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The Paradigm Wars and Their Aftermath: A "Historical" Sketch of Research on Teaching since 1989

by Nicholas L. Gage - 1989

This article presents three versions of what may happen in post-1989 research on teaching. In the first version, the quantitative approach dies of wounds inflicted by its critics. In the second, different approaches work in harmony, and in the third, the wars continue among competing approaches to educational research. (Source: ERIC)

This article is based on the author’s address at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, March 29, 1989, as the recipient, in 1988, of the AERA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Educational Research, which appeared in the October 1989 issue of Educational Researcher. He is extremely grateful for suggestions generously given by J. Myron Atkin, Clare Burstall, Christopher M. Clark, Margaret C. Needels, Denis C. Phillips, and Samuel S. Wineburg. His early work on this article was done while he was a Spenser Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1987-1988) and he is greatly indebted to the Spenser Foundation and the Center for their support. Copyright © 1989 by the American Educational Research Association. Adapted by permission of the publisher.

As I begin this history, we have arrived at the year 2009—a decade after the turn of the millennium—and are looking back at what happened in research on teaching during the two decades since 1989. I have chosen 1989 as the year in which to begin this historical sketch and commentary because it was in 1989 that what came to be known as the “Paradigm Wars” came to a sanguinary climax.1


Although it is the ensuing years with which I shall be primarily concerned, we need first to look at the situation in the 1980s because the events since 1989 grew out of that situation. As you will recall, research on teaching of the kind that had flourished in the sixties and seventies came in for a severe beating during the eighties. Such research had been characterized as “at best, inconclusive, at worst, barren”2 and “inadequate to tell us anything secure and important about how teachers should proceed in the classroom.“3

The attempt to lay a scientific basis for the art of teaching had failed, said the critics. Beginning with Joseph Mayer Rice early in the twentieth century, and continuing through the work of such men as E. L. Thorndike, A. S. Barr, and David G. Ryans, the effort to use scientific method to study and improve teaching had come a cropper. Even the correlational research of the 1960s and 1970s, using the relatively new idea of observing teaching in classrooms with fairly objective low-inference schemes, had not, according to the critics, paid off. Even the twelve successful field experiments with teaching practices derived from correlational findings—to assess the causal efficacy of those teaching practices in improving outcomes4—had not impressed the critics. The search for scientifically grounded ways to understand and improve teaching had led nowhere. Moreover, even if such “positivistic social science” had succeeded, one writer said, it would have bred ideas that “can only be implemented in an authoritarian, manipulative, bureaucratic system.“5


The critics who asserted the failure of research on teaching also offered explanations of that failure. Perhaps the most fundamental explanation was the antinaturalist position that human affairs simply cannot be studied with the scientific methods used to study the natural world. Thus the term “social science” is at its root an oxymoron. Why is the scientific study of human affairs impossible? First, because human affairs, including teaching and learning, are inextricably involved with the intentions, goals, and purposes that give them meaning. Second, a science is involved with direct, one-way causal links, but there are no such “billiard-ball” causal connections between teacher behavior and student learning. Third, scientific methods can be applied only to natural phenomena that are stable and uniform across time, space, and context in a way obviously untrue of the human world of teaching and learning. Therefore, the critics asserted, we should search not for the kind of prediction and control that scientific method might yield but rather for the kind of insight that historians, moral philosophers, novelists, artists, and literary critics can provide. The futility of scientific research on teacher planning, for example, was inherent in the futility of teacher planning itself, because

the teacher may change objectives from month to month or from week to week; unforeseen events—a hot day or one student’s open cruelty to another—may necessitate revising plans; the demands people place on the schools can change from year to year, from community to community . . . so that the teacher cannot necessarily construct his battle plan in 1984 for 1985, in September for May, on Monday for Friday, or during second hour for third hour.6

So went the antinaturalist critique.


