Background/Context: In 2010, I was invited to give the annual lecture that honors Lawrence Cremin, the historian of American education who became the seventh president of Teachers College, Columbia University. To pay tribute to the way in which Cremin used an academic discipline to bring rigor and depth to educational research, I described my own use of an academic discipline—linguistics and its varied tools of discourse analysis—in conducting research at the College.
Focus of Research: I focused on two major areas of research: (a) ethnocultural variation in processing spatio-temporal information in languages throughout the world and (b) children’s interaction with multiple-choice tests of reading comprehension, with particular attention to the ways in which their ethnocultural background affects how they respond.
Research Design and Findings: The first area of research used experimental methods developed by a research team that I directed. The major finding was that distinctive patterns of processing spatiotemporal information by speakers of African languages (e.g., Hausa) and Asian languages (e.g., Chinese) are preserved when African Americans and Chinese Americans speak English in the Western hemisphere. In addition to ethnocultural identity, our research team uncovered other factors such as age and gender that are reflected in the preservation of these patterns. I draw on the model structured heterogeneity (Herzog, Weinrich, & Labov, 1968) to show that what may appear to be random variation in language use can be accounted for by attending to sociocultural factors.
The second area of research used quantitative methods (experimental probes) and qualitative methods (interviews). Our major finding was that children, especially African Americans who live in the inner city, often make inferences when responding to a multiple-choice task, which, although stimulated by features in the test item, lead them to select a choice, which, given the test makers’ highly restricted model of literacy, cannot be justified. Our research team drew on the model ethnography of communication (Hymes, 1962) in identifying the contrasting interpretive norms used by test makers and test takers. We then developed a model grounded constructivism (Hill, 2004) that was used to build an alternative approach to assessment in which children respond to an integrated set of tasks that call for three different kinds of response: factual, inferential, and experiential.
Recommendations: An academic discipline can provide greater depth and rigor in educational research, but those who draw on one must seek, much like Lawrence Cremin, to make their research intelligible to an informed public concerned with educational policy.