make notes on, where ‘theory’ and rationale is referred to. Make note of similarities and differences between the criteria in these respects.

  • What does this suggest to you about the relationship of theory and practice and theory and methodology assumed in the document?
  • How do you respond to this? Does it seem appropriate to you?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


One key difference is the absence of reference to theory, to frameworks and/or to conceptual rationale in the evaluation criteria for proposals to conduct developmental and practice-based research. In contrast, a theoretical framework and a conceptual rationale are part of the list of criteria underpinning high standards of scholarship for journal publications. For research project proposals, there is a separate criterion to be met of ‘an explicit and appropriate theoretical and conceptual framework’ and ‘scientific quality of approach’. In all three lists there is a requirement for the ‘suitability’ or ‘appropriateness’ of methodology which must also have the characteristics of ‘rigour’ and soundness. Although academic literature is drawn on in establishing the ‘robustness’ of practice-based research, the criteria for meeting this relate to relevance and quality where theoretical coherence is not a criterion for determining quality.

Treating theory and practice as a dualism – where they are separable, independent entities each having meaning in isolation from each other – is an example of an epistemological theoretical position. The separation of theory and practice is a resilient theory with deep historical roots that continue to permeate current thinking and common-sense beliefs. It overlaps with the earlier discussion where the separation of mind and body underpinned understanding of the nature of learning and what is learned. It follows, from this theoretical view, that there are distinct types of knowledge – the theoretical, the empirical, and the everyday. The association of mind, rationality and scientific reasoning with the highest form of human knowledge is evident in the way in the past, some educational researchers, as well as researchers in other fields, have viewed the knowledge that research produces as scientific, in the sense that its validity has a high level of certainty which is equivalent, or approximates, to that of natural science. It is this sense of the term ‘scientific’ which is used in the TLRP briefing document.

Theories of knowledge are important when we consider research into learning, as how we judge the effectiveness of support or determine the nature of a learning problem is necessarily related to what we understand to be successful learning.

Lave (2008) traces the way that different views of the everyday have underpinned views of valued knowledge. She argues that a particular epistemological perspective has dominated learning theories. This perspective assumes a view of learning as a movement into abstract knowledge which is external to people and which they acquire in specialist institutions. This necessarily means that what is understood and known in the everyday is not knowledge or, as she puts it, is ordinary; what people move towards is extraordinary, exceptional – that is, of high cultural value. So from this theory of knowledge flows a related ontological theory of learning as a movement from lower to higher knowledge which removes those who create or produce knowledge from the everyday, creating a division between learning (creating) knowledge and using (or applying) knowledge. Lave highlights how the contemporary distinction between research and teaching connects with this, indicating how powerful this theory of knowledge remains, for example, in distinguishing conception (research) from execution (teaching).

There are alternative epistemological positions which we will consider further. Lave, for example, argues for an alternative theoretical orientation which does not distinguish between how we learn in different contexts. Rather, that different locations for learning, and the activities associated with these, alter what is made available to learn, how it is made available, and how it is valued. So practice-based enquiry and discipline-based enquiry differ in their nature and purpose, but both are theory-driven and knowledge-creative processes. Here, theory and practice are understood to be interdependent ­ i.e. a duality, not a dualism: theories shape what we do, and our experiences of practice shape our theories. This epistemological position accepts that experience of the world is an equally valid way of deriving new knowledge.

2.3 Thinking about ontological positions

In the TLRP briefing document there was explicit reference to a scientific methodology, though the epistemological stance was more embedded. It is often problematic when reading research literature to identify the research perspective because the perspective might be assumed and have to be disembedded. We consider an example of this disembedding in the next Activity and the significance of different theoretical perspectives for how practice is understood and what it is important to pay attention to – the phenomenon that is the object of our enquiries.

Activity 4 Identifying ontological positions

Timing: Allow approximately 1 hour 30 minutes

Go to the link below and read the article by Stephen Ball, ‘Intellectuals or technicians? The urgent role of theory in education studies’ (1995, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol.43, no.3, pp.255–71). In this reading, Ball analyses the underlying theoretical assumptions behind particular approaches to educational enquiry.

