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Violation of the Iron Law of Qualitative Research in Education, #1,321

The Iron Law: The number of participants in the study should exceed the number of authors on the paper.

Yet I opened up the latest issue of the American Educational Research Journal to discover a violation of said rule in the article, "The Emotional Ambivalence of Socially Just Teaching: A Case Study of A Novice Urban Schoolteacher," which has two authors. Got to love the "convenience sample" - the novice teacher is a former student of one of the authors. Jay Greene, I am totally going to dominate your bingo game with one article only.

No disrespect to qualitative research intended here - in fact, I believe qualitative research is critical to educational research and policy. But qualitative research comes in many flavors (as does quantitative research), and studies like this one do not help the cause.

Oh, you'll have to do better than this, eduwonkette. What exactly is the problem here? The sample size? The use of a convenience sample? The opaque language and jargon? The authors' extrapolations or generalizations from their data? Any or all of these could be a source of concern, but you're not telling us what's problematic and why.

All of the above - but my original concern was the sample size. If you're studying emotional ambivalence, isn't that something that we'd expect to vary - so you'd want to study more than one teacher???

If this was a study of a rare psychological disease, great - one person will do. But it's not.

The problem? Did you read the abstract? What language is this in?

"The authors contend that studying emotional perspectives can facilitate understanding of the complexities of socially just teaching. They explore the intersection between emotions and socially just teaching via a case study of a White novice teacher at one urban school as she struggles to formulate socially just teaching practices. Drawing from feminist and critical theory, the authors propose the term critical emotional praxis to denote critical praxis informed by emotional resistance to unjust pedagogical systems and practices. The authors’ analysis may assist in the development of socially just teachers: First, emotions and their expression play an important, ongoing role in socially just teaching, and second, emotional negotiation related to socially just teaching can provide deeper understanding of possible change, perhaps even in counterresponse to wider social, political contexts of schools."

What we have here is a failure to communicate...

I should not have to defend the value and merit of qualitative research. (Those arguments has been made within the educational research community by far more articulate writers and thinkers for the last thirty years, often in journals the caliber of AERJ.)

What I think would be helpful to this discussion would be a few questions. 1. How do we, as the education community, best address "unjust pedagogical systems" in our classrooms if not through a focused, critical lens? 2. In what way can/should research take up the mantle of sticky issues, such as socially just teaching? and 3. How do we make room for theory within educational discourses littered with soundbites and spin...

These are just thoughts???

Hi Into the Breach,

Just to be clear, I am not criticizing qualitative research. I am criticizing poorly designed and executed qualitative research. And if qualitative research is ever to be taken seriously, it's important that we apply some quality control.

That said, these are good questions to start with. First, can you explain what you mean by socially just teaching?

Edw'ette, you didn't need any further clarification about your respect for quality qualitative research.

You made yourself perfectly clear: " . . . I believe qualitative research is critical to educational research and policy."

If people have trouble understanding the meaning of a couple of simple sentences, imagine the trouble they'd have intepreting data.

It seems to me that talking to *one* ambivalent teacher may help you formulate a hypothesis, but it takes talking to (at least) two or three more to test it.

Can someone help me out here -- what are "unjust pedagogical systems and practices"? I had thought that pedagogy might be more or less effective, but unjust?

Hi Rachel,
Agreed that this is a useful way to pilot a future study - but it's not a study worthy of publication in one of AERA's flagship journals.

Stuart, I wish I could help with your question.


It is not about research--it is about gaining tenure. A lot of crap gets published because every university and college now expects their faculty to conduct "research."

Thanks to eduwonkette (and to commenters) for my first laugh of the morning! This is not the first time I've seen a ridiculous study.

I agree with eduwonkette. Qualitative research is indeed essential. But it has to follow some guidelines. And, of course, clear English helps both the researcher and the reader identify the main points.

In ed school we had two big qualitative research assignments: one, an "observation" of a particular student; the other, an "action research" project about our own teaching practice. In the one, the study had a single subject. In the other, the author and subject were one and the same.

I protested the "action research" requirement and was on the verge of refusing to do it. A colleague who had been teaching a few years longer pulled me aside and said: "Just get it over with and finish ed school." So, I did, but devoted a large part of the paper to my concerns.

Of course, with thousands of ed students churning out research on themselves, someone's got to publish it....

Good Morning Eduwonkette...

I have to say an interesting discussion has unfolded. It is fun to read the varied opinions and understandings...

To your points... I thoroughly agree in the need for rigorous and quality research across the bredth of research paradigms. We have a great deal to learn about how to best meet the needs of all our children in our classrooms and it will take all research methods to achieve that goal. I would like to suggest that standards of rigor and quality for more qualitatively-oriented approaches to research, standards that rely on contextually-driven factors (such as time in "field" and explicit/transparent data analysis mechanisms, for example) and principals commonly understood in the fields of anthropology and certain areas within sociology, are a bit different from the research standards that rely on concepts like sampling, control, and statistical significance. Qualitative research will always appear meek and useless when held up to inaccurate/inappropriate measures of rigor. So, from my perspective I question "the Iron Law" from the standpoint it still relies on the idea that more (number of participants) is better, which in the end would ultimately priveledge large studies and deny the value of tightly focused, "thickly described," theory-generating work...Just a thought...

With respect to your question about socially just teaching...I will reference the authors of the study in question. They write, "The authors’ analysis may assist in the development of socially just teachers: First, emotions and their expression play an important, ongoing role in socially just teaching, and second, emotional negotiation related to socially just teaching can provide deeper understanding of possible change, perhaps even in counterresponse to wider social, political contexts of schools."

The authors suggest the theory they are developing (a term "critical emotional praxis") may in the future be utilized to help teachers become socially just...as they define it... So, the point of this piece is to offer "critical" and "feminist" insight into the practice of teaching--to build theory (not test an intervention, quantify the impact of a policy, or determine a child's readiness to learn...all important knowledge pursuits in and of themselves, but not this research question.)

After considering this discussion, I am left with the question where is the place of theory in today's educational discourse?


From someone who's not knowledgeable about the standards commonly applied to qualitative research (or quantitative research either), why would you not call the article under discussion a "case study informed by theory" rather than "research?"

I'm all for single subject study but don't call it research. Call it an essay at least or a story about my friend. I guess they couldn't find any other discouraged new white teachers in an urban school.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • J.M. Holland: I'm all for single subject study but don't call it read more
  • Jane: From someone who's not knowledgeable about the standards commonly applied read more
  • Into the breach: Good Morning Eduwonkette... I have to say an interesting discussion read more
  • Diana Senechal: Thanks to eduwonkette (and to commenters) for my first laugh read more
  • Ed: Edwonkette, It is not about research--it is about gaining tenure. read more




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