Constructivism and Interpretive Research

Peter C Taylor

Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics

Curtin University of Technology

Perth Australia

Paper presented at seminar, Science Education Center,

National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

7 May 1996

Two Faces of Science Education

Janus is the god of Roman mythology who guards doors and gates. As a metaphor,Janus signifies the need for science educators to combine two perspectives: (1) a natural science perspective and (2) a social science perspective. Traditionally,science educators have thought and acted like a one-eyed Janus; their understanding of teaching and learning has been dominated by a natural science perspective. In teacher education and research, traditional ways of knowing about teaching and learning have regarded teachers and students as predictable objects and the ‘scientific method’ has focused only on observable behaviors. If science educators are to be like Janus then they must open both eyes and learn new ways of knowing that take account of teachers’ and students’ human characteristics, especially the ‘uncertain’ activity of the mind (e.g., beliefs, goals, intentions, interpretations, values, dreams).

New Possibilities of Interpretive Research

In science education, research has been governed traditionally by positivist ways of knowing (i.e., research as proving; quantitative measures; standards of validity and reliability; dispassionate reporting). The emergence of interpretive research , with its constructivist ways of knowing, has challenged our assumptions about research and has highlighted the inter-dependency of research questions (what?) and research methodologies (how?). Interpretive research has brought many new possibilities:different types of research questions, new methodologies, diverse ways of portraying our results, and alternative standards for judging the quality of our work. It also has deregulated research and made it more accessible to classroom teachers (i.e., teacher-researchers).

Constructing New Understandings

The activities of the interpretive researcher — forming research questions, making sense of fieldwork experiences, writing the research report — are framed by a constructivist perspective on knowledge1. As an interpretive researcher, I ‘construct’ my own knowledge as I make sense of perplexing experiences. The quality of my knowledge depends on its usefulness (or viability) for enabling me to meet my goals. The quality (i.e., depth, connectedness) of my knowledge depends on: (1) my ability to sustain and resolve my perplexity; (2) the quality of my communicative relationships with others while trying to understand their understandings; and (3) my ability to engage in critical self-reflective thinking about the quality of my knowledge construction process.

Alternative Standards

Interpretive research has 2 sets of standards2 for controlling the quality of research activity: (1) trustworthiness criteria and (2) authenticity criteria. The trustworthiness criteria are parallel to the conventional methodological criteria of scientific research (i.e., validity, reliability) but are characteristic of a constructivist view of knowledge (i.e., multiple experiential realities, researcher’s interpretive activity, researcher as learner). The authenticity criteria are unique inasmuch as they are designed to provide accountability for the rights of all participants to benefit from involvement in the research.

Alternative Genres

An important issue for the interpretive researcher is how to portray new understandings that constitute the results of his/her inquiry. Because constructivism regards knowledge as a state of mind, then reporting one’s knowledge is an act of portrayal rather than an act of representation; rather like a map is a portrayal of a landscape. Exciting new developments mean that interpretive researchers can break with the conventions of scientific research and choose alternative genres for portraying their knowledge. Consistent with the metaphor of researcher as learner, the researcher may choose from a range of authorial voices and tenses, and from a diverse range of rhetoric to portray the richness of his/her fieldwork experiences. In addition to the traditional form of propositional statements, interpretive researchers may choose genres such as autobiography, narrative, story, fiction, or impressionistic tales. Standards for judging the quality of interpretive research writing are drawing increasingly on the field of literary theory. For example, Van Maanen (1988) argues for the text of impressionistic tales 3 to adopt a novelistic form and engage the sensitivites of the reader through dramatic control, striking use of metaphor and imagery, rich characterisation, and building of tension. Thus the writing is judged by its ‘interest’ (does it attract?), ‘coherence’ (does it hang together?), and ‘fidelity’ (does it seem true?).


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In the 1980s, North American and Australian science educators interested in interpretive research were influenced largely by the writings of anthropologist Frederick Erickson (1986). The 1990s has seen dramatic growth in interpretive research activity and in the development of interpretive research as a mature and legitimate educational research paradigm; see, especially, Denzin & Lincoln (1995), Gallagher (1991), Guba & Lincoln (1989). 1 I base my notion of constructivism (Taylor, in press) on a blend of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism (Hardy & Taylor, in press; von Glasersfeld, 1993, 1995) and Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action (Pusey, 198?). Radical constructivism is a

powerful post-epistemological framework for understanding the constructed nature of the individual’s knowledge and its relationship to his/her experiential reality, the cognitive dynamics of ‘accommodation’ associated with constructing deeply connected understandings, and the need for alternative standards of judgement for determining the truth status of that knowledge. Habermas’s theory of communicative action extends von Glasersfeld’s theory into the socio-cultural realm by emphasising the central role of language in enabling us to establish meaningful and beneficial communicative relationships with others. Habermas’s theory posits critical self-reflective thinking for deconstructing harmful illusions (emanating from historio-cultural myths) that shape our sense of self and our outlook towards others, and a set of discourse ethics for regulating our communicative relationships in order that we work towards a utopic vision of a democratic society which is free from coercion, manipulation and

the harmful effects of competitive self-serving interests.

2Standards for Judging the Quality of Interpretive Research

(see Chapter 8 of Guba & Lincoln (1989))

1. Trustworthiness (Parallel Methods) Criteria

Credibility: how well represented are the participants’ experiential realities? (prolonged engagement, persistent observation, peer debriefing, negative case analysis progressive subjectivity, member checks) [Internal Validity: how well represented is the objective reality of the real world?]

Transferability: how well are readers able to judge the extent to which this research might be applicabile to their own contexts? (thick description) [External Validity: how well can the results be generalised to other contexts?]

Dependability: how well can the reader trace the (changing) methodological process? (process audit trail) [Reliability: how well can the reader decide whether the study can be repeated?]

Confirmability: to what extent can the data be traced to original sources? (data &minterpretation audit trail) [Objectivity: to what extent is the study free from researcher bias?]

2. Authenticity Criteria

Fairness: how well have participants’ (conflicting) values been represented?

Education: how much have participant’s learned from their participation in the research?

Improvement: to what extent has participation in the research enabled participants to improve their practices?

Empowerment: to what extent have participants been empowered to have a significant role in the research?

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