Intellectuals or technicians? The urgent role of theory in education studies

  • Make a note of what he argues these are in relation to school effectiveness research. What does this suggest about the ontological position behind effectiveness research?
  • What are the characteristics of the alternative theoretical perspective and its associated language that Ball argues for? What does this suggest about Ball’s ontological position?
  • Does this make your personal theoretical views about the relationship between theory and practice clearer? You may wish to post your response to Activity 2 in the Comments section below.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Of interest here is Ball’s view that policy science is implicated in an attempt to redefine political issues as technical problems for which science can find solutions. So once again we have an example of a field of educational enquiry dating well before the TLRP research, where science is invoked in its conception, design and interpretation. The argument Ball mounts is that adopting a particular methodology or approach to research, in this case a scientific model, brings with it particular assumptions. This is not then a theory-neutral position; rather that the theoretical positions are embedded and not made explicit. The theoretical assumptions underlying effectiveness research are those about schools, about the causes of social and economic problems, and about learning and achievement that underlie a belief that there exists a ‘set of procedures which enables one to determine the technically best course of action to adopt in order to implement a decision or achieve a goal’ (p.258).

Ontologically, this research perspective and methodology suggest something about both teachers and learners. Teachers are positioned as passive enactors of pedagogic strategies: what they know and believe and their histories of participation are not seen as significant. Teaching in this perspective is a science – not in the sense of being primarily concerned with gaining knowledge about the universe, or even about fundamental psychological or social processes – rather, in a very broad sense, it is ‘a rational activity directed towards certain goals and operating on the basis of evidence’. The key here is in the term ‘operating’ and whether we see the teacher as an operator, and also whether we consider students as a homogenous group who receive instructions in the same way and do not mediate how a teacher operates. Inequality is also understood to be a consequence of schooling; what learners bring into settings and how this influences what is made available to learn and, indeed, whether learners’ funds of knowledge are recognised and valued as resources for learning is not considered significant.

Ball uses alternative theories as tools in his argument, drawing on Foucault’s theorising to explain his position and to expose the theoretical position embedded in effectiveness research. A key feature of Foucault’s notion of surveillance is that in its modern form it involves making individuals responsible for self-surveillance in terms of prevailing notions about what it is to be a good citizen, a sane person, an effective practitioner, professional, or a good student: they are continually required to ‘account for themselves’ in these terms. This is the sense in which, for Ball, the apparatus for measuring school effectiveness sets the boundaries of what is acceptable and forces compliance with these. If there is deviance, experts (including school effectiveness researchers) are on hand to diagnose the problem and to devise a remedy. This not only suggests a particular view of research, but also of practice. Ball describes effectiveness as ‘a technology of normalisation’ that ‘constructs a normative model of the effective school and abnormalises the ineffective’ (p.261).

A key element of Ball’s argument is that, while presenting itself as neutral and objective, policy science is actually serving political ends obscured by a ‘façade of objectivity’. This reflects a sub-theme in Ball’s argument which is the need for educational research to distance itself from the model of science. Ball is particularly critical that this model is assumed and not justified allowing the common-sense logic behind the research, or as he describes this, ‘the naïve ontological and epistemological a prioris’ (p.266) to go unchallenged. Think back to the criteria for judging quality in the TLRP research briefing; scientific originality and scientific quality are emphasised more than a decade on from when Ball was gnashing his intellectual teeth. So what are the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind the scientific methodology?

In this course so far, you have been introduced to some key terms and concepts that are used when people engage with the research process, either through reading literature or undertaking an enquiry. You have explored the meanings of ontology and epistemology and how they are the theoretical roots of research paradigms. You have also seen how sometimes these theoretical roots are often assumed, and not discussed, in the research literature

3Two competing paradigms

In this section you will look at two competing paradigms: positivism and interpretivism

3.1 Scientific theory and the positivist paradigm

Over the course of the twentieth century, an approach to educational enquiry emerged, one that treated educational theory as factual, as referring to how things are rather than to how they should be. This interpretation of theory derives in large part from the influence of natural science as a model. From this point of view, theory tends to be seen as a system of laws that explain the occurrence of particular types of event in particular types of circumstance – for example, by identifying the mechanisms involved. Scientific knowledge, in contrast to everyday knowledge, was viewed as value-free and, therefore, objective. Science looks for relationships between variables to explore and explain natural phenomena. In particular, science, with its concern with cause and effect, was seen as capable of showing why a policy or practice might work in some circumstances, or in relation to some people, and not others.

