Long Line: Why the language of causality troubles me

This post is part of a series of posts pulled from a piece of writing I completed in November 2012. For more information on this series, see this post.

Context | Looking Back | Transformation | Looking Back at the Looking Back | Questions | On ethics | Letting Go of Nothing | Taking on Subject and Objects | On meaning making | Why the language of causality troubles me | Conceptual versus Empirical | Futuring | Temporality and Time | Brief Note | Back to Time | What to do with the Past | Some tools to help us be | An example from my past | Avoiding Labels | The educational turn | Being and curriculum | Curriculum of Being | Curriculum Futuring | On dispositions as ways of being | Being and pedagogy | Being and technology | Being and the body | References

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Why the language of causality troubles me

Causality is a fancy word for human meaning making. This has some catastrophic implications for research. As an example to worth with and through, I am going to consider some educational psychology/technology research. I want to come at the fallibility of research results and conclusions but I need to acknowledge Kieran’s argument* that comes from another positionality that I will return to later.

Let’s make up a study and assume we are “normal” educational researchers. We want to know whether iPads really help students learn better so we find a classroom with a willing teacher (and kids and parents and administration and so on), do all of our ethical reviews, gather test results/score and observation notes pre-iPad-implementation, and then hand out the iPads. We think professional development is important so we secure funding to have an Apple representative come and do a half-day presentation on integrating iPads into the classroom. For the next few months we drop in for observations, conduct interviews, and finally collect test scores/results at the end of the time period. We lock ourselves in a room and process all of our “data” and come out on the other side with our results: Yes, iPads do help students learn better... in some ways... except for lack of teacher training... and unforeseen technological troubles... but the slight bump in achievement scores really shows that iPads do support learning!

Where does one begin? I must excuse myself for the critique that I am about to begin, but, as I referenced above, you can’t go home again. I am not sure how else to respond to a study like this other than severe critique, except for maybe silence. The entire study is based on a number of unexamined (and easily identifiable) presuppositions that remain hidden. Here are just a few: Collecting data before iPads and comparing that with data collected after iPad-implementation represents an adequate research method; test scores represent something “real”; test scores can be compared to show “growth”; teachers need professional training but students do not. Then there are the usual (by now) questions that can be expected: Why iPads?; Why this class and this teacher?; What does it mean to “help students learn better” and who is the judge of that? Which test scores? Why test scores?

This scenario can be found in any major educational technology research journal. And, I, as a researcher and educator, have gained nothing from this study that I could not have already ascertained either (1) using my reasoning abilities and (2) skimming the abstract.

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* Egan, K. (1988). The Analytic and the Arbitrary in Educational Research. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’√©ducation, 13(1), 69. doi:10.2307/1495167

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