Elements of a science of education

Year: 2005

Author: Kalantzis, Mary

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This conference is being held in the electoral territory of Gough Whitlam at the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of his government. At the rhetorical heart of his prime ministership were the twin beliefs that education could be a modernising force and that it could also be means to achieve a just and equitable society. Over the thirty years that have since elapsed, the public rhetoric surrounding the field of education has shifted considerably. Today the mantra is freedom and choice, and these articles of neoliberal faith have been translated into a market-oriented view of education.

The Whitlam era was also a high point in the push to educational progressivism, exemplified by the work of the Schools Commission. In the decades that have followed, the push has been 'back to the basics'. This has manifest itself in a focus on high stakes standardised tests, curriculum to fit, and the re-emergence of conceptions of what constitutes worthwhile knowledge and good schooling which are much the same as they were half a century ago and more.

This conference reflects the collective thinking of a particular slice of the education community-teacher educators and educational researchers. In this paper, I want to examine one aspect of the back to the basics movement which affects us directly, and that's the call to return to 'evidence-based research'. This idea is represented in its clearest and most influential form in the report of the US National Research Council, Scientific Research in Education (Shavelson and Towne, 2002), a product of George Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' agenda. The report privileges empirical research and controlled experimentation-x initiative leads to y measurable results. The US Federal Department of Education is explicit about its agenda here: 'Unlike medicine, agriculture and industrial production, the field of education operates largely on the basis of ideology and consensus. As such, it is subject to fads and is incapable of the cumulative progress that follows from the application of the scientific method and from the systematic collection and use of objective information ... We will change education to make it into an evidence-based field' (Quoted in Erikson and Gutierrez, 2002: 22). Although less narrow in their intentions and sectarian in their politics, clearly this is also this kind of research which the Australian Governments would now want to favour and for the same kinds of reasons.

Notwithstanding the reflected glow of the Whitlam era amongst those nostalgic for its progressivism, there can be no return. Education can, indeed, be a modernising force and one which addresses the twin demands of economic progress and social inclusion. However, neither the progressivism of the third quarter of the twentieth century with its humanistic view of the discipline of education, nor the anachronistic 'back to basics' of our more recent times with its empiricist and ostensibly apolitical view of educational 'science', provide adequate tools for the challenges we educators face today, let alone tomorrow.

This paper will make the case that education is, in fact, a science, but that science has to be defined more rigorously than do those who disingenuously believe it can and should be de-politicised, stripped of ideology and bigger-picture transformative agendas. The paper will define science, and propose eight constitutive components of science-eight 'acts of knowing' that can form the basis of a rigorous and generative science of education.