Positivism is a research paradigm associated with scientific theories. Positivists apply scientific methodology as the way of understanding and researching social and psychological phenomena. They believe that the success of natural science in modern times has stemmed from scientists’ refusal to go beyond what can be supported by empirical evidence, especially evidence derived from careful observation of phenomena and/or experimental manipulation of them. Positivists had high hopes that a science of human social life would pave the way for substantial social and political progress, by undermining beliefs and practices that were based solely on superstition or tradition, and replacing them wherever possible with ones founded on scientific evidence.

Positivists have, to a large extent, adopted experimental physics as their model. There has, therefore, been a strong tendency for them to:

  • use the experimental method, and/or the forms of statistical analysis modelled on it to engage in the careful measurement of phenomena;
  • rely on quantitative data
  • seek causal or statistical relationships among variables.

Ontologically this paradigm, and associated methodology, with its concern to establish causal or statistical relationships necessarily reduces people and their behaviours to variables. Individuals are treated as separate units. Another common feature of a positivist paradigm is that explicit or transparent procedures or methods must be followed to produce sound knowledge to achieve what is sometimes referred to as procedural objectivity. The belief that certain methods are transparent and objective means that research can be replicated, which is necessary in order to test whether the knowledge produced is sound, or whether it has been distorted by error or bias on the part of the researcher. This, epistemologically, reflects the belief that there is an external, objective reality and what you see and experience is stable across contexts and people. Items in a questionnaire, for example, are assumed to be understood in the same way by the respondents. Others, who hold different epistemological positions, would argue that it is in the construction of the questions and the respondents’ interaction with them where subjectivity necessarily emerges in the research process.

The assumptions of positivism have been challenged within science as misrepresenting its nature and the way that scientific thinking and knowledge develops (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn emphasised the social character of natural science research. He argued that, rather than being a process of deriving knowledge logically from empirical evidence in the manner assumed by many positivists, it necessarily relies on shared concepts which are open-ended in character, but anchored by particular studies that are treated as exemplars. These concepts and exemplars make up what he referred to as a paradigm, indicating both what is already known and ‘puzzles’ that require further work. He saw mature sciences (e.g. physics), or particular fields within the sciences, as being dominated in any one period by a single paradigm.

However, over time, some puzzles prove recalcitrant and become ‘anomalies’, at which point there may be a ‘scientific revolution’ that eventually leads to the adoption of a new paradigm – for example, the move from Newtonian to twentieth-century physics. Kuhn pointed out that the shift from one paradigm to another could not be based on a rational appeal to common ground between the two paradigms, since each effectively offers a different conception of the world. Judgement is necessarily involved – in particular, judgement about the chances of resolving anomalies in the old paradigm and the potential of the new paradigm in that respect. What Kuhn offered, then, was a very different epistemological perspective of natural science from that assumed by positivism.

3.2 Two competing paradigms continued

Nathaniel Gage (2007), in his chapter ‘The paradigm wars and their aftermath’, chose 1989 to reflect on paradigm positions in educational enquiry because, in that year, there was an ‘International Conference on Alternative Paradigms for Inquiry’ in the USA. At the conference, more than 200 participants debated paradigm issues and the debates were ‘characterized by jockeying for position and the carving out of territory’ (Gage, 2007, p.164). Gage summarises critiques of the scientific, or positivist, approach that emerged in these debates. He labels the first the ‘antinaturalist critique’ and the second the ‘interpretivist critique’.

Activity 5 An alternative paradigm

Timing: Allow approximately 2 hours

Part 1

Read the excerpt below, which is from the antinaturalist critique by Nathaniel Gage. In the excerpt, he provides the main explanation offered by the antinaturalists for the failure of research on teaching.

