Science – Wikipedia
Science in the broadest sense refers to any system of knowledge attained by verifiable means. In a more restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on empiricism, experimentation, and methodological naturalism, as well as to the organized body of knowledge humans have gained by such research.
Education is probably classified as a science by most definitions. Educators generally believe that their practice is a system of knowledge attained by verifiable means. Many spend their careers engaged in the research that defines the body of knowledge which encompasses Education. My personal problem with this classification is that, too often, we try to apply the generalizability of science — the value of science to predict and be replicated — to Educational outcomes and I believe that gets us into trouble.
That’s not to say that there are not valid bits that work very well. The use of graphics for educational purposes, for example, is very much science. We can predict rather reliably that an explanation using a simplified diagram generally works better than a photograph when explaining complicated ideas like the way an internal combustion engine works or the water cycle. We know that multi-channel encoding — where a single message is coded in multiple ways and presented simultaneously — works very well. We know that there is some governing mechanism at work in our brains that limits processing to a finite (and small) number of chunks at a time. These are definitely science.
The problem comes when we expect similar levels of outcomes as we apply the same techniques across multiple students. This variability — the distribution of outcomes — is also part of the science of education but the part we overlook because we have a bias towards sciences with less variability. Dropping objects from a roof and measuring the time it takes to fall to the ground gives us an extremely reliable model to predict how long the drop will take for a variety of objects. Dropping Romantic Poetry into a class of high school juniors is substantially less predictable.
One more confounding issue for the science of Education comes in those areas of the field where we’re really talking about superstition. We believe that there is a fact when, in reality, there isn’t. The classic example is “Learning Styles” as a governing characteristic of the learner. Many educators still believe that (a) Learning Styles exist and (b) a student can be reached most effectively if the teacher caters to that style. Let me just state for the record here that I’m using s strict scientific definition. It’s impossible to prove that something does not exist. All one can hope for in a science is to assert that no evidence has been discovered. In this case, despite numerous studies and investigations across a variety of disciplines and populations, no credible support for the theory of learning styles has ever been established. Again, it’s not impossible that learning styles exist, it’s just that there is no evidence to support the widespread belief among educators that each student has a “Learning Style” and that supporting that style produces more effective outcomes.
The idea of a “Learning Style” is a superstition. It’s not science. Until somebody brings me credible evidence, it’s going to remain a superstition.
I’ve seen studies that purport to support the idea, but the methods are almost universally flawed. The typical flaw is using multiple representations of a construct. Repetition and variety are shown to be effective educational strategies and what is attributed to learning style is more logically associated with the repetition and variety which characterize most investigations of learning style.
Therein, lies the problem with Education as Science. The vast majority of practice is supported, not by “verifiable means” but with a series of myths and opinions based on personal experience. The belief that we “hone our practice” in the classroom everyday is valid, but the belief that what we are engaged in is science is not. You can’t teach my class the same way I teach it nor would you want to. Most of what we learn in our own practice is not transferable. Our individual styles and techniques are unique expressions of our own instantiation of Educational practice.
This is a Good Thing.
But it’s not Science.