A second barrage of criticism, often related to the criticisms I have just described, descended from the interpretivists.7 These writers called for a focus on the “immediate meanings of actions from the actors’ point of view”8—a focus that they found absent from the mainstream of research on teaching of the sixties and seventies. They saw sharp differences between their own theoretical presuppositions and those of the quantitative, objectivity-seeking researchers. They were “pessimistic” about the possibility of combining interpretive and objectivity-seeking approaches.9 Thus, in focusing on behavior rather than on behavior and its meaning (i.e., on “actions”), the standard researchers had disregarded the interpretations of teachers and pupils. The interpretivists considered the focus on specifics of action and meaning-perspectives to be overlooked by the objectivists’ research on teaching.

Interpretive researchers differed from “standard” researchers in their “theoretical presuppositions about the nature of schools, teaching, children, and classroom life, and about the nature of cause in human life in general.“10 They rejected the conception of cause as mechanical or chemical or biological, a conception they said was used in the standard approaches to research on teaching. They also rejected the assumption of uniformity in nature—the assumption that phenomena would occur in the same way in different places and times. They rejected the use of linear causal models applied to behavioral variables as a basis for inferring causal relations among the variables, because such models presupposed fixed and obvious meanings of certain types of actions by teachers.

Instead, the interpretive researchers emphasized the phenomenological perspective of the persons behaving. In this perspective, behavioral uniformities are seen “not as evidence of underlying, essential uniformity among entities, but as an illusion—a social construction.“11 The effects on people’s actions of their interpretations of their world create the possibility that people may differ in their responses to the same or similar situations.

Thus, interpretive researchers regard individuals as able to construct their own social reality, rather than having reality always be the determiner of the individual’s perceptions. They believe strongly in something akin to what political commentators during the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign called “spin control.” As you will recall, spin control refers to the interpretation of an event to the advantage of a given party or candidate. Losing in a primary election could be interpreted as a victory if the spin controllers could point to very low expectations. The ordinary person’s everyday construction of social reality is not done as consciously and manipulatively as that of the political operatives who used spin control, but it was such meaning-perspectives or interpretations of events that the interpretive researchers considered important. In their opinion, the standard researchers had grievously neglected meaning-perspectives, because they tried to observe behavior (not action, defined as behavior plus meaning) objectively.

Because causation in human affairs is determined by interpreted symbols, the kinds of prediction and control that can be achieved in the natural sciences are not possible in human affairs. Because the positivistic and behavioral research on teaching of the sixties and seventies had typically been aimed at such prediction or control, it was clear that such research was doomed to failure. It ought to be supplanted by interpretive research on teaching, which would examine the conditions of meaning created by students and teachers as a basis for explaining differences among students in their achievement and morale. It was differences in organization and in the resulting meaning that, although they may be quite small indeed, and radically local,” might “make a big difference for student learning.“12


A third kind of attack on previous research on teaching came from the critical theorists. In their view, most educational research in general and research on teaching in particular had been governed by a merely “technical” orientation aimed at efficiency, rationality, and objectivity. It exhibited a “tendency to measure anything that moves,” a “neglect of latent political commitments in research questions and designs,” an “inclination to simply provide technical expertise for hire.“13

Instead, the critical theorists implied, we should have been looking at the relationship of schools and teaching to society—the political and economic foundations of our constructions of knowledge, curriculum, and teaching. The critical theorists emphasized the importance of power in society and the function of schools in defining social reality. They stressed the ways in which education served the interests of the dominant social class, which in our society has consisted of the rich, the white, and the male, as against the poor, the nonwhite, and the female. These class interests had led educators to serve, however unwittingly, the functions of reproducing the inequitable social class structure and other arrangements that currently exist and to proceed as if the societal status quo should go unquestioned.

The critical theorists asserted, however, that human beings can change the social structure; they need not be dominated by it. Properly educated and motivated people can undertake to change society into one in which the poor, the nonwhite, and the female will no longer be subordinate. Schools, like other social institutions (such as the media and the legislatures), must be the scenes of the necessary struggles for power. Educational research ought at least to be aware of the possibility of such struggles. Better, it ought to enter into them on the side of the oppressed so as to reconstruct education and society at large for the achievement of greater social justice.

The implication of the critical theorists’ position was that the kinds of research on teaching that had been done until 1989 by so-called positivists, attempting to use scientific method, and even to some degree by interpretivists, exploring social constructions of reality, had been more or less trivial. This research constituted a kind of technical attempt to improve the “fine de tails” of teaching14—“the little differences in everyday classroom life that [according to both the positivists and interpretivists] make a big difference for student learning.“15 Instead, the critical theorists implied, what is needed is a reconsideration of the whole structure of society in which education, including teaching, goes on.