Perhaps the most fundamental explanation was the antinaturalist position that human affairs simply cannot be studied with the scientific methods used to study the natural world. Thus the term ‘social science’ is at its root an oxymoron. And why is the scientific study of human affairs impossible? First, because human affairs, including teaching and learning, are inextricably involved with the intentions, goals, and purposes that give them meaning. Second, a science is involved with direct, one-way causal links, but there are no such ‘billiard-ball’ causal connections between teacher behaviour and student learning. Third, scientific methods can be applied only to natural phenomena that are stable and uniform across time, space, and context in a way obviously untrue of the human world of teaching and learning. So, the critics asserted, we should not search for the kind of prediction and control that scientific method might yield but rather for the kind of insight that historians, moral philosophers, novelists , artists, and literary critics can provide.

[As evidence to support this view, Gage refers to Tom’s (1984) description of teacher planning:]

the teacher may change objectives from month to month or from week to week; unforeseen events – a hot day or one student’s open cruelty to another – may necessitate revising plans; the demands people place on the schools can change from year to year, from community to community… so that the teacher cannot necessarily construct his battle plan in 1984 for 1985, in September for May, on Monday for Friday, or during the second hour for the third hour. (Tom, 1984, p.71)

(Source: Gage, 2007, p.152)

  • Note the three reasons given for why natural science cannot be applied to understanding the social world and human behaviour.
  • How do you view these criticisms? Are they ontological, epistemological or methodological in nature?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Part 2

Now read the following excerpt, which is from the interpretivist critique by Nathaniel Gage (2007). In the excerpt, Gage provides the main explanation offered by another group of researchers challenging the use of positivism in educational enquiry.

Interpretivist researchers differed from ‘standard’ researchers [positivists] in their ‘theoretical presuppositions about the nature of schools, teaching, children, and classroom life, and about the nature of cause in human life in general’ (Erickson, 1986, p.125). They rejected the conception of the cause as mechanical or chemical or biological, a conception they said was used in the ‘standard’ approaches to research on teaching. They also rejected the assumption of uniformity in nature – the assumption that phenomena would occur in the same way in different places and times. They rejected the use of linear causal models applied to behavioural variables as a basis for inferring causal relations among the variables, because such models presupposed fixed and obvious meanings of certain types of actions by teachers.

Instead, the interpretive researchers emphasized the phenomenological perspective of the persons behaving. In this perspective, behavioural uniformities are seen ‘not as evidence of underlying, essential uniformity among entities, but as an illusion – a social construction’ (Erickson, 1986, p.126). The effects on people’s actions of their interpretations of their world create the possibility that people may differ in their responses to the same or similar situations.…

Because causation in human affairs is determined by interpreted symbols, the kinds of prediction and control that can be achieved in the natural sciences are not possible in human affairs.… So it [positivistic research] ought to be supplanted by interpretive research… which would examine the conditions of meaning created by students and teachers as a basis for explaining differences among students in their achievement and morale.

(Source: Gage, 2007, pp.153–4)

Note any similarities between the two critiques and then consider any differences.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


It is important to note that Gage is discussing the situation in the USA particularly, but the paradigm debates he describes were ongoing in many other countries. The antinaturalist argument is that there is no one-way causal link between teachers and their students. This criticism applies to any learning relationship where one person is trying to support and guide another. Interpretivists argue that human behaviour and ways of knowing are context dependent or situated. They reject the notion of stability across contexts, which underpin certain theories of knowledge and of learning and assessment practices and policies discussed earlier in the course. You can see links between some ontological and epistemological theories behind educational policies and practices and positivist assumptions.

The epistemological stance of interpretivism is clearly articulated in Gage’s discussion when he comments that individuals are understood to construct their own social reality, rather than having reality external to individuals as the ‘determiner of the individual’s perception’ (Gage, 2007, p.153). This distances interpretivists from ontological positions which see learners as passive receivers, and from epistemological positions where what we know and how we know is governed by an external objective reality that is somehow transmitted and received by individuals. Both of the critiques outlined by Gage in his chapter – the antinaturalist and the interpretivist critiques – can be regarded as deriving from the same source. Importantly, the interpretivist epistemological perspective denies that symbols carry meaning; rather, symbols are interpreted and meanings, as a consequence, are multiple. This altered, ontologically, what was paid attention to in educational enquiry.

