Who Cares About Quantitative or Qualitative? Reconnecting with Our Values as Researchers

Author: Professor Liz Jackson, Professor, The University of Hong Kong

Educational research encompasses a broad array of topics, themes, methodologies, theories, and disciplines. Yet it seems to be part of human nature to try to simplify the diversity of our practices in terms of smaller groupings. Take a look at any program, curriculum, or workshop for conducting research in education—say, for master’s or doctoral students. One common binary always appears. It is a way of seeing educational research and choosing a side: Are you quantitative or qualitative?

The Problem with the Q-Words

Quantitative versus qualitative is the wrong way to think about educational research. First, your approach to data should be a tool to conduct research—not an identity or club. What tools you use should be influenced by your interests and your research questions. I encourage students to identify their scholarly aims first. Methods stem from questions. If your questions have to do with identifying how many people would respond to a limited set of predeveloped questions, because you want to know what a large group of people think or say, do a survey. If you want more in-depth or open-ended understanding, a different method is needed.

Second, the Q-word binary suggests these categories are mutually exclusive. Thus, ‘mixed methods’ becomes a third position. Discourse frames mixed methods as more challenging, because you gather different kinds of data in different ways, leading to different forms of analysis and later analytic integration. However, many students in my experience want to use mixed methods, because they want to better understand an aspect of education that is not well understood only through surveys or interviews (for example). When splitting methods limits our ability to understand complex topics, why do we make people choose one or the other?

The idea that one should only quantitatively or qualitatively analyze something when examining an educational topic is questionable. Yet my students are sometimes surprised when I ask them how frequently or how many interview participants expressed some kind of sentiment (for example), imagining that once you pick quantitative or qualitative, you either count or conceptualize—but not both. If we want to know what is happening using the best tools at our disposal, we should rid ourselves of the notion that we are merely or essentially qualitative or quantitative.

Quantitative or Qualitative—Who Cares?

Finally, focusing too much on the Q-words can lead us to ignore the place of philosophy in our research—indeed, you rarely see philosophy mentioned in methods courses anymore, unless it is framed as document analysis or conceptual engineering. But good educational research does not consist only of gathering data and analyzing it. Why did you gather that data? Why are you analyzing it? Who cares? What is the point? How does your work contribute to knowledge?

The answers to these questions do not lie in fill-in-the-blank scripts about research gaps—as if any research project that has not previously been done reflects a gap. (No one has published research about how satisfying eating ice cream after class is. Does that make it a research gap?) As educational researchers, we should produce knowledge that benefits society. That is, we want to improve education, enhance equality in education, create understanding that can benefit students, teachers, and school leaders. But what is knowledge? What is ‘improvement’? What is ‘equality’? What is a ‘benefit’? The answers to these questions are not found in the processes of gathering or analyzing quantitative or qualitative data. They require reflection on our values and visions about our field and its place in society.

When we put the cart before the horse by picking a Q-word before we pick a question or problem, we risk doing research that is less likely to benefit children, educators, or society. We become like robots, producing and consuming data for our own self-interest and professional development (yes, even quantitative researchers can be self-interested and biased). When the cart drives the horse, we can also become distracted by what constitutes the ’best’ critical discourse analysis or statistical significance—while failing to reflect on what our ultimate aims are when it comes to making intelligent, logical, ethical recommendations for education in the future.

You can be quantitative, qualitative, mixed, or none of the above. But what is the point? Are you concerned with equality or accountability? Innovation or preservation? Efficiency or quality? It is our values and commitment to knowledge that serves society that we should focus on as educational researchers. We should not be pledging allegiance to the Q-words.

References and Resources

Barshay, J. (2019). The Dark Side of Education Research: Widespread Bias. The Hechinger Report, https://hechingerreport.org/the-dark-side-of-education-research-widespread-bias/.

Biesta, G. (2020). Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction. London: Bloomsbury.

Biesta, G. (2007). Why ‘What Works’ Won’t Work: Evidence-Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research. Educational Theory, 57: 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x

Cohen, D., & Crabtree, B. (2006). Qualitative Research Guidelines Project. http://www.qualres.org/.

Greene, P. (2018). Curmudgucation: Field Guide to Bad Education Research. National Education Policy Center, https://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/field-guide.

Jackson, L., & Van dermijnsbrugge, E. (2022). Review of the book Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction, by G. Biesta. Educational Theory, 72(1), 103-108. https://doi.org/10.1111/edth.12515

Jackson, L. (2019). ‘But Is It Really Research?’ Mentoring Students as Theorists in the Era of Cybernetic Capitalism. Educational Philosophy and Theory 52 (1): 17-21.

Phillips, F. (2014). 12 Common Mistakes in Empirical Social Science. Science 2.0, https://www.science20.com/machines_organizations_and_us_sociotechnical_systems/12_common_mistakes_in_empirical_social_science-151861.

Poole, A. (2022). Methodologies Don’t Hurt People, Bad People Wielding Methodologies Do: Autoethnography and That Paper From Qualitative Research. BERA Blog, https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/methodologies-dont-hurt-people-bad-people-wielding-methodologies-do-autoethnography-and-that-paper-from-qualitative-research.

Resnick, B. (2016). What Psychology’s Crisis Means for the Future of Science, Vox, https://www.vox.com/2016/3/14/11219446/psychology-replication-crisis.

Willingham, D. T., & Daniel, D. B. (2021). Making Education Research Relevant. Education Next 21(2), https://www.educationnext.org/making-education-research-relevant-how-researchers-can-give-teachers-more-choices/.

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