Archive for July 22, 2010

Psychologists are from Kansas City, and Education Researchers are from Rio de Janeiro

Lately, I’ve been working with groups of psychologists and education researchers, listening to their stories, and watching how they negotiate their way around topics.  I came away with this new appreciation of how different the two fields are.  They’re not from two different planets, so the old “Mars vs. Venus” metaphor doesn’t work.  It’s more like they’re on the same planet, even same land mass, but different continents.  You can drive from one to the other, but it’d take some work.

Psychology is a real science.  They can measure things.  They can go deeper-and-deeper with their measurements, like the very cool fMRI work that’s going on now to do tracking of differences at the neural level.  They do interesting things, but more in the laboratory than in the messy classroom.

Education is big and messy and exciting.  It cares about such different things.  Education research wants to be a science, but it’s so hard to measure things exactly when you’re dealing with real human learning on learning objectives that are complex and necessarily vague.  So, replication and predictability (hallmarks of science) become nearly impossible.  Education researchers do experiments and do measure phenomena of interest, but the experiments are so different that psychologists (often, in discussions I’ve had, in my experience [insert several other caveats here]) don’t really understand the issues. For example, Education researchers are trying to convince teachers, so they are very worried about perceived bias, hence the use of external evaluators to do the data gathering and analyses.  Psychologists seem to mostly trust one another — if you said you collected this data, you probably did. (Maybe they should sit in more curriculum committee meetings?) Education researchers look at things like student attitudes and degree retention/attrition rates that don’t map to constructs that psychologists can’t measure with validated tests and fMRI.  Teachers often don’t have the background to understand the issues that the psychologists talk about, so education researchers have to use different language than psychologists.

I don’t get the sense that psychologists think badly of education researchers.  Education researchers just ask such different questions and work in such a different frame of reference.  Psychologists I’ve worked with often get ideas for interesting new experiments from the work of education researchers.

On the other hand, education researchers can find psychologists frustrating. The education researcher might say (making all this up to explain my point), “Wait! We already know about student learning on that topic! It works like this.” and the psychologist responds, “Well, we haven’t considered these four other possibilities, and we’ll need to do controlled experiments on each,” and the ed researcher pulls out his hair saying, “But that’s such a waste of time!”  Then the education researcher looks at the psychologists’ results and says, “How can you say that with so few subjects?” and the psychologist pulls out the power analysis and ANOVA and says, “See! It’s significant!” and the education researcher says, “But I have 150 students in my lecture, and I’m positive that my students would learn differently than that!”  Then the psychologist comes out with some really terrific nugget that a teacher could use to improve their teaching, but presents it with a p value and a discussion on the significance test of residuals. The ed researcher screams, “Teachers won’t get it when you say it like that!”

Of course, I’m making gross generalizations, and no specific education researcher or psychologist talks or thinks like that.  Lots of psychologists work with teachers and education researchers, and there are lots of education researchers who work perfectly well in psychology.  There are lots of people who do travel back and forth from Kansas City to Rio de Janeiro.  (You can take a plane. You don’t have to drive.)  Being someone who does commute back and forth (who metaphorically mostly lives in Rio, but has visited KC enough that I don’t get lost when traveling the main streets), I find the differences striking and interesting.  We’re all working on the same problem, but from different directions.  Maybe we’ll meet somewhere in between.  Bring your fMRI data, and I’ll grab my course evaluations, and we’ll have lunch in Acapulco.

July 22, 2010 at 1:19 pm Leave a comment


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