Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

Qualitative Research, Part IV

In general, the thing I struggle with most is that qualitative research has no expectation of impartiality. I am beginning to understand that this is because at least some of the proponents of qualitative research explicitly reject the possibility of impartiality. I guess I’m a positivist by nature and my natural Libra inclination is to see and hear both sides of arguments. Anyway, I struggle with the idea of deliberate bias in research, of prejudged advocacy. I don’t know where it leaves us if everything we read takes a side, how do we get to truth? Yes, I know many of the folks who advocate for qualitative research reject the concept of truth, but honestly I don’t see how to move forward if there’s no truth.

Qualitative Research, Part III

What are some strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research?

The primary strength and weakness of qualitative research is its unbounded nature.  From a positive point of view, this allows quantitative research much great flexibility to investigate and illuminate areas, subjects, and situations impenetrable to other research methods.  Qualitative research can tell the reader how people feel, really feel. Quantitative research can record which feeling they checked off in a box on a survey.  However, qualitative research can tell us in their own words, with their own pauses and hesitations, what is passing through their minds at a particular time. It can use these single observations to weave an experiential tapestry, capturing the collective experiences of a time, a group, or an event.  It is modern in the sense that it values the individual and includes our collective humanity, even that of the authors, into the process and results.  It is more sensitive, both in the colloquial meaning and in the sense that it can follow the authors’ instincts to a conclusion or portrayal of life that might elude the more rigorous and arbitrary limits of conventional research.  Done correctly, it borders on great literature, capturing the unique human experiences and holding them still full of life and energy for the reader to see and appreciate.

That all sounds terribly good, and it is in the same way that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship.  The problem with all this open-endedness and flexibility is that there are few rules to constrain how they are used, to what purpose, or even where the borders of legitimate science lie.  Worse still, the recent trend is to polarize, politicize, and to turn to deliberate advocacy under the guise of research, “research” which still travels under the concept of science.  I am not prepared to make that leap.  It is one thing for me when a human follows his or her heart to a story of an event supported by the gathered words of the participants.  The Pearl may not be the only way to view La Paz, Mexico but it changes each of us in important ways by evoking facets our shared humanity and human experiences in the lives of the people it portrays.  However, Steinbeck was a writer of fiction and even as such, he cared more for the story than the advocacy.  My main problem with qualitative research is that not only does it have little by way of structures to make sure it follows the scientific demand of impartiality, it is increasingly denying any need or expectation of impartiality.

Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Qualitative and qunatitative research both have their uses as well as their misuses. I think quantitative research is somewhat harder to misuse because the structural constraints and expectations are much clearer. Any partisan instinct, when exposed, seriously damages the weight of the paper. This seems to not be the case in qualitative research where it appears that advocacy is not only tolerated but, in some quarters, cheered. I find that disturbing. Science is a service business, service to the human race. It cannot serve two masters, the human race and a partisan cause. There is a role for partisan advocacy in serving the human race, we see it nightly on MSNBC, et al. But there it is clearly understood to be the free competition of partisan ideas.

I was particularly tweaked by the second paper in our text because I think the instinct to second guess as if “nothing bad should ever happen in life and if it does it’s somebody’s fault” is a generally unwise. Thus, the author’s making an issue of the fact that the university didn’t appear to be making a plan to deal with shooting incidents when few of the participants felt the same way was a misuse of the platform. Of course, the same happens in quantitative research. The confusion over global warming is a great example. It seems clear to me that many of the advocates of global warming didn’t like industrialization in the first place. They’re thrilled to “find” ecological issues to stop with science what they couldn’t stop with advocacy. And it is equally clear that there is a great deal of money being poured into both sides of the argument, paying for research. Neither Exxon nor the Sierra Club is all that interested in paying for research that contradicts its advocacy. The result is a blizzard of claim and counter claim, all backed by “science.” When I was a kid, the buzz was the coming of the new ice age. Today, it’s global warming. How do I know what to believe and therefore how to act? It’s unnerving and a disservice to us all.

When we go into a jury box, we are sworn to put our biases aside. I think most people do the best they can, and I think their best is pretty good. I believe that is what science demands: rigorous impartiality. That is hard enough to obtain in quantitative research, but qualitative research seems to not even have that as an expectation. That’s a problem for me.

