Quality, parsimony and beauty in educational research

So… my first post aimed at supporting students studying research perspectives (UTS 013952) – which covers issues about quality in educational research, philosophy, what it means to produce new knowledge etc. At the heart of this is learning to be critical – not to take what you read for granted or at face value.

One thing I have often noticed is that people leap quickly onto the critical part of critique (ie. picking  holes, identifying limitations or shortcomings), and forget the equally important part: giving credit where it is due, identifying strengths. Think about it in terms of food shopping – we could go round the supermarket giving reasons why all the products are rubbish, but without a sense of what good food is and an ability to know it when we see it, our trolley would always be empty.

One really useful text for getting started on these issues is (chapter 1 in particular):

Yates, L. (2004). What does good education research look like? Situating a field and its practices. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

In the opening chapter, Yates notes that many people give one or more of three responses when asked what good research is:

1. It is technically good – systematic, tight, well designed etc.

2. Makes a contribution to knowledge – shows something we didn’t know before.

3. Achieves something that matters – which in education people often take to mean makes a difference to teaching and learning in classrooms.

Yates (quite rightly in my view) debunks each of these. When I’ve asked students in the past about good research, many have used words like ‘objective’, or ‘unbiased’. These point to the technical theme (1) from Yates. Research should be done well. We can’t cut corners, be sloppy with our concepts or methods. We have to think carefully about things like samples, the tools we use to generate data, and processes for analysis. But I would like to complicate ideas about what technical quality might look like. Can something be subjective and still technically good? In some circumstances, yes! It depends on your perspective – what ontology and epistemology you are working with.

Couldn’t a piece of research be technically good but still rubbish? Let’s think about designing something, maybe a car. It could have perfect components, a finely tuned engine, but be shockingly ugly, too wide for roads, too long for car parking spaces, too high to pass under bridges. No beauty. No utility.

Beauty? Utility? In research? Well the utility part links to the 3rd response above – making a difference to something that matters. I agree – there is an infinite number of questions we could ask about education, and I don’t think all of them are equally worthy of our attention as researchers (and the money of the people who fund research, who are often taxpayers!). But research can be useful in many ways, not just identifying ‘what works’ (here I am poking at a major preference in the USA for a particular kind of research that promises this kind of outcome; see here for more info). As we continue in class and in this blog, we’ll think more richly about what utility might mean.

What of beauty? I think good research does have an aesthetic quality that is often overlooked. A kind of elegance that comes from a great question that cuts through to the nub of an issue; snappy, tight concepts that give us something to work with without over-complicating (I’ve read hundreds of studies that tell me X or Y issue is more complex than we thought. Yawn); a neat design (size and scale aren’t everything); and a focused, insightful analysis. Statisticians don’t just apply rigid mathematical formulae; they make judgements when they build models of the world, and one of them can be framed in terms of parsimony – striking a balance between explanatory power and complexity. I think parsimony is a quality of all good research. But it’s not a 1 or a 0 kind of concept. More a question of grey areas than black and white: judgement; aesthetics; beauty.

The quick-witted amongst you have noticed I have ignored the 2nd response, that of making a contribution to knowledge. But have I? When I said not all of the infinite research questions are equally worthy of our attention, didn’t I imply that not all new knowledge is equally valuable? Research that doesn’t lead to new knowledge isn’t (by my definition) research, let alone good research. But that doesn’t mean all contributions to new knowledge are good research. What if I ‘found out’ that students do best if 100% of their classes are 1:1 with teachers with PhDs in their subject area? It might be ‘true’; based on a technically competent (even parsimonious) study; and as far as I know, no-one has shown this to be the case before. There’s my novelty. But so what? What’s the point at arriving at a conclusion that is so disengaged from realities of politices, budgets etc.?

Now I’m going to contradict myself, and leave you with the question that maybe good research questions and challenges the status quo, including dominant political ideas, assumptions about money and funding etc. Maybe something of the beauty in educational research is precisely the ability to take evidence and to use to imagine new possibilities, new ways of facilitating learning, to provoke new dreams of justice and equality? How else will we break persistent cycles of inequity if we don’t use research to do this? Adding a brick to the brick wall of existing ways of thinking is fair enough. Maybe good (beautiful) research lobs bricks through it, knocking a hole in the opaque edifice and giving us a glimpse of what might lie beyond?


4 thoughts on “Quality, parsimony and beauty in educational research

  1. Pingback: Martyn Hammersley’s framework for critical reading of (ethnographic) research: why I like it | Nick Hopwood

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    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for the suggestion and encouraging feedback.
      I am trying to keep the text pithy and am considering upgrading so I can put in images.
      I tend to mind map ideas a lot myself anyway so a few diagrams etc and jut others for visual appeal will certainly improve things.
      Please keep the useful suggestions coming!

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