The Cult Of The Scientific Method In Education

On July 2nd, 1881, Charles Guiteau, a man who was upset he did not get a political favor from the President of The United States, attempted to assassinate President James Garfield. I say “attempted” because the gunshot wound was not immediately deadly. As a matter of fact, if the President’s doctors could have kept their dirty fingers out of his wound, he would have survived!  You see, at the time of the attempted assassination, “germ theory” was just starting to become accepted in the medical community. To be blunt, the doctors were just starting to realize that sticking unclean instruments (and fingers) into an open wound on a person was not a good thing to do. Unfortunately for President Garfield, his doctors did not believe in germ theory  yet, so they kept probing his wound with their dirty fingers. As you might expect, his wound became infected, and he eventually died from an infection. What’s that? You are asking what the assignation of a President has to do with learner-centered leadership? Well, let me tell you.


The development of germ theory is attributable to the use of the scientific method. The roots of the scientific method are traced back to the Age of Enlightenment and the idea that humans can explain things through observation and testing. The scientific method as we know it gained prominence in the 19th century as philosophers and others attempted to figure out how knowledge is created.  Now, the scientific method has been revolutionary for humans. It has been used to improve our lives through medical treatments, technological breakthroughs, and giving humans a better understanding of the world we live in.  I certainly do not want to go back to the days before doctors realized that sticking a dirty finger in an open, festering wound was bad for people! The magic of the scientific method is that it has helped humans make sense of the world and create mental models for understanding the world.  We know that if you stick a dirty finger in an open sore on a person, that the likelihood of them becoming ill or dying is higher than if you don’t do those things. The scientific method is great at helping us understand phenomena and experiences at a generalizable level.  What the scientific method CANNOT do is bring absolute clarity to all phenomena while providing general laws explaining how the world works. Just look how the principles of physics that the scientific method helped create do not explain what goes at the quantum level. The more specific your question, the less helpful the scientific method becomes. 


Thus, during the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the scientific method was used to try to understand more complex phenomena, even though the method was not designed for that specificity. The misunderstanding of the use of the scientific method has skewed how we see the world in the 21st century. The biggest culprit in skewing our perception is the social sciences. Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and educators apply principles of the scientific method to try to create general “laws” that explain what they study, even though trying to create these general laws is impossible when human beings are involved. We can easily find instances in education where the scientific method is used well and areas where it is not used so well. A great example for the positive use of the scientific method is the role of funding in a school system. It is clear (beyond any doubt) that schools that spend more money per pupil create better learning outcomes for their kids. Period. Not any debate in that statement.  A reasonable policy response from that conclusion is that policymakers need to ensure more equitable funding for schools. However, the policy recommendation turns out not to be so easy, and the reason leads back to the cult of the scientific method.  Researchers and policymakers mistakenly believe that further study of the simple fact that schools that spend more have better learning outcomes is warranted.  They are searching for certainty in an aspect of the world (human behavior) that will never allow quality predictive results…much like the laws of physics cannot explain the quantum realm.  So education researchers create reams of studies with statistical models and conceptual frameworks, but they don’t tell us anything more about the original problem (namely that schools that spend more on kids have better results for kids).  In other words, we don’t need a “what works clearinghouse” to help guide our decisions in the social sciences or in education. By the way, USDOE’s “what works clearinghouse” has a difficult time populating “research” into the clearinghouse because social science research cannot follow the strict definition of the scientific method! For those that believe in the usefulness of the predictability of the scientific method for education, you end up with nonsense like “value-added scores” for learners and teachers. There is a lot of hubris in a researcher who believes they can predict and put a number on the learning process’s complexity.  


Learner-centered leaders need to do three things to get us out of the cult of the scientific method.1.    Recognize that “research” in the social sciences is not a gold standard and, in most cases, is a bunch of hogwash. 2.    Allow the fact that recognizing a general pattern is enough to take action to either encourage more of the same or change the pattern. 3.    Think for yourself and allow useful information to inform the actions and decisions you believe are great for kids. Bonus action item for education researchers: Ensure that what you are studying will have an actual application in a school!

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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