What happened as a result of this onslaught from the antinaturalists, the interpretivists, and the critical theorists? As you all know, the critics triumphed. During the 1990s and thereafter, the kind of objectivist-quantitative, or scientific, research on teaching that had been done up through the 1980s ground to a halt. The field saw almost no correlational or experimental studies of teaching using structured observation systems intended to enhance objectivity.

Faculty members, graduate students, and research workers were convinced of the futility of the old way of studying teaching. In schools of education, enrollment declined in courses in tests and measurements, statistics, experimental design, and survey research. Structured classroom observations, achievement tests, attitude inventories, and the use of statistics to estimate the reliability and the interrelationships of such measures virtually disappeared.

Research grants and contracts from foundations and government sources became virtually unobtainable for objective-quantitative research. The Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association saw its membership shrink to about a fourth of what it had been during the 1980s. The Division on Teaching and Teacher Education of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) saw its members become almost exclusively devoted to interpretive-qualitative studies and critical-theoretical analyses.

The journals that published research on teaching contained almost no articles reporting tests of statistical significance, correlation coefficients, effect sizes, or meta-analyses. Instead, they were filled with reports on ethnographic studies of classroom phenomena and with sociopolitical and economic analyses of the ways in which teachers, curricula, and schools perpetuated the unjust social order. The critical theorists also found ways to work toward the reconstruction of society along lines that would reduce the inequalities, the social-class cleavages, and the other injustices endemic in capitalist societies.

Research on teaching, having rid itself of the scientific methodology that had led it astray, became more a matter of observing teaching carefully and reflecting deeply on what was observed. Teachers became much more involved in research on teaching, but no longer as mere objects of study or recipients of the findings of technically oriented experts. Rather, doing action research, teachers became the generators of the findings, which they inferred from qualitative studies of their own teaching, from thinking about what worked well and what did not, and from discussing their ideas with other teachers. Occasionally teachers might collaborate with a professor brought in for a day or two to advise on ways to help teachers do better what teachers already had in mind.

These fundamental changes, which had been implicitly (and more and more often explicitly) demanded by the critics, did not merely change the mainstream of research on teaching. Rather, the changes had the effects on teaching that their proponents had implicitly promised. The ethnographers' findings made teachers aware of small changes in teaching that made a big difference in student achievement. Teachers realized that their ways of asking questions, giving children opportunities to recite, and conducting reading-group sessions, for example, had often been alien to their pupils’ familial and community culture and their pupils’ expectations and understandings of how to behave and think. So what went on in classrooms became much more culturally appropriate for the poor, the minorities, and the female students. In short, some of the fondest hopes of the interpretive students of classroom phenomena were realized.

Critical theorists also achieved the kinds of changes in teaching that their orientations and research had made them want. For example, in teaching history, teachers no longer relied on the standard history and civics textbooks that raised no questions about the status quo.16 Instead, pupils were sensitized to the ways in which their previous history courses had neglected almost everything done by people who were not white men, political leaders, military heroes, or industrialists. Moreover, at least equal if not greater attention was given to what had been done in the course of history by white women, by men and women of color, by peace activists, and by labor leaders. The hard, cruel facts about what had been done to slaves, striking coal miners, union organizers, radical journalists, and left-wing political parties began to get equal time in the social studies classes of the nation.

Among academicians, many educational psychologists, for example, came to realize that they had gone into their field to realize their social values, their desire to contribute to the improvement of society and the lot of humankind, while simultaneously adhering to the values of science and avoiding the passions and ambiguities of politics. They could thus improve education and Society by cultivating and applying scientific method and findings and yet steer clear of the political fray. What the critical theorist contributed to the educational psychologist was a realization of the futility of this strategy. Education is of necessity a political process, said the critical theorists, and even the act of refusing to get involved in politics—not necessarily the politics of political parties but nonetheless politics—is a political act.