3.3 Interpretivism

The conflict between positivism and interpretivism dates from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, although it emerged within the field of educational research during the second half of the twentieth century. Interpretivism’s starting point is its insistence on differentiating between the nature of the phenomena investigated by the natural sciences and the nature of those studied by historians, social scientists and educational researchers. In particular, it argues that people – unlike non-human forms of life – interpret their environment and themselves in ways that are shaped by the particular cultures in which they live. These distinctive cultural orientations shape what they do, and when and how they do it. Thus, quite different ways of life and associated beliefs about the world can be located at different points in history and also coexist (peacefully or in conflict) at any one time. Furthermore, this is not just a matter of differences between societies; there is also significant cultural variation within the large, complex societies in which most of us now live. Interpretivists argue that we cannot understand why people do what they do, why particular institutions exist and operate in characteristic ways, without grasping how people interpret and make sense of their world – in other words, the distinctive nature of their beliefs and attitudes.

This emphasis on the importance of perceptions, intentions and beliefs does not in itself mark off interpretivism from all forms of positivism. However, a great deal of positivist quantitative research has been concerned with documenting things that are not directly observable, such as levels of intelligence or types of attitude, albeit seeking to do this through observable indicators like responses to tests and questionnaires. Positivists have generally assumed that it is possible to document recurrent or standard patterns of relationship – first between people’s background experiences and their attitudes, and then between their attitudes and their behaviour. By contrast, interpretivists have suggested that these relationships are much more contingent and diverse, in the same way that historians have emphasised the uncertain course of history – that it is not simply the playing out of a set of universal laws. This is what Gage means when he says that interpretivists reject ‘the assumption of the uniformity of nature’ and ‘linear causal models’. Interpretivists must therefore employ different ways of investigating people’s perceptions and attitudes, how these are shaped by cultural contexts, and how they inform people’s actions. This is one of the reasons why interpretivism has encouraged a shift towards qualitative methods. This shift in methods occurs because the questions asked within an intepretivist paradigm differ from those asked within a positivist paradigm and, therefore, require different data.

Interpretivism carries the following implications for research:

  • The researcher should adopt an exploratory orientation, one that tries to learn what is going on in particular situations and to arrive at an understanding of the distinctive orientations of the people concerned.
  • The data should be structured as little as possible by the researcher’s own prior assumptions.

Even more than positivism, interpretivism has stimulated a wide range of kinds of research. As Gage indicates, during the second half of the twentieth century, educational research in many Western societies moved away from positivist ideas about methodology, towards various kinds of post-positivist approach – although neither the use of quantitative research methods nor the influence of positivism disappeared completely. Shifts in ontological and epistemological positions have meant that other paradigms and associated methodologies have emerged which share something in common, methodologically with interpretivism but are also distinguished by what they pay attention to in the research process and what constitutes valid knowledge.

Activity 6 Applying alternative paradigms

Timing: Allow approximately 1 hour

Imagine a positivist, and an interpretivist researcher, each of whom is going to conduct a study of training courses in a college for new recruits to the police.

What differences would there be in how they approached this task?

To identify these, outline briefly the:

  • type of research question that might be asked,
  • type of data that is needed to address them, and
  • methods that would allow that data to be produced.

In taking up these different positions did you feel that your personal concerns and interests about learning would lead you to align more with one paradigm than another?


Of course, within each paradigm research studies can take a variety of forms, so what is provided here are just examples to highlight differences.

Positivists often begin from a hypothesis to be tested – in this instance, it could be ‘Does the training regime achieve one or more of its intended outcomes?’. The positivist could look for some sort of test or set of indicators that measures the target outcome(s). Then she or he might collect evidence from before the training began and after it had been completed, to try to draw conclusions about its effects. Perhaps different forms of training are used in the college, so it may be possible to compare two or more of these. It may even be possible to arrange for recruits to be randomly allocated to different forms of training, thereby increasing the likelihood of discerning the effects of these. Generally speaking, a positivist would study a relatively large number of recruits in the college so that she or he could generalise about the effects of the training regime(s).