Quantitative Research

What are some strengths and weaknesses of quantitative research?

Quantitative research is a fantastic tool for expanding human understanding.  By using the time-honored tenets of scientific inquiry, it pushes back the dark curtains of ignorance in our lives.  It is “systematic and purposeful.”  It “is conducted and reported in such a way that the argument can be examined painstakingly.  The report does not depend for its appeal on the eloquence of the writer or any surface plausibility.” It usually “assumes there are stable, social facts with a single reality, separated from the feelings and beliefs of individuals.” In quantitative research, “there is an established set of procedures and steps that guide the researcher.”  The researcher must remain “detached from the study to avoid bias.”  By doing all these things, quantitative research sheds informational light on the subject under study, allowing improved predictability and suggesting how changes in process could result in changes in outcomes.  It specific, practical, and observable.  By “observable,” I mean that the process by which a conclusion is reached and the facts upon which that conclusion is made are exposed to the reader and subject to independent scrutiny.  The conclusions can be judged in the context of the process, the facts, the methodology, and the solidity of the statistical outcomes.  It can also be replicated, checked against differing situations, places, people, and times for verification of universality.  It is an incredibly powerful tool to refine and improve outcomes.

The famous quote “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics” captures the flavor of the weakness of quantitative research.  It is possible to design studies such that essential causal factors are missed.  It is very easy to confuse correlation for causation in such studies (though after many years of use, I would like to think this is not such an easy mistake to sell anymore).  It is not hard to “data mine” samples for facts which support the desired argument while ignoring facts which do not. Finally, there are subjects, which are inaccessible to statistical methods, or are anyway better portrayed in a holistic representation of the words and experiences of the participants.  I think Mark Twain compared humor to dissecting frogs, claiming “both suffer from the experience.”  Likewise, many aspects of human existence lose a great measure of “truth” when broken into constituent parts.  Certainly, it takes a particular sensitivity to run the wheels of the quantitative research machine along the grain of life such that the reductionist techniques leave the reality of life intact.

Qualitative Research, Part II

My point is the lack of required intellectual rigor and the requirement for reflexivity empowers anybody with a Ph.D. and a word processor to spew whatever they care to into the information pipeline. I find the new trend of “participatory and advocacy practices” masquerading as scholarship particularly alarming. It seems clear from the title and the description that there is no attempt at impartiality. These authors start with a premise, a cause even, and work backwards to studies and “research” to prove their point.

There seems to be way too little structure and accountability, too little grounding in provable facts, in qualitative research. This casual acceptance of advocacy endangers, if not destroys, its value as “science.” There are plenty of opportunities for advocacy that fall under the general heading of “advocacy,” where they belong. This is not to say that I have a problem with all qualitative research. There is a great place in research for non-numerical, experiential study. However, I am very uncomfortable with how the less rigorous structure of qualitative research creates too much opportunity for mischief and actual unscientific behavior.

Qualitative Research, Part I

I fully appreciate the benefits of good qualitative research. However, I find its lack of accountability disturbing. If one does a study of the number of college campuses that have emergency plans for shooting incidents (a quantitative study), one has data. Some do, some don’t. Many? Few? We’ll find out.

I found Campus Response to a Student Gunman (Asmussen & Creswell, 2002) to be deeply, if not flawed, certainly skewed. Let’s start with basics. It’d be very interesting to track the various parties’ progression through Freud’s stages of loss to see how well Freud’s analysis applies to this situation. There were certainly echoes of that in the work they did. But there was way too much “some people felt x, but others didn’t, but then they did later…” in this study. It was interesting to read but I didn’t feel like I learned all that much.

Second, I thought the whole question of the college failing to develop an emergency plan was totally biased. There was little in the research to show that many people other than the researchers care about an emergency plan. More importantly, it is really easy to decide a campus needs an emergency plan for a shooting incident after a, wait for it, shooting incident. Much more interesting would be a discussion of how many campuses have shooting plans in place already (but that would be quantitative again).

I also somewhat resent the implication by the authors that in spite of the lack of outcry for such a plan, such a plan should have been developed. To me, it is very shortsighted and ill-considered. Every move we make to “protect” ourselves, we give something away. Every plan to prevent this, causes that. And it propagates a level of fear such that we’re all at the mercy of gunman even if none ever appear. If there was a toxic railcar spill near campus, should there then be a plan for that? What about a runaway vehicle that tears through the common? Runaway vehicle plan? Suicider leaps off a campus building? Suicide plan! Our world gets narrower and narrower but, whatever happens next, there won’t be a plan for that.

