A bit more direct instruction

A recent (April 11 2013) TES post said:
“Social science is often not science. It is investigation; it is commentary; it often illuminates, and helps provide valuable light and guidance in human affairs. What it does not do is offer reliable predictive powers, nor irrefutable explanatory mechanisms for processes. Merely commentary, case study, opinion, and subjective analysis.”

I’ll come back to this in the last paragraph of this piece.

A bit more direct instruction:
The purpose of science is to reduce uncertainty by making acceptable explanations of what our senses tell us is ‘the world’ in action. If we had no explanations we couldn’t make predictions; ‘I’ve seen this before and got an explanation for it, so I can make a pretty good guess as to what’s going to happen next.’ It doesn’t claim that its explanations are irrefutable, but rather any claim to be open to critique and provisional.
The sciences provide ways of organising information that have particular processes we can adopt in collecting evidence about a ‘thing’, reporting it, explaining it and getting agreement on whether or not our explanation is believable.

“Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines:

Natural sciences, the study of the natural phenomena;
Social sciences, the systematic study of human behavior and societies.
Natural sciences
Astronomy, the study of celestial objects and phenomena that are outside the Earth’s atmosphere, e.g. stars, the cosmos, etc.
Biology, the study of life.
Ecology and Environmental science, the studies of the interrelationships of life and the environment.
Chemistry, the study of the composition, chemical reactivity, structure, and properties of matter and with the (physical and chemical) transformations that they undergo.
Earth science, the study of earth and specialties including:
Science-based or Physical Geography and Oceanography
Soil science
Physics, the study of the fundamental constituents of the universe, the forces and interactions they exert on one another, and the results produced by these forces.
The main social sciences include:
Cultural studies
Political science
Psychology )
Social policy
Development studies

The process of natural science is to observe a phenomenon, think about the factors that might be involved in its production and then guess which one is causing it and which are non-causative factors. We are influenced by whether or not a factor is testable and eliminate or ignore possible but non-testable factors. When we’ve got this far we can set up an experiment. The causal factor we’ve chosen we call the experimental variable; the non-causal factors we call control variables. If we guessed right when we put different amounts of the experimental variable into the experimental system the amount of effect will change. To make this system work we need to change only the experimental variable that we have guessed to be the causative factor. The control variables we must keep unchanged during the course of our experiment, because if we allow a control variable to change we won’t be able to tell if it is our experimental variable that is making the difference in effect, or the change in the control variable. The quality of an experiment in natural science is judged by how well we have identified and controlled the control variables in order to prevent this possible confusion when we come to explain our results and claim a cause/effect relationship between experimental variable and phenomenon. Of course in any experiment there will be some control variables which we can regulate and others that will lie outside our control.
If we noticed a puddle in our area disappeared more quickly in the summer than in the winter, we might guess that this was being caused by the higher temperatures in summer. We could set up an experiment to test our guess. We could heat several a pans of water on the cooker and record the time it took for the water to disappear in the pans set at different temperatures; the experimental variable. We could control the control variables by using the same pan for each test, the same cooker hob, water from the same tap. For other variables that would be difficult to regulate but we guess could affect the result, like height above sea-level and the ambient temperature of the kitchen, we say the experiment was run under ‘ideal conditions’. We assume they don’t cause the puddle to disappear so they’ll be put in this ‘ideal’ category and left out of our explanation. We should also run a control group and we should state our experimental and null hypotheses, to be scientifically thorough. But this is enough direct instruction. It’s time to move on.

It’s obvious that this process suits the investigation of some phenomena and these are the ones that have caught the attention of the natural scientists. When natural science was the big new thing in explaining what was going on in the world, everyone with a living to make jumped on to the cause/effect band-wagon. Alchemists gave way to the scientific chemists, the shamans bowed out as the scientific medics got underway, physics and biology took the same path. Amongst these New Scientists the psychologists created a problem for themselves; by adopting methods of natural science to create explanations in their field they effectively collapsed their science of human behaviour into those aspects of it which were measurable in their laboratories. Whilst one purpose of psychology might be to explain human thinking and learning it’s only been possible to carry out controlled scientific experiments on non-human subjects in many cases, mirroring the procedures for medical clinical research.
This had two effects; it was only the measurable phenomena which were measured; and results with non-humans were assumed to apply to humans, more or less. The early psychological natural scientists were looking for cause-effect relationships and they found them in rats running mazes and Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Basic conditions for evidence and explanation to be accepted by the scientific community are that they are believable and reproducible. Using natural science methods gives the best chance acceptance because believability of is established by peer review and this community of peers is so wide as to give almost universal consensus on ontology, the particular reality under investigation, and everyone has internalised the mysteries and routines of the natural science paradigm. As a biologist I can read psychology when it is operating within the natural science paradigm and in turn the psychologists can feel they are scientists, sharing their knowledge with me and the chemists and the physicists, and to some extent the medics.
Coming more up to date with Kiershner, Sweller and Clark (2006), they proposed a ‘new educational psychology’ promoting direct instruction, in turn based on what they call a cognitive structure made up of working memory and long term memory which experiences cognitive overload under some conditions and not others. How is their ‘new educational psychology’ to be evidenced and verified? As psychologists these authors continue to hold on to the safety of ‘gold standard’ natural science methods and propose extensive, randomised controlled experiments to confirm their guesses. You can see this ‘holding on’ happening when Kirshner et al reminded me as a reader that proper science has one experimental variable which is manipulated. Why did they tell me this? More to reclaim my allegiance as a natural scientist peer than to remind me of the conditions that exist in the paradigm maybe.
At this point I think it’s useful to point out that;
Firstly: the cognitive structure they elaborate isn’t believable. They show that they’re aware of this in commenting that Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chinn (2007) tacitly accepts it in her critique of their paper. As a natural scientist I don’t believe this structure can operate as they say it does, being both susceptible to overload and having infinite capacity at the same time. As a biologist I cannot see the adaptive advantage of a structure which is essential to learning and yet so readily becomes non-functional through overload as a built-in aspect of its operation. Without adaptive advantage biological structures do not persist, and this cognitive structure must have some relationship to its blood and bone nature. Without the cognitive structure in place direct instruction procedures don’t hold up.
Secondly: academics have to publish to survive. In that world it’s more important to get something written than to make sense, although doing both is a bonus and leaving open edges allows for more writing which is academically necessary. Academic exploration is a continuous process and it’s always good to suggest the next research needed but it works almost as a closed cycle and does not rely on the practical application of any research findings for its survival.

Back to the beginning. There’s a campaign being staged by the randomised control trial/cause effect brigades, with powerful support from real scientists, non-scientists and the Secretary of State for Education. There’s a claim being made for natural science to be the one and only science worth pursuing. In the relevant University departments this is a ‘good thing’ because it leads to more papers being written and the possibility of more research funding. But if you look at the list above, it’s largely irrelevant to the world of teachers and children in schools, where social science has a role and could speak with a clearer voice. The social science of education is not “merely commentary, case study, opinion, and subjective analysis”. It is intensive, constructive, qualitative and contextualised by design.
Natural science or social science as the route to educational understanding? It’s not either/or it’s both/and. Direct instruction or Inquiry Learning? That’s not either/or, it’s both/and too.

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