By contrast, the interpretivist might be more concerned with understanding the details of the training regime(s) in the college and, above all, with how the recruits experience and adapt to the college situation. In particular, she or he might focus on the problems faced by the new recruits, how they make sense of these (individually and/or collectively), what strategies they develop for dealing with them, and what the consequences of these strategies are. To do this, the interpretivist might feel it necessary to study the recruits quite intensively, perhaps over the whole course of their training. Qualitative methods are likely to be the main resource. The study would probably focus on a relatively small number of recruits, so that detailed data could be obtained to facilitate the understanding of the complexities of their perspectives and activities, and how these change over time.

4 Conclusion

In this free course, Engaging with educational research, you have been introduced to some key terms and concepts that are used when people engage with the research process, either through reading literature or undertaking an enquiry. You have explored the meanings of ontology and epistemology and how they are the theoretical roots of research paradigms. You have also seen how sometimes these theoretical roots are often assumed, and not discussed, in the research literature. The way research is conceptualised informs the decision about the approach to the research process and you examined two distinct and influential ways in which people think about and study the complex phenomenon of learning and the practices and structures which support it. These two examples introduced you to the concept of research paradigms and the course has offered you framework for thinking about what lies behind researchers’ questions and choices about what to pay attention to and how to do this. You have also explored briefly how paradigms ebb and flow over time as debates about research evidence challenge thinking about educational research – its purposes and value.

You may be interested to see Figure 2 (below) which includes Figure 1 as part of the overall research process.

View larger image

Figure 2 An overview of the research process

Show description|Hide description

This figure shows the larger diagram of which Figure 1 forms one segment. Here there are four contiguous oblong segments moving from left to right. The four segments relate to the four phases of the research process. The first segment is headed ‘Purpose’. The second segment is headed ‘Paradigm’. The third and fourth segments share the heading ‘Design frame’. We shall now take each segment in turn. The main theme covered in the first segment is the ‘Initial research questions’. This descriptor sits at the centre of the segment, with two double-headed arrows running vertically along either side, taking up about two-thirds of the segment. These arrows point upwards to the words ‘Policy context’, indicating that the questions in educational enquiry emerge from practice and are influenced by the prevailing policy relevant to that practice. The vertical arrows also point downwards to the words ‘Scope and scale’ and, below that, the words ‘Institutional practice context’. This shows that policy may relate to a single institution or a small unit within it, and this context will affect the scope of the research. The scope will be limited if the research takes place within a single unit. If the research takes place at national or international level, then the findings may be transferable to more contexts. Research questions are therefore shaped not only by policy but also by practice. The interaction of policy and practice, i.e. where the policy is enacted, will determine the scope and scale of the research (i.e. how large it is, how many research participants and research sites). From the centre of the segment, a horizontal single-headed arrow points from the words ‘Initial research questions’ across the segment’s right-hand border into the second segment, illustrating that the discussion on the initial research questions flows into the second phase of the research process. This phase looks at ontology, epistemology and methodology. The second segment has four arrows forming a cruciform shape, which includes the arrow from the first segment on the left. From the centre of this cruciform shape, the single-headed arrow points upwards to the question ‘What is there to study? (ontology)’. Another arrow points downwards to the question ‘How can we know about it? (epistemology)’, which is towards the bottom of the segment. The arrow on the right is pointing inwards from the central theme of this segment, which is the ‘Refined research questions’. An arrow further to the right points to the questions ‘How do we find out what we are looking for? What data is needed? (methodology)’ These questions are on the boundary between the second and third segments. Taken as a whole, this segment indicates that the initial research questions are refined when they are related to the researcher’s ontological and epistemological theories. The refined questions are then subjected to consideration about how to produce the data necessary. From the centre of the segment, a horizontal double-headed arrow points from the ‘methodology’ descriptor across the second segment’s border into the third segment, illustrating that the discussion on refined research questions flows into third phase of the research process. This looks at research methods and techniques. The third and fourth segments of the figure come under the umbrella heading of ‘Design frame’. The third segment can be thought of as two vertical panels connected by a double-headed arrow. In the left-hand panel is a list of the design frames used in research: these are the ‘Experimental’, ‘Longitudinal survey’, ‘Case study’, Ethnography’, ‘Action research’ and Activity theory’ design frames. In the right panel are the activities taking place within these design frames – the methods and techniques of the research (who to involve and how). Then below that is a list of data-collection instruments – observation, interview and questionnaire – with the descriptor ‘How to generate the data needed’. From the centre of the segment, a horizontal double-headed arrow points from the ‘Methods and techniques’ descriptor into the fourth segment, illustrating that the discussion of methods and techniques flows into the content of the fourth and final phase, which looks at data analysis. At the bottom of the diagram, on the boundary between these two segments, is the word ‘Ethics’, indicating that ethical considerations apply to the activities presented in each segment. The fourth segment shares the same heading as the third segment, ‘Design frame’. The arrow from the third segment points from the left towards the principal theme in this segment, which is ‘Data analysis’. Below this is a descriptor saying ‘Turning data into evidence; validity’. Then, moving down the diagram are the phrases ‘Theme analysis’, ‘Frequency analysis’, ‘Discourse analysis’ and ‘Casual analysis’. Further to the right of ‘Data analysis’, a double-headed arrow connects to the descriptor ‘Claims and inferences’. This completes the figure and forms the final phase of the research process.

