The nature of educational research

Unlike scientific research, which has its roots and underlying assumptions firmly entrenched within the positivist paradigm, educational research has emerged from – and encompasses – a broad range of different assumptions and philosophies. This difference carries important implications in terms of the sorts of questions that can be asked and methods that can be used, as the defining principles of the scientific method (such as the application of control in order to test the effect of one variable on another) are not always relevant or appropriate for investigating matters of educational concern. In education, the priority is not always that of being able to measure objectively the impact a given factor for the purposes of generalisation, but of exploring the contextual and subjective issues involved in a particular situation.

In many cases (but not always), an interpretative approach (or other approach born from the social rather than natural sciences) can represent a more appropriate means of researching issues in education. However, the value of any method lies only in its capacity to address the particular question being asked, so the first task for any researcher is to decide precisely what it is they are interested in finding out.  Once this is clear, the researcher is then in a position to decide whether a quantitative, qualitative or mixed-methods approach is most appropriate for eliciting the data needed to answer their question. This is one of a series of decisions that needs to be made throughout the research process, as detailed in each of the following sections:

Engaging with educational research

Dr Neil UpadhyayDr Neil Upadhyay
Consultant Radiologist
Imperial College Healthcare Trust

'When visiting a new country, you get a richer experience if you embrace the culture, meet locals and try to speak the language. I believe the same applies to research in an unfamiliar discipline. Background reading to understand the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin your chosen research question and methodology can take you to disconcertingly unfamiliar places, and is undeniably time consuming, but helps you understand the basic tenets of the new discipline you are engaging with and undoubtedly pays dividends in the end.'

'Society does not exist in an objective, observable form; rather it is experienced subjectively because individuals give it meaning in the way that they behave… Facts about behaviour may be established but those facts are always context bound and do not apply to all people at all times in all situations'

Savin-Baden & Howell Major, 2016, p.6


'Where one subscribes to the view that treats the social world like the natural world – as if it were a hard, external and objective reality – then scientific investigation will be directed at analysing the relationships and regularities between selected factors in that world. […] However, if one favours the alternative view of social reality which stresses the importance of the subjective experience of individuals in the creation of the social world, then the search for understanding focuses on focuses upon different issues and approaches them in different ways.'

Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2007, p.8

Key things to think about

  • Educational research operates within different paradigms, and an understanding of these paradigms helps to determine an appropriate approach for a given piece of research.
  • The principles and procedures of the scientific method are not always appropriate or relevant to educational research.
  • The questions being asked in a piece of research will determin the most appropriate choice of method(s).

Further reading

Cohen, L, Manion, L & Morrison, K. (2007), Chapter 1 - “The nature of enquiry – Setting  the field” in Cohen, L, Manion, L & Morrison, K. (eds), Research Methods in Education (Abingdon, Routledge, 6th edn, pp. 6-47).

Savin-Baden, M. & Howell Major, C. (2013) Qualitative Research.  The essential guide to theory and practice. Abingdon: Routledge

Dr Keith Taber's website focussing on educational research methods.

Royal Society and the British Academy joint report on Harnessing Educational Research