Feminist theory in educational research: Understanding ‘the other’, and expanding multiculturalism in schools.

As the need for multiculturalism in education grows, so does the necessity for a more sincere inclusion and acceptance of ‘the other’: the other belief, the other opinion, the other experience of events.  Could a feminist approach be better equipped at addressing the need for multicultural education?

Feminism represents the empowerment of ‘the governed’; groups who historically have been ignored, misunderstood, or discriminated against.

While I previously have been unfamiliar with the implications of feminist culture in educational research, I now see clear benefits of adhering to this type of viewpoint. Feminism represents the empowerment of ‘the governed’; groups who historically have been ignored, misunderstood, or discriminated against. Thus, feminist educationalist does not only seek to eliminate gender inequalities, but also inequalities based on ethnicity, religion, class, and age. At the very core of feminist theory, lays the belief in true diversity— not merely through the superficial teaching of ‘other’ cultures, but through the implementation of multicultural practices. When schools and education systems are investigated, interpreted, and evaluated in a male-dominated climate, there will inevitably be disregard of the views and needs of minorities and women.

For me, a feminist approach puts new hypotheses and questions on the table, and expands our area of investigation: In which ways are internal dynamics in schools perpetuating social divisions? Can open-mindedness and acceptance be taught? How can students’ silence be interpreted? As feminist theory emphasizes the use of ethnographic methods, I am especially partial to a stronger influence of feminism in educational research methodology. Although objective quantitative inquiry can provide useful information on, say, educational testing methods, I see subjective research as the most reliable way of gaining a more comprehensive understanding of educational systems.

Feminist methodology opens for deeper investigations into internal dynamics and power structures in schools; structures that often work against official curricula, and perpetuate undesirable patterns in society

In a global community tainted by religious conflict, terrorism, and exploitation, ensuring cultural awareness and acceptance among citizens should be a top priority for governments. More specifically, I believe that tolerance of ‘otherness’ must become a vital part of national curricula. Feminist approaches hold significant potential for meeting the moral challenges in educational planning. Also, feminist methodology opens for deeper investigations into internal dynamics and power structures in schools; structures that often work against official curricula, and perpetuate undesirable patterns in society.

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Measuring education

According the positivist perspective, empirical knowledge can be attained through the collection of data. But is condensing education to a set of numbers beneficial or harmful to the improvement of schools worldwide?

I have an issue with transforming un-countable qualities into ‘hard data’. This problem probably stems from my background in biology and chemistry, where I did a lot of statistical research. In most branches of science there is a definite answer: you either observe an outcome or you don’t. You can measure the weight of the retained chemical product, and you can count the number of parasites in a liter of water. Can we truly measure education in the same way?

Personally, I found this ‘transferring of research approach’ very difficult. According the positivist perspective, empirical knowledge can be attained through the collection of data. But is condensing education to a set of numbers beneficial or harmful to the improvement of schools worldwide?

I’m thinking especially of how the presence of standardized tests undermines true education and knowledge-transmission. Baker, Goesling, and Letendre (2002) draw their conclusions from the TIMSS test, where countries like Singapore and Hong Kong had the highest math scores. What does the test score say about student-centered learning, independent thought, or critical thinking? How can we measure students’ ability to participate in a fair democracy, to accept other cultures, or to use their skills to the benefit of their communities?

How open-minded are you?
How open-minded are you?

As members of a global community, we call for skills like ‘cultural acceptance’, and ‘cross-culture communication’, yet we usually rank our schools according to how students score on math and reading. How do we even begin to measure ‘open-mindedness’?

I fear that the positivist approach traps the development and improvement of schools in a mesh of standards and test score goals. For anyone working in education, it is evident how limited a teacher is by his/her curriculum, how education and funding is so closely linked to student academic performance, and how most tests fail to capture a nuanced picture of the student and the school. So why do we keep looking to these test scores and their conclusions for guidance?

 How do we even begin to measure ‘open-mindedness’?

Without quantifiable data, I guess we would be stumbling around in darkness. I do recognize the need to ‘legitimize’ the field of comparative education, and for governments, policy makers, and donors to have a way to assess their input. What I am more interested in, however, is more recording of actual experiences, interviews, and opinions in educational research.

In Baker et al.’s (2002) article they use the amount of books in the family as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Had they measured this in my community in Rwanda, most students would show incredibly low SES. It is not in the culture, however, to store books at home. Yet, my students (and their families) are some of the most well-read individuals I know; they circulate books among them, and donate them to poorer schools when they have finished. In addition, they spend a lot of time in libraries. This is just one example of how a cultural custom might distort statistical findings.