Now let me offer another look at what happened after 1989. In this second version, all but the first part is the same. That is, the interpretivists did continue their work and did bring about the kinds of improvement in teaching that I have sketched. The critical theorists also continued their work and achieved the kinds of improvement in curriculum and teaching that their ideas implied, even if the peaceful social revolution to overthrow capitalism and install a democratic socialism has not yet occurred. What did not happen was the decline in so-called positivistic or mainstream research on teaching. This decline did not occur because the field of research on teaching and educational research at large—indeed the social sciences as a whole—recovered from their confusion and came to a great awakening.

The confusion was illustrated by one writer who, although denying that paradigms are “competing,” considered them later in the same paragraph to be “rival”;17 the distinction between “competing” and “rival” is, of course, unrecognized in dictionaries. Some objective-quantitative researchers awakened from their torpor in responding to criticism and began to reply, point by point.18

More important, all researchers realized that what might be called the oppositional component of the paradigm was invalid. This component had stated that any paradigm inherently implied an opposition to alternative paradigms. Given their new understanding of the falsity of the oppositional component, researchers realized that there was no necessary antagonism between the objectivists, the interpretivists, and the critical theorists. Social researchers agreed with Howe that the “incompatibilists”—those who said that the quantitative and qualitative perspectives must of necessity be mutually exclusive and antagonistic—were simply wrong.19 Philosophical analyses resulted in a triumph of pragmatic resolutions of paradigm differences over claims to exclusive possession of the one true paradigm. These resolutions did not result from merely glossing over basic philosophical differences. They came rather through new realizations among scholars that paradigm differences do not require paradigm conflict.

First, it became apparent that programs of research that had often been regarded as mutually antagonistic were simply concerned with different, but important, topics and problems. There was no essential incompatibility between, for example, process-product research on teaching (the search for relationships between classroom processes and students’ subsequent achievements and attitudes) and research that focused on teachers’ and students’ thought processes and meaning-perspectives. The two kinds of researchers were simply studying different topics. The implication of necessary antagonism or incompatibility was unjustified. A year after she characterized positivistic social science as necessarily authoritarian, manipulative, and bureaucratic, the same writer endorsed “interdisciplinary collaboration” and acknowledged that she “should not have exploited psychology/anthropology differences to make a point.“20

Moreover, Shulman’s pioneering attention to teachers’ “pedagogical content knowledge"21—namely, the content-specific ways in which teachers understood, formulated, presented, explained, and discussed the content being taught—was recognized as long overdue and extremely valuable, but also as not at all antagonistic to process-product research. Although the latter kind of research had often been concerned primarily with content-general and managerial aspects of teaching—such as the ways in which teachers organized their classes, asked questions, or reacted to responses—nothing prevented process-product research from also being concerned with the teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge.

Process-product research was also recognized to be compatible with interpretive, ethnographic studies of classroom phenomena. Thus, what Erickson22 had endorsed as good examples of interpretive research23 came to be recognized also as examples of process-product research, because they related ways of teaching to what students learned. Many process-product studies in the two decades since 1989 have employed both objective-quantitative and interpretive-qualitative methods.

In short, it was finally understood that nothing about objective-quantitative research precluded the description and analysis of classroom processes with interpretive-qualitative methods. Classroom processes need not be described solely in terms of behaviors or actions; they could also be described in terms of meaning-perspectives. No calamity whatever befell those who studied teaching in the same investigation with both objective-quantitative and interpretive-qualitative methods. Indeed, most of these investigations with both kinds of methods turned out to be more fruitful of insights, understandings, predictive power, and control, resulting in improvements of teaching.

One persuasive harbinger of paradigmatic rapprochement came from Goldenberg and Gallimore.24 They contrasted two hypotheses much used for the improvement of teaching: the “universalistic” and the “cultural compatibility” hypotheses, derived from the objectivist and the interpretive approaches, respectively. They laid out quite evenhandedly the strengths and inadequacies of the two approaches. They pointed to the omnipresent need for artistry in the implementation of scientific findings, as had also been done by Gage.25 Finally, they noted the dependence of educational improvement on the political forces emphasized by critical theorists. All in all, their well-documented analysis demonstrated the value of a nondoctrinaire formulation.

