Education and development as complex dynamic agent systems: how theory informs methodology

Henderien Steenbeek, Paul van Geert

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In order to study education and development, researchers can choose among a plethora of methods. The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that “method” means: a procedure or process for attaining an object …such as …a systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline or art “ or “a way, technique, or process of or for doing something”, or “a body of skills or techniques”. Methods proper to the scientific study of education and development cover a very broad range of procedures, ranging from how to formulate and ask questions, how to design studies for answering such questions, how to perform such studies in real-world contexts, how to extract data and how to process them, how to relate processed data to answers on questions, how to communicate such questions and answers, and how to apply them to real world activities aimed at promoting education and development. This body of methods is customarily termed “methodology”, which is a concept that includes the methods themselves but also our understanding of their relationships and their rational and scientific justification. Let us call this body of methods and the justifications “Integrative methodology”. Researchers often tend to see this integrative methodology as a more or less autonomous set of good practice prescriptions. This view is consistent with practices of academic training in which methodology courses are offered separate from courses on disciplinarian contents, e.g. courses on development or educational science. As a consequence of this autonomy oriented view of methodology, scientific questions regarding development and education tend to be framed in terms of the available or habitual methods. For instance, we readily transform or translate concrete questions about the influence of some particular educational intervention in terms of a statistically significant difference between 2 representative samples that systematically differ in only one variable or feature of interest, which, in this case, is the intervention. Almost every word in this translation carries the heavy burden of methodological principles, concepts and presuppositions: “statistically”, “significant”, “difference”, “representative”, “sample”, “systematically”, “variable”, and “intervention”. And all these principles, concepts and presuppositions are taken from this autonomous body of integrative methodology, which forms our indisputable cookbook of good practices, outside of which no good — scientific — practices exist. The answers to questions that are shaped by this independent body of methodology will then contribute to existing theories of development and education. In this sense, it is the (allegedly) independent methodology that informs theory.
In this chapter, we will move against this current practice and make the — apparently deeply obvious — claim that it must be theory that informs the questions and the way we shall answer these questions. That is, it must be theory – that is, your body of justified knowledge about a particular phenomenon – that informs, influences and determines methodology, that is, the whole of methods, procedures and instruments that you use to study that phenomenon. . The sort of theory that should inform integrative methodology must be an integrative theory, that is to say a theory consisting of a consistent set of general principles and concepts shaping the domains of inquiry, which in this particular case are the related domains of development and education
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of integrative developmental science
Subtitle of host publicationessays in honor of Kurt W. Fischer
EditorsM. Mascolo, T. Bidell
Place of PublicationNY
ISBN (Print)978-1-138-67072-3
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2020


  • education
  • methodology

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