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skoolboy’s Platinum Law of Educational Research

By Eduwonkette — May 21, 2008 5 min read

eduwonkette’s “Iron Law of Qualitative Research in Education” is that the number of participants in the study should exceed the number of authors on the paper. Ha-ha, very funny, but the subtext is that (a) we cannot learn anything of value from studies that have small sample sizes; (b) qualitative research often has small samples; (c) therefore, we can’t learn very much from qualitative research. Eduwonkette would protest that that’s not what she’s saying at all—"qualitative research is critical to educational research and policy,” and I know that she does believe this. But poking fun at a paper reporting qualitative data without explaining why does her readers, and those who believe that qualitative research can be of great value, a disservice. I’d like to upgrade eduwonkette’s Iron Law to skoolboy’s Platinum Law of Educational Research: Poorly designed and conceived research is poorly designed and conceived research, regardless of the sample size.

I’ll leave a defense of research using small samples for another day, and focus on why I think that the paper eduwonkette drew to our attention is poorly designed and conceived. I don’t want to go on too long about this—there’s a lot more to say than will hold the attention of casual readers—but here’s the gist. The authors claim that teaching for social justice evokes a range of emotions in novice teachers, and they seek to understand the strategies that teachers use to navigate their emotional responses, and the implications of those strategies for their self-understandings and practices. I found the concept of socially just teaching confusing, but I’ll accept the possibility that there are teacher education programs and novice teachers that are committed to the idea of teaching in ways that promote the life chances of members of marginalized groups in society, such as the poor and racial/ethnic minorities. In this paper, teaching for social justice is taken for granted as a good thing, which I know vexes some readers here, and the study seeks to build on previous work on emotions and emotional navigation in teaching. It’s not news that teachers often express ambivalence about their work, and that they might struggle with how to respond to feelings of ambivalence.

The authors introduce the term critical emotional praxis to characterize the role of emotions in socially just teaching. This is not an analytic term emerging from their analysis of data on how teachers manage emotions in their work; rather it is a normative term—that is, a term that describes what the authors think the role of emotions in teaching for social justice should be. In their view, critical emotional praxis involves understanding the role of emotions in engaging with unequal power relations in classrooms and society; acknowledges the interplay between a teacher’s local context and her emotional responses; and moves from a theoretical understanding of emotion to a practical set of relationships and teaching practices that promote teaching for social justice. I find this concept to be of minimal value for research purposes, since it has no apparent relationship with observations of teachers’ practices and emotional states.

The purpose of the study is to describe how a novice teacher seeking to teach for social justice navigates her ambivalent emotions. The authors don’t offer an explanation of why a case study of a single teacher is appropriate to address the questions they pose about emotional navigation in teaching. In this particular study, one of the authors observed the teacher for 80 minutes per day during the final 9-week period of her first year of teaching, and interviewed the teacher six times for two to three hours at a clip. The teacher’s department chair and 10 students were interviewed as well. A year later, an author interviewed the teacher once for three hours, and did two more 80-minute classroom observations. Although the authors acknowledge some of the problems associated with the fact that the subject of the study was a former student of one of the authors, a teacher educator who taught her about socially just teaching, these problems are not adequately addressed in the research design.

What are some of the key findings of the research? One pertains to the teacher’s mode of response to her emotions. The teacher, Sara, began seeing a professional counselor in December of her second year of teaching. She also enrolled in a course on nonviolent communication, and began sponsoring her school’s forensics team. These three concrete modes of response, the authors contend, gave her insight into her self and emotions, and provided concrete strategies for relaxing, having fun, and balancing her feelings of sadness stemming from her observations of social injustice. With what consequences? She quit teaching, leaving her school and volunteering at an orphanage and school in a developing country.

What’s wrong with this picture? I think the authors lacked a theory of when novice teachers might develop feelings of ambivalence and seek out strategies for coping with them. In this study, most of the action took place in the teacher’s second year of teaching, and the primary source of data on these strategies is a retrospective interview conducted at the end of the second year. Therefore, the authors missed most of the action, and can only provide a bare-bones understanding of even this one case. Moreover, the fact that this teacher left the field of teaching raises serious questions about whether this case can inform teacher education in the ways that the authors hope. One reading of the results is that the teacher’s leaving of the field is prima facie evidence that her strategies for coping with the feelings of ambivalence associated with seeking to teach for social justice didn’t work; and although we can certainly learn from strategies that don’t work, a study that shows strategies that do work would likely be more valuable.

The problem with this paper is that the intellectual payoff is nowhere near commensurate with the amount of space it took up in a major journal—45 journal pages, from start to finish. I agree with eduwonkette that it doesn’t reflect well on the field of education research to have papers which make marginal contributions taking up so much airtime, and the time I spent reading this paper is lost forever—time that I could have spent in other, more valuable ways, like updating my Facebook page or grading papers.

But: the take-away message here is not that a study with a small sample—even an N of 1!—cannot contribute new knowledge to the field of educational research. It’s that a badly designed and executed study won’t contribute much. And bad design and execution have to do with a lot more than sample size.

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The opinions expressed in eduwonkette are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.