Towards revitalised and ethically astute systems of education worldwide contributing directly to environmental, cultural and personal sustainability
We find ourselves immersed in an age of great uncertainty, some call it a new dark age. The world is wracked by global crises, forcing us to rethink many of the key fundamentals of our lives. Financial, climatic, natural resource and security crises are acting in concert on the world stage to rob us of our confidence in our modern worldview. We are now aware that an uncritical commitment to centuries of economic expansion, development and consumption, much of which has been driven by science and technology, has contributed to unsustainable global exploitation. Today, leading organizations such as UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature Conservation and TerraLingua lament the resulting collapse of cultural, linguistic and biological diversity.
How can education contribute to resolving this seemingly intractable set of problems? Specifically, how can we prepare teachers with the ability to design and enact socially responsible teaching that produces critical and creative citizens armed with essential skills for resolving the world’s ecocultural crises? And in particular, how can educational research contribute to this process? Research being conducted at the Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC), Curtin University of Technology, is responding to these questions. An innovative approach to teacher professional development is being employed to engage postgraduate students in transformative educational research. Here the researcher adopts the role of critical and creative learner and employs epistemologies (or theories of knowledge) drawn from multiple research paradigms relatively new to educational research. The purpose is to explore and develop the transformative potential of the researcher’s own professional practice and/or the practices of his/her colleagues.
What type of knowledge is produced by such research? The answer depends on which epistemologies are chosen and the research paradigms they are drawn from. The paradigm of positivism dominated social science research for much of the twentieth century, with its emphasis on producing objective measurable knowledge of the material world in accordance with the ‘gold’ standards of validity and reliability. In recent decades three new epistemologies, accompanied by new quality standards, have been shaping the questions asked and methodologies enacted by social science researchers. First to be embraced was the research paradigm of interpretivism with its focus on understanding how the world looks and feels to the ‘ethnographic other’ and how this understanding is generated through the interacting subjectivities (values, beliefs, assumptions, aspirations, spiritualities, cultural lenses) of both the researcher and his/her co-participants. With a concern for identifying invisible social, cultural and political factors that distort educational policies and practices and that perpetuate social injustices and inequities, educational researchers have embraced the research paradigm of criticalism and become political analysts and brokers of indigenous knowledge systems. Recently, the postmodern paradigm has become a source of creative inspiration for educational researchers because of its emphasis on new logics of inquiry (e.g., dialectics, metaphor, poetics) and arts-based genres (e.g., impressionist tales, photo-imagery) for engaging themselves and readers of their research in pedagogical thoughtfulness.
For innovative researchers, the question arises as to which research paradigm to choose for framing their inquiry. Traditionally, the paradigm of positivism served as a seemingly natural framework within which social science researchers designed studies to test causal inferences about the interaction of variables of interest. With a shift of allegiance to interpretivsm, many researchers immersed themselves within this alternative epistemological framework and used only qualitative methods. This polarisation resulted in the ‘paradigm wars’ of the 1980s, the echoes of which can still be heard today as quantitative and qualitative researchers continue to do battle. (NB. A false rapprochement was achieved when positivists colonised qualitative methods to create the ‘mixed methods’ concept.)
However, with the arrival of the critical and postmodern paradigms, researchers soon began to design multi-paradigmatic studies such as ‘critical interpretive’ inquiry and ‘philosophical auto/ethnographic’ inquiry. Thus it no longer makes sense to think in terms of restricting one’s research design to within a single epistemic framework. Instead multi-paradigmatic researchers have come to think of themselves as working within a creative design space, much as do artists, drawing multiple epistemic referents from whichever research paradigms best suit their purposes. Thus educational researchers can now draw on an exciting range of new research methods – autobiography, narrative inquiry, auto/ethnography, co-generative inquiry, performance texts, impressionistic tales, dialectical logic – with which to develop their professional capacity to respond creatively to rapidly changing social, cultural, and environmental circumstances in their own countries and local communities.
Prof. Peter Charles Taylor
Professor of Transformative Education
The Transformative Education Research Group (TERG) was established in 2006 at Curtin University of Technology (having developed from the former Culture Studies in Science Education Study Group). Now in its fourth year, the TERG, led by Associate Prof Peter Taylor, comprises researchers from the Faculties of Science and Humanities, as well as graduates, graduate students and committed onlookers worldwide.
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