Vinegar, brown paper and an inadequate reading of Hanan Alexander

I found an online speed reading programme, called spreeder – – which I used to read the following (at 350 wpm, font-size=30, chunking and punctuation pauses): Alexander, H (2006) A view from somewhere: explaining the paradigms of educational research. Journal of Philosophy of Education;40:205-221.

The paper discusses the methodology wars in educational research which have seen proponents of positivist methods pitted against those of constructivist ones. He spends a lot of time addressing the opposition (which came up for me last week in Peter Boghassian’s basic paper on whether either constructivists or behaviourists could as such deploy Socratic dialogue in their teaching) – first on its own terms, and then questioning the validity of the opposition with reference to John Dewey. Aiming to avoid relativism or absolutism, he nudges towards what he calls “transendental pragmatism” – educational research should seek to illustrate and provide insight according to its stated values, and avoid trying to generalise (or as he sees it, control). In this type of research, whether it be phenomenology, ethnography or whatever, the usual measures of validity and reliability do not apply – in fact they signal a queasiness about abandoning positivism which is at odds with the epistemological bases of a constructivist approach. Instead, in a way which reminds me of David Silverman call for “accurate accounting”, Alexander calls for lawyerly conduct in setting out, defending and substantiating a case. He ends with a caution to all educational researchers – we can only know very little. Very good.

However, in contrast to Plato (1987) for whom illustrations facilitate communication of absolute truth, the position emerging here suggests that concrete cases are a good but imperfect means to articulate very limited understandings of what we can only assume lies beyond our complete grasp (Alexander, 2004). Truth is conceived in this view not as correspondence to objective reality, or as serving some theoretical function or purpose, but in the way descriptions embody and enable us to grasp the nuanced and dynamic form of transcendent ideals (Langer, 1954), the capacity of texts, symbols and stories to capture the contours of feelings in forms. Viewed from this perspective, even a large, random statistical sample is but an extended and elaborate case that outlines the conceptual shape of experiences common to a significant population of people (Feyerabend, 1996).

and from his conclusion:

Finally, the logic of illustration in educational research precedes the logic of generalisation. We come to understand ideals first through detailed examples of concrete cases, and only secondarily by means of abstract and universal covering laws. We have yet to articulate adequate cannons of rigor to govern this logic. But it is undoubtedly a category mistake of the first order to model these canons on weak forms of empirical standards such as reliability, validity, and generalisability. D. C. Phillips’ (2005) reference to the legal analogy is especially apt in this connection. The task of a legal advocate, he reminds us, is to present the ‘facts’ of a case to those who sit in judgment with sufficient corroborative evidence as to warrant their assertability, a term he borrows from
Dewey (1938). This evidence might come from a variety of witnesses, descriptions, documents, and measures. Yet a case based on ‘warranted facts’ will be meaningless without a strong argument concerning application and interpretation of the law in relation to those ‘facts’. If there is an ideal form of inquiry to inform and enhance educational policy and practice, in other words, it is more likely to resemble the practice of law than the discovery of statistical laws. Law involves the prescription of norms that actors must learn to follow based on proper reasoning, whereas statistical laws state regularities that control behavior  regardless of human choices.

This account may be a disappointment to those whose preferred epistemology seeks control on the basis of explanation and prediction. But the fact that we can sometimes predict does not authorise us to control, and in all events we control much less than the positivists may have once supposed. It follows that we should be wary about what we think inquiry enables us to predict, since what we take to be true or right today may turn out to false or troubled tomorrow. Inquiry at its best endows us with insights to better control ourselves, not generalisations to more efficiently dominate others; and the surest path to self-governance lies in reaffirming Socrates realisation that genuine wisdom begins with the recognition of how little we really know.


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