The antinaturalists—those who believed that the methods of the natural sciences were inappropriate for the social sciences—also eventually became aware of the errors of their thinking. They realized that they had mistakenly loaded onto scientific method a lot of ontological baggage that was unnecessary in gaining the advantages of scientific method in objectivity and trustworthiness. They conceded that scientific method could be used for purposes other than building a science—a network of laws that would hold forever everywhere. Rather, scientific method could be used for “piecemeal social engineering” as envisioned by Karl Popper, namely, for making “small adjustments and readjustments which can be continually improved upon.” The piecemeal social engineer, Popper had said,

knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. . . . He will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unwanted consequences

of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects, and to know what he is really doing.26

Scientific method had reshaped our whole conception of the physical and biological universe, including humankind itself—with enormous gains in human health and longevity, in freedom from hard physical labor, in mobility, in communication, and in the spread of culture. If science produced nuclear bombs and other technologies that threatened the very survival of our species and its environment, natural and social science also offered some of our major hopes of warding off those disasters. So research workers should hesitate a long time, perhaps forever, before tossing aside an intellectual tool as tremendously powerful as scientific method had proven itself to be. Scientific method need not be forgone in human affairs. Along with people all over the world, those who did research on teaching began to recognize, now that the second millennium was over, that the triumph of natural science and the advances of social science had been the greatest achievements of that millennium. It was Popper’s piecemeal social technology rather than holistic social revolutions that came to be recognized as the proper orientation of the social sciences.

The social sciences need not, therefore, be based on any assumptions of uniformity in nature. Uniformity, it was recognized, is not an all-or-none matter. Although many human arrangements may change over time and place, it is not true that they must change. Many social arrangements, such as classroom teaching, had stayed put for many decades, even for centuries, and had been found occurring in the same form in many countries. While they lasted, they could be studied productively with scientific method. When they changed, scientific method could track the change. Most teaching arrangements did not exhibit the random and rapid change over time and place that, as the antinaturalists seemed to think, would make scientific method inapplicable. Whatever uniformity social phenomena might exhibit, as long as it was substantially greater than zero, would be good enough to make the methods of science usable.

So, what happened in research on teaching in the decades after 1989? In particular, what happened to process-product research on teaching, which had especially been belabored by the incompatibilists, the antinaturalists, the interpretivists, the cognitivists, and the critical theorists? As the years went by, the ineluctability of process-product research became ever more apparent. Educators simply wanted to know as much as possible about how different ways of teaching were related to different levels and kinds of student achievement and attitude.

The long and important agenda of process-product research continued to be acted on. Processes in teaching were investigated in interpretive and cognitive terms as well as in terms of teachers’ and students’ actions. Through the use of multiple perspectives, the teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge was described in ever more valid ways. Products, or the outcomes of teaching, were investigated in ever more authentic terms—with essay tests, real-life performances, group processes, and concrete products, as well as with the multiple-choice tests that had been prevalent through the 1980s. Process-product relationships, in all the various grade levels, subject matters, student cultures, and economic levels (and combinations of these) were examined—sometimes through interpretive case studies, sometimes through correlational studies, sometimes through field experiments with random-assignment-to-treatment of real teachers and their classes, and sometimes through critical-theoretical analysis. The knowledge about process-product relationships began to become even more useful than it had been during the 1980s when the first programs for incorporating such knowledge into teacher education programs and the practice of teaching began to blossom.27 The substantial value of even weak relationships in improving the probabilities of desirable effects of teaching practices became better understood,28 so that teacher educators no longer considered such a relationship to be useful only if the correlation coefficient equaled at least .39.29

Another insight has made research on teaching more productive since 1989: the realization that the paradigm wars in educational and social research were in part wars between the disciplines. It was psychology in large part that bred the objective-quantitative approach to research on teaching. It was anthropology in large part that spawned the interpretive-qualitative approach. It was mainly the work of analysts from economics, political science, and sociology that produced critical theory.