 I do recognize the need to ‘legitimize’ the field of comparative education, and for governments, policy makers, and donors to have a way to assess their input.

Putting a definite number or a countable value to something can be dangerous, in that it gives us a false notion of reality. If there are so many difficulties in collecting true data, should we even try to compile it into ‘findings’?  Also, the obstacles in obtaining quality data are numerous: bias and trickery in data presentation, lack of accuracy, not culturally sensitive, language obstacles, and so on. (Crossley and Watson, 2003).

My main issue with the positivist approach, therefore, is the confidence it places on statistical data. I feel there are too many limitations in the process of data collection and interpretation, for us to base entire policies on their findings. The reliance on ‘objective’ data creates a notion that one system can be directly transferred from one country to another, but this, in my view, is not true.

References:

Baker, D., Goesling, B. & Letendre, G. (2002). Socioeconomic status, school quality, and national economic development: A cross-national analysis of the “Heyneman-Loxley” effect on mathematics and science achievement. Comparative Education Review, 46(3), pp. 291-312.

Crossley, M. & Watson, K. (2003). Comparative and international research in education. New York: Routledge.

Human Capital Economy in the US: What Would Dewey Say?

Any intelligent debate on contemporary issues requires a thorough understanding of history. When reforming the educational system, are we looking to the past for understanding and inspiration? When updating the national curriculum are we sufficiently analyzing the history of the nation’s education, or are we rushing into a quick-fix mentality spurred on by the demands of the global economy?

Joel Spring (2012) notes that, “[h]uman capital economics is now the driving force in public school policies” (p. 99). Coupled with the panic in the wake of the 1983 A Nation At Risk report, the human capital theory has triggered the creation of policies led by a ‘back to basics’ approach to education. Despite previous ideals of educating ‘the whole child’, we now see that “[l]iteracy, science, and math have a higher priority in education for the global economy than other subjects such as history, social studies, and arts education” (Spring, 2012, p. 85). In watching the video on America’s educational history, I am led to ask what John Dewey— the progressive educationalist behind the idea of American child-centered education— would have to say to the current makeup of the public school system.

as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on…

There is a conflict between the practical necessity of preparing youths for future jobs and the commitment to create good citizens and moral human beings. At the heart of this conflict lays the ‘purpose of education’, and when defining this, I believe it is imperative to go back to the past. John Dewey was opposed to career tracking in schools, as well as the measurement of IQ to place students in appropriate groups. Still, as high school enrollment in the US grew rapidly in the 1920s, the idea of tracking and ability grouping appeared. Students received different education depending on their future prospect: house wife, bank clerk, factory worker, farmer, and so on. A progressive new idea emerged, introducing the concept that human beings are not equal in intelligence, capacity and ability. As Joel Spring remarks: “people began to think of going to school as a way of getting a job, not as going to school to become a wise person” (PBS, 2001).

According to Spring (2012), “A 1991 study found that the use of ability grouping in […] the United States was two-thirds higher than in other countries” (p. 75). Are we returning to the career tracking of the 1920s? Is the pressure of the global economy in fact transforming American public school into an efficient ‘worker factory’ where the main goal is to provide the global market with competent workers? If this is the case, what are the implications for the American democracy and its values of freedom, equality, and human rights?

Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor.

Today’s educational policies— and the human capital theories that underlie them— could be interpreted as a return to the past. Despite efforts of educationalists like John Dewey to educate the ‘whole child’, public education seem more tailored to the needs of the economy and the market place than to the upholding and progression of democratic values. Many are welcoming reforms labeled ‘Back to Basics’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’, convinced that for the nation to grow, we must allow the Free Market (which indisputably is the driving force in much of Western society) to shape our educational system. Arguably, history has proven that allowing the public school system to be influenced by external factors can be greatly beneficial. For example, the great influx of immigrants in the early 1900s encouraged the creation of public schools and the fight to abolish child labor. Is it constructive, however, to allow globalization to shape school policies? Would closer correspondence between curriculum design and the world of business strengthen America’s economic and political position? What would John Dewey say if faced with the American public schools of today?

References:

Spring, J. (2012). American Education, 15th Edition. New Yotk, NY: McGraw Hill. PBS (2001). “School: The Story of American Public Education” [Video file].