Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Reassessment of the Role of Theory by a Leading Researcher: Implications for EdD Dissertations

David Berliner is one of the top education researchers and helped define the field of educational psychology. He is a former president of the American Educational Research Association, and co-author of the books (among others) of  Educational Psychology, Handbook of Educational Psychology, and Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. Dr. Berliner typically extols the tradition perspective of education research. This is why I was surprised to see him describe the role of theory in a very non-traditional fashion in a recent autobiography (in Education Review) summarizing what he has learned in his long and distinguished career. Dr. Berliner concludes that:
"Theory may be overrated. The journals and the scholarly community value “theory.” But I have done a lot of research on teachers and teaching without much theory to guide me. We deal with the practical in education, and the practical is filled with complexity, some of which is hard to fit into psychological or any other social science theory...
A good question is a good question, and should be pursued. Working from a Piagetian or Vygotskian theory is nice, and thinking about the world from a Freirean position, or asking what would Derrida say, is also to be lauded. But in my research career, a good question sensibly answered is worth its weight in gold. So I have come to believe that dust-bowl empiricism is too often dismissed as inadequate, and that theory in education research is too often over emphasized. I am more impressed with the quality of the question asked and the attempt to answer it, and less impressed with the quality of the theory."  

Implications for EdD Dissertations

Dr. Berliner's statements point to the need to rethink the traditional perspective of the role of theory in an applied program such as the EdD. The question is how to do that. It is clearly appropriate for EdD programs to require/expect students to exhibit knowledge of theory and to demonstrate the ability to apply theory to problems in class assignments and exams. However, should students be required to provide a theoretical rational for the questions they ask in an EdD dissertation or the approach chosen to study the problem? Dr. Berliner's perspective and Chapters 4,5 of the above alternative quantitative methodology text for EdD programs suggest that theory and theoretical justifications should not be required as a basis for EdD dissertation work; though students should have the option for using it as a basis. Rather the focus should be on asking good questions, i.e., ones that have clearly empirical evidence of their importance and/or that they have not been previously asked in adequate fashion. Methodology and approach should be demonstrably unique—unless you are trying to replicate or extend the results from a prior study.     

The URL for this autobiography is 

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