Added to these disparate disciplinary origins of the approaches was the chronic scarcity of research funding and academic positions in these disciplines. The scarcity had led to competition between the disciplines—competition manifested in derogation of the concerns of the other disciplines and glorification of one’s own. What had seemed to be merely intellectual disagreement also turned out, as experience accumulated, to be turf wars in the attempt to gain for one’s own discipline a greater share of the research funds, the academic positions, and the other kinds of wherewithal needed for a discipline to flourish. Jobs and incomes had been at stake, as well as ideas about the best way to do research on teaching or educational-social research in general.

What ended the interdisciplinary war and brought about the present productive harmony among the paradigms? To some degree, it was the dawning of the realization that, if the social sciences did not get together, they would perish. The practical everyday world of families, work, education, and government had looked on the paradigm wars uncomprehendingly and, as time went on, with increasing impatience. The social scientists, including the educational researchers, had better put their house in order and agree on a decent respect for one another, some standards of research conduct, some criteria of validity, some goals for their work, and some ways of achieving those goals, or we will have to get along without them, said the citizens whose children and dollars were at stake.

Alarmed by this threat to the whole enterprise of social and educational research, the newer generations of research workers began to come to their senses. They understood well enough that scientists should learn from philosophers’ analyses of their concepts and methods, but they also understood that the philosophers of science could accommodate their analyses to what scientists actually did. They began to be influenced more by old-fashioned pragmatism. They recognized that the moral and rational foundations of the three paradigms were virtually identical, dedicated to the same ideals of social justice and democracy and the goals of an education that would serve those ideals, so they paid more attention to effectiveness in achieving those ideals. If the research of the objectively and quantitatively oriented investigators led to improved student achievement and attitudes, the research community paid respectful attention. If such results were produced by interpretive-qualitative investigators, the arguments for their concepts and methods were considered to be strengthened. If the analyses of the critical theorists led to reforms that resulted in social and educational benefits, their ideas were also thus supported. As William James had put it:

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, "categories," supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.30

Pragmatism also applies to ideas. Pragmatism means that “ideas . . . become true just in so far as they help us get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.“31

Thus, as the years went by, the educational research community abandoned the debate on whether objectivistic-quantitative methods were compatible with interpretive-qualitative methods. Both kinds of methods were respected, sometimes used alone and sometimes combined in the same study. Similarly, the critical theorists came to appreciate the value to their own analyses of both kinds of methods. They discovered that structured and quantified observations in classrooms had already, in the three decades preceding the 1980s, compiled a strong record of effectiveness in revealing the unconscious biases of teachers along social-class, skin-color, and gender lines.32 Ethnographic studies in classrooms also revealed such biases. Both kinds of data entered into the arguments of the critical analysts, along with findings, from both kinds of sources, on matters of the hidden and the explicit curriculum, textbook production and consumption, school administration, school-community relations, and a host of other aspects of education in which the power relations of society manifested themselves. Today, not long after the start of the twenty-first century, critical theorists are embroiled in a debate about whether Popper's piecemeal social engineering or Marx’s holistic social revolution holds the better promise of leading us to a more humane society.

These changes toward the recognition of paradigm compatibility undermined the hegemony of psychology in educational research-a hegemony that had existed throughout most of the twentieth century because psychology had a half-century’s head start in devoting itself wholeheartedly to the study of education. Thus, between 1964 and 1989, nineteen of the first twenty-six recipients of the AERA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Educational Research had been psychologists. A large majority of the first seventy-three AERA presidents between 1915 and 1989 had come from educational psychology or from the testing and statistics allied to educational psychology; only a few represented such fields as administration, philosophy, anthropology, curriculum, or sociology.

The realignment of the disciplines made sociology and anthropology recognize—much later than psychology—that education was properly their concern, so they began to have more equal influence in educational research, including research on teaching. Of the twenty AERA awards since 1989, only five went to psychologists; five went to sociologists, five to anthropologists, and five to various other fields. Similarly, the lines between the disciplines ere blurred as doctoral programs in education began to turn out people with broader training. The new training comprised courses in teaching and curriculum and also psychology, sociology, anthropology, relevant parts of economics and political science, and the philosophy of the social sciences. This ecumenical yet feasible training resulted in a generation of research workers equally adept in and loyal to the approaches of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists,- and political scientists.