Figure 2 An overview of the research process

We hope, too, that you have found the ideas in this course interesting. This course only starts you off on your journey to understanding how to evaluate research, by thinking about one fundamental part of the research process. There are various ways in which you could follow up your interest.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of postgraduate level study in Education.


Ball, S.J. (1995) ‘Intellectuals or technicians? The urgent role of theory in educational studies’ in Hammersley, M. (ed.) Educational Research and Evidence-based Practice, London, Sage/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Culler, J. (1997) Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press.

Erickson, F. (1986) ‘Qualitative methods in research on teaching’ in Wittrock, M.C. (ed.) Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd edn), New York, Macmillan.

Gage, N. (2007) ‘The paradigm wars and their aftermath A ‘historical’ sketch of research on teaching since 1989’ in Hammersley, M. (ed.) Educational Research and Evidence-based Practice, London, Sage/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd edn), Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Lave, J. (2008) ‘Everyday life and learning’ in Murphy, P. and McCormick, R. (eds) Knowledge and Practice: Representations and Identities, London, Sage/Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Murphy, P. (1997) ‘Gender differences: messages for science education’ in Harnqvist, K. and Burgen, A. (eds) Growing Up with Science: Developing Early Understanding of Science, London, Jessica Kingsley.

Murphy, P. (2006) ‘Gender and technology: gender mediation in subject knowledge construction’ in Dakers, J. (ed.) Defining Technological Literacy: Towards an Epistemological Framework, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Ripley, A. (2005) ‘Who says a woman can’t be Einstein?’, TIME, vol. 165, no. 10, pp.50–60.

Teddlie, C. and Tashakkori, A. (eds) (2009) Foundations of Mixed Methods Research Integrating Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches in the Social and Behavioural Sciences, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

Thomas, G. (2009) How to do Your Research Project, London, Sage.

Wright Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York, Holt.

Tom, A. (1984) Teaching as a Moral Craft, New York, Longman.


This free course was written by Patricia Murphy.

Except for third part materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.

The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Course image: N i c o l a in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence.

Activity 3 article: Quality Criteria for the Assessment of Education Research in Different Contexts, September 2009 Number 80, Teaching and Learning Research Briefing, www.tlrp.org.

Activity 4 article: Ball, S.J. (1995) Intellectuals or technicians? The urgent role of theory in educational studies, courtesy of Stephen J. Ball, Centre for Educational Studies, King’s College, London.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright owners. If any have been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.

Don't miss out:

If reading this text has inspired you to learn more, you may be interested in joining the millions of people who discover our free learning resources and qualifications by visiting The Open University - www.open.edu/ openlearn/ free-courses

This free course is adapted from a former Open University course E891 Educational enquiry.

◀︎Engaging with educational research

Copyright © 2016 The Open University

Top Articles

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Aracelis Kilback

Last Updated: 09/21/2022

Views: 5918

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (64 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Aracelis Kilback

Birthday: 1994-11-22

Address: Apt. 895 30151 Green Plain, Lake Mariela, RI 98141

Phone: +5992291857476

Job: Legal Officer

Hobby: LARPing, role-playing games, Slacklining, Reading, Inline skating, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Dance

Introduction: My name is Aracelis Kilback, I am a nice, gentle, agreeable, joyous, attractive, combative, gifted person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.