Examining Empirical Foundations in Education

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In today's Technological Revolution, it is important to understand and apply empirical foundations to educational practices. In this lesson, we will examine empirical foundations in education and discuss what it means and its contributions and implications in educational research.

The Empire Strikes Back

The advent of the Age of Enlightenment is marked by an emphasis on research in the scientific method. For philosophers like John Locke and Francis Bacon, it was not enough to base conclusions on assumptions or ideas. Only evidence-based sense perceptions based on valid methods of research would be good enough to count as knowledge.

These philosophies ushered in our modern era by requiring standards of evidence that hold up to examination in order to state a claim. This Age of Enlightenment illuminated the Dark Ages, ushered in the Industrial Revolution and, today, the Technological Revolution.

What is Empirical Evidence?

Empirical evidence refers to evidence that has been scrutinized by valid research methods. These research methods involve various steps called the scientific method that are intended to ensure valid results. Here are the basic steps in the scientific method to ensure valid results based on empirical evidence:

  • Identify the Problem
  • Conduct Research
  • Develop a Hypothesis
  • Design an Experiment
  • Conduct the Experiment
  • Analyze the Results
  • Plan Further Research

This image illustrates that the scientific method is an ongoing process of questioning and discovery
The Scientific Method

The first step in the scientific method is to recognize that there is a problem. Usually this takes the form of observing a social or scientific phenomenon and then asking questions about its nature. For example, parents and students have long questioned the efficacy of homework. After more than 40 years of research, we now know that homework is actually damaging to students until they are older.

Next, a potential researcher can develop a hypothesis, or educated guess, about the nature of the problem, its source or possible solutions. The next step is to take this problem and the hypothesis and design research that would test if the hypothesis is correct. In this stage, it helps to ask if there is other evidence supporting the hypothesis by doing background research.

After designing and conducting a valid research experiment, the next step in the scientific method is to examine the results and compare them to the hypothesis. If the evidence proves the hypothesis, further research can be done to validate the results. If the evidence does not support the hypothesis, it might be time to think of a different explanation. No matter what the results may be, further research is always warranted.

Tips on Research Design

Sometimes this further research goes on for many years. In this case, such research is called a longitudinal study. A longitudinal study is one that takes place over the course of several months or years, rather than a one-time experiment. Some longitudinal studies follow the same research participants for their lifetime.

For example, in a famous longitudinal study, four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and left alone for 15 minutes. If the researcher came back to find the child had not eaten the marshmallow, they were given another one. If the researcher came back and the child had eaten the marshmallow they did not get a second marshmallow. They followed these kids for over 30 years and found the kids who didn't eat the marshmallow had become more successful as indicated by factors like job satisfaction, test scores, college completion, homeownership and interpersonal stability. At age four they could train the kids who were unable to delay instant gratification in exchange for a long-term reward later.

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