Thus, from the jungle wars of the 1980s, educational researchers, including those concerned with teaching, emerged onto a sunlit plain—a happy and productive arena in which the strengths of all three paradigms (objective-quantitative, interpretive-qualitative, and critical-theoretical) were abundantly realized, with a corresponding decrease in the harmful effects of their respective inadequacies. Educational researchers today look back with amused tolerance at the invidious recriminations that the paradigm-loyalists had hurled at other paradigms in the 1980s.


Now let me turn to a third version of the aftermath of the paradigm wars of the eighties. This version is epitomized by Alphonse Karr’s apothegm: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” What happened after 1989 in research on teaching was pretty much the same as what happened before 1989. The invective and vituperation continued. The objective quantitativists persisted, and the interpretive-qualitativists also carried on. The critical theorists continued to regard both groups as engaged in mere technical work, more or less, on the details of education and teaching while neglecting the social system that determined the basically exploitative and unjust nature of education in capitalist society.

Some psychologists suggested that the wars continued because they reflected deep-seated differences in human temperament and values - differences determined not genetically but by equally powerful features of early home and school experience. These temperamental differences inclined people toward basically different intellectual orientations that have been given such labels as tough-minded versus tender-minded, scientific versus humanistic, nomothetic versus idiographic, statistical versus clinical, and, of course, positivist (or post-positivist) versus hermeneutic. Although differences among researchers in these orientations could be rationally resolved, it turned out that Thomas Kuhn had been right.33 These were rational issues, but not purely rational issues. They were embedded in the ethos of communities of researchers, who huddled together in embattled camps and fought off the aggressions of their opponents.

Perhaps paradigm wars could eventually be resolved in the natural sciences, because the results of research in those sciences were unambiguous enough, consistent enough, and stable enough to compel the surrender of one paradigm community to another, but in the human sciences the results were not that unambiguous, consistent, and stable. What the results meant lay too much in the eye of the beholder- and the beholder’s upbringing had made the beholder either tough-minded or tender-minded, scientific or humanistic, and so on.

At any rate, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in 2009 in very much the same condition of paradigmatic war that existed in the 1980s. How long the war will last and whether it will lead to the demise of social and educational research, including research on teaching, are questions that cannot be answered in the year 2009.


Let me recapitulate this sketch of what has happened in research on teaching since 1989. I have given you three versions of those events. In the first, the so-called positivistic, establishmentarian, mainstream, standard, objectivity-seeking, and quantitative approach had died of the wounds inflicted by its critics. In the second version, peace had broken out, but it was not the peace of the grave. The three approaches were busily and harmoniously engaged in an earnest dialogue, lifting the discussion to a new level of insight, making progress toward workable solutions of educational problems, and generating theory that fit together, as seen from the perspective of each of the three approaches. In the third version, nothing that was true in 1989 had really changed, and the wars were still going on.

Which of these versions is the true one? To give you the answer, I shall have to return from 2009 to 1989, where we actually are despite the rhetorical device in which I hope you have indulged me.

The answer to the future lies with us, with you. What you do in the years ahead will determine whether the wars continue until one paradigm grinds the others into the dust, or whether pragmatic philosophical analysis shows us the foolishness of these paradigm wars and the way to an honest and productive rapprochement between the paradigms. Even as we hope that our political leaders will continue to avert the ultimate nuclear disaster, so we must hope that our intellectual leaders—the philosophers, scientists, scholars, research workers, in short, the members of AERA and their counterparts around the world—will keep us from getting bogged down in an intellectual no-man’s-land.

I find myself better motivated to succeed at this difficult task whenever I remind myself of what we are all about. Educational research is no mere spectator sport, no mere intellectual game, no mere path to academic tenure and higher pay, not just a way to make a good living and even become a big shot., It has moral obligations. The society that supports us cries out for better education for its children and youth—especially the poor ones, those at risk, those whose potential for a happy and productive life is all too often going desperately unrealized. Therefore, even as we debate whether any objectivity at all is possible, whether “technical” research is merely trivial, whether your paradigm or mine should get more money, we must remember that the payoff inheres in what happens to the children, the students. That is our end concern. It is up to us to decide which history of research on teaching since 1989 will be the true one.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 2, 1989, p. 135-150
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 405, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:37:31 PM

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