To me, the dark side of qualitative research is that it is like bad journalism but with better respectability.

Gender-based Educational Strategies

I think there’s no question that gender-based strategies need to be taught to teachers and incorporated into classrooms just as VAK, multiple intelligences, and many other tools for understanding and reaching students more effectively are. I think teachers who say, “I teach to every child individually” are on the right path however they do need the education to fully comprehend what those distinct personalities require.

In particular, boys are frequently very much of a mystery for many teachers (though girls have their gender-based learning challenges too, obviously). So for me, the key is getting teachers to teach to coed classes using gender-based teaching strategies (amongst others). However, one of the leading writers on this subject, Leonard Sax, has apparently moved to advocating single sex classrooms and perhaps schools. I think a lot is lost, particularly in single sex schools. But there are certainly times and situations where differentiating by sex might help (for example in middle school when there is already so much change going on).

Here’s a table that shows gender-differentiated scores on the English Language Arts portion of the California CST. Note pretty uniformly 8% fewer boys than girls are scoring proficient or better.

Boys – Girls            
Adv & Prof 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th
2009 -8% -5% -8% -8% -7% -9%
2008 -7% -5% -7% -6% -6% -10%
2007 -9% -8% -7% -7% -5% -9%
2006 -7% -6% -8% -7% -6% -10%
2005 -6% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
2004 -7% -6% -7% -8% -6% -10%
2003 -7% -7% -8% -8% -5% -8%
Average -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -9%
Median -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
Adv & Prof 8th 9th 10th 11th Average Median
2009 -8% -8% -7% -9% -8% -8%
2008 -9% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%
2007 -9% -10% -8% -8% -8% -8%
2006 -8% -8% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2005 -8% -10% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2004 -8% -9% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2003 -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -8%
Average -8% -9% -8% -7% -7% -7%
Median -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%

The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oybR4PcQ7u8.

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.

Instructional Strategies

What criteria would you use to determine developmentally appropriate instructional strategies?

The CalTPA handbook lists a series of developmentally appropriate instructional strategies. They are broken down into age categories: Grades K-3, Grades 4-8, and 9-12. They are included in TPE 6. Here are some examples from the CalTPA Handbook, Appendix A:

Grades K-3

  • understand how to create a structured day with opportunities for movement
  • design academic activities that suit the attention span of young learners
  • instructional activities connect with the children’s immediate world
  • draw on key content from more than one subject area
  • include hands-on experiences and manipulatives that help students learn
  • teach and model norms of social interactions (e.g., consideration, cooperation, responsibility, empathy)
  • educational experiences that help students develop more realistic expectations and understandings of their environment
  • special plans for students who require extra help in exercising self-control among their peers or who have exceptional needs or abilities


Grades 4-8 

  • build on students’ command of basic skills and understandings
  • provide intensive support for students who lack basic skills as defined in state-adopted academic content standards for students
  • teach from grade-level texts
  • design learning activities to extend students’ concrete thinking and foster abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • help students develop learning strategies to cope with increasingly challenging academic curriculum
  • assist students, as needed, in developing and practicing strategies for managing time and completing assignments
  • develop students’ skills for working in groups to maximize learning
  • build on peer relationships and support students in trying new roles and responsibilities in the classroom
  • support students’ taking of intellectual risks such as sharing ideas that may include errors
  • distinguish between misbehavior and over-enthusiasm
  • respond appropriately to students who are testing limits and students who alternatively assume and reject responsibility


Grades 9-12 

  • establish intellectually challenging academic expectations
  • provide opportunities for students to develop advanced thinking and problem-solving skills
  • frequently communicate course goals, requirements, and grading criteria to students and families
  • help students to understand connections between the curriculum and life beyond high school
  • communicate the consequences of academic choices in terms of future career, school and life options
  • support students in assuming increasing responsibility for learning
  • encourage behaviors important for work such as being on time and completing assignments
  • understand adolescence as a period of intense social peer pressure to conform
  • support signs of students’ individuality while being sensitive to what being “different” means for high school students