The Importance of the Disciplinary Perspective in Educational Research

The Importance of the Disciplinary Perspective in Educational Research

Ross Kerr Galloway (University of Edinburgh, UK) and Paul Hernandez-Martinez (Loughborough University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch010
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In addition to general findings from education research in the widest sense, further insights can be gained by considering the particular perspectives afforded from education within a specific discipline. In this chapter we present two such views: In part 1, we use the discipline of physics to highlight the distinctions between general and discipline-based education research and argue for a crucial bridging role for the latter. In part 2, we use the discipline of mathematics to explore the role of context while examining the use of mathematical modelling as a pedagogic practice.
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Part 1: Particular Characteristics Of Research On Education In Science And Mathematics

Research into education in the fields of science and mathematics at the Higher Education level can broadly be divided into two categories: what we might term fundamental or general education research (GER) and discipline-based education research (DBER). Generalising somewhat, the former largely takes place within Faculties of Education, mostly (although not exclusively) by researchers whose disciplinary expertise lies within education itself. In contrast, DBER is generally conducted by those with expertise grounded within the scientific and mathematics disciplines themselves. This may be an artefact of the comparative youth of DBER as a clearly identifiable disciplinary endeavour: for example, Physics Education Research (PER) originated as an identified activity only in the late 1970s. Henderson et al. (2012) found that the majority of active researchers in PER held PhDs in a traditional area of physics. However, that may be because opportunities for DBER PhDs have historically been scarce. This is less true at the current time: a number of institutions now grant PhDs in DBER, so in the future we might expect to find DBER more populated by those whose career path has largely concentrated on educational matters. However, it remains the case in the Americas, Australia and the United Kingdom that DBER is principally to be found within science departments rather than education departments. (The picture is less clear in continental Europe, partly because of a large degree of involvement of university science departments in the education and training of school science teachers, more so than is the case elsewhere; this has naturally led to a higher level of integration of activity between science and education departments. However, the general point stands.)

Research into teaching and learning conducted by Departments of Education often focuses on general principles of knowledge structure and cognition, methods of instruction, assessment techniques, etc. which are intended to be widely applicable across many disciplines. This research may be situated within or flavoured by specific disciplines (such as the sciences or mathematics) but is usually conducted with the methodologies and mindsets of general education. In contrast, Discipline-Based Educational Research is usually heavily contextualised within its own discipline, with a prime focus on applications and outcomes, rather than more general theoretical principles. Since, as discussed before, most DBER is conducted by researchers whose primary prior research experience was within their specific discipline, DBER is often strongly flavoured by the traditions and customs of the discipline, in terms of methodology and outlooks. (For example, Physics Education Research has traditionally prominently featured quantitative methodologies, as is consistent with the general approaches found in the field. Qualitative methods are often viewed with some trepidation - or even scepticism - by some practitioners, partially because those methods of investigation are very unfamiliar in the physical sciences. However, this too is changing as PER becomes a more mature field.) DBER studies are often strongly grounded within particular classes or courses, and revolve around attempts to improve the learning and attainment of particular cohorts of students; DBER studies, and those researchers who conduct them, are often highly operationally motivated.

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