Saturday, 19 September 2015

Eisner - objectivity in educational research

Eisner, E. (1992). Objectivity in educational research. Curriculum Enquiry, 22(1), 9-15.

This is the first text I've read for the first Ed.D. weekend, which is in a fortnight. We've been given a list of texts to read, but no context with which to read them. I suppose I should look at it as an introductory and mind-widening process - learning to think and consider the frameworks within which we all think unless we are challenged to do otherwise. I'll read through all the texts and see what themes emerge.

This is going to be quite descriptive, as I have to get to grips with the ideas he's dismissing, before I can understand why he's dismissing them. Lots of new terms, which I'll describe first:

Ontology - pertaining to being

Ontologically objective - a belief is ontologically objective if the belief accurately describes external phenomena. In  other words, it is seeing the world as it is, unfiltered by our own conceptions. To see things the way the are is to experience or know them in their ontological state" (p. 10)- this is known as veridicality

Procedural objectivity - deals not with our beliefs but our methods of decision making. For example, a teacher is procedurally objective when she assigns grades based on the merit of the work and not her knowledge of the student.

Veridicality - the degree to which an experience, perception or interpretation accurately represents reality.

Correspondence theory of truth - the truth or falsity of a representation is determined solely by how it relates to a reality - whether it accurately describes that reality.

Who is Eisner?
A professor of art and education.

Description of the article

Eisner starts by asking us to consider what is meant by objective and what we mean by being 'as objective as we can'. He suggests that neither ontological objectivity nor procedural objectivity provide a meaningful measure of objectivity. He discusses the role of episteme (truth) and doxa (belief). What we know is truth - if it isn't true, we couldn't know it, but only believe it to be true, but belief is different. "Ontological objectivity gives an undistorted view of reality".

Procedural objectivity eliminates scope for personal judgement, for example a scored achievement test marked by computer. "Traditionally the aim of research, from a methodological perspective, is to use a procedurally objective set of methods in order to gain an ontologically objective understanding of the events and objects we study".

My thoughts: This makes sense in relation to my background in science. Procedural objectivity ensures reproducibility of results, for example of a microbiology test. With sufficient procedural detail, a microbiologist on the other side of the world should be able to replicate the tests and results that I achieve in the lab. This relates to SOPs, ISO standards and so on - procedural objectivity.

Eisner asks the question - how can we know whether our view of reality corresponds to the ontological reality? He quotes Popper (1959 - look up!) who says that "we can never verify the truth of a claim we can only refute it (and even refutation can be uncertain."

Perception is influenced by the framework within which we operate - we are influenced by our traditions, language, etc. we only see and interpret what we are able to see. If we do not have the means to interpret it, we will not seek it.

Another issue with ontological objectivity is the limitation of representation, be that through language, visual art or oral compositions etc. The medium we use to represent the world as it is both reveals and conceals reality, leading to only a partial view of the reality we seek to describe.

A further complication is the use of schemata which we use to structure our perception. Schemata are "structures of appropriation"; these schemata define how we interpret and understand the world. each group creates its own world, so which is the objective one?

In summary of this first part, Eisner proposes that it is effectively impossible to achieve ontological objectivity.

He posits that procedural objectivity can be achieved, but in a limited way, for example a multi-choice, computer-read assessment tool. However, this does not demonstrate an understanding of reality, merely an understanding of a general consensus.

So, why do we need objectivity? Intellectual traditions stemming from the Enlightenment - we crave an "objectively knowable world".

Eisner proposes that we should recognise that what we think we know is a function of a transaction between an ontologically objective view of the world, which we cannot know, and the frames of reference and personal histories we bring to them. These are moulded by the culture within which we operate. There is a "transaction" between objective conditions and personal frames of reference, of which we make sense- this is experience. Experience, therefore is made, not had - it is constructed.
The construction depends on the frameworks we are able to use and the skill with which we use them. Acculturation and education can be considered as psychosocial processes that provide frameworks to the young, to ensure a commonality of framework with others. If there is no communis - sharing of frameworks, there is no common ground and no understanding between people.

"Knowledge is always constructed relative to a framework, to a form of representation, to a cultural code, and to a personal biography". (p. 14).

So, what does this mean? Eisner suggests:
- there is no singular way to make sense of the world, but a participation in a variety/plurality of worlds, but with a common understanding.
- truth can be retained as an ideal but with the understanding that what we understand to be the truth will vary depending on our framework for perception and understanding (and also representation?)
- the history of science shows that what we understand as truth changes.
- All experience is transactive.
- "Belief, supported by good reasons, is a reasonable and realistic aim for inquiry".

What does this mean to me?
Well, it makes sense. How we see the world, and how we interpret it, is coloured by our own experiences. How I, as a white, female, middle-class, well-educated, British person see the world will differ from people experiencing the world through different frameworks. In this way, this was a useful text to pick to read first - I think it might inform how I understand some of the other texts.

Does it relate to my research ideas? Perhaps.
Having an understanding of my own perceptions and how they can cause me to interpret the world differently will hopefully give me greater awareness of the different frameworks of others. I think I'll have to read more about this to understand its relevance, as I get the feeling it's something I agree with but I need to read some other viewpoints. I believe (doxa!) that one vociferous critic was Denis C. Philips, so I should go away and read that. I can't find the original paper, but there's a discussion of that paper at the top link (below). I'll write more when I've had a chance to read it.

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