The research topic that I choose to discuss in this paper can be in general terms formulated as follows: Causes of Academic Underachievement. The history of conducted research on this particular subject matter is rather extensive, with its starting point being the legitimation of sociology and psychology in the early 20th century. The introduction of the Intellectual Quotidian (IQ) in 1912 as the workable instrument for measuring one’s intelligence, contributed even further towards establishing the concerned topic as the appropriate subject of analytical inquiry. As of today, it is quite impossible to come up with the exact number of studies that have been conducted for the purpose of identifying what affects a person’s likelihood to succeed in academia, but we talk of no fewer than several thousands of them.
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The sheer popularity of this specific topic with social researchers is explainable – by investigating the discursively relevant matters they hope to be able to contribute towards increasing the effectiveness of the currently deployed educational strategies. The rise of new learning theories (such as Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Social-Constructivism, etc.) through the 20th century’s second half provided an additional impetus for social scientists to focus on researching the issue, as there were indeed many reasons for them to assume that this would serve the cause of the society’s betterment. Nevertheless, it nowadays becomes increasingly more evident to the people within the academic community that the bulk of studies on the mentioned topic has fallen short of the affiliated social scientists’ initial expectation that their research will represent a high practical value.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, regarding the ongoing decline of academic standards in the West. In its turn, this can be seen reflective of the fact that the continual deployment of the Positivist/Post-Positivist research paradigm for examining the contributive factors to one’s academic successfulness, is no longer appropriate. After all, most of the previously conducted studies of relevance (both quantitative and qualitative), tackle the issue from the ontologically positivist perspective – the practice that does not quite correlate with the post-industrial quality of social realities in today’s West. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
Philosophical Paradigm/Methodological Perspective
As it was implied earlier, it remains a commonplace practice among social scientists to address the issue of academic underachievement within the conceptual framework of Positivism – the paradigm that stresses out the full objectiveness of the surrounding physical/social reality and refers to any kind of empirically obtained knowledge in terms of a “thing-in-itself”, unaffected by the inquirer’s psycho-cognitive predispositions. In this regard, Guba (1990) noted, “The basic belief system of positivism is rooted in a realist ontology, that is, the belief that there exists a reality out there, driven by immutable natural laws. The business of science is to discover the ‘true’ nature of reality and how it ‘truly works” (p. 19).
The fact that this suggestion is indeed thoroughly viable can be exemplified, with respect to the practice of requiring students to be IQ-tested and subjecting the obtained data to the correlation analysis. The reason for this is quite apparent – the concerned practice is reflective of the positivist assumption that there is a universalist quality to cognition, which in turn means that one’s ability to address mental tasks can be evaluated on a measurable scale. During the last few recent decades, however, the ontological approaches to researching the chosen topic have been turning increasingly post-positivist. That is, more and more researchers committed to studying the causes of educational underachievement grow to recognize that the findings of even the most rigorous investigation of the subject matter in question cannot be deemed representing an undisputed truth-value.
Since the issue of academic underachievement became the legitimate subject of sociological studies, most researchers preferred to tackle it within the methodological boundaries of a qualitative inquiry with the elements of quantification – hence, the popularity of the cross-sectional and longitudinal research formats among the former. This, however, did not have any noticeable effect on the strength of the affiliated researchers’ commitment to adhere to the paradigmatic provisions of Positivism while on the task. Probably the best indication that this is indeed the case can be deemed that fact that in the preface of just about every qualitative study on the causes of educational underachievement, the authors express their intention to remain as unbiased (while collecting the data and discussing its significance), as possible.
Epistemological and Ethical Issues (Positivism, Constructivism)
As one can infer from what has been said earlier, the main epistemological issue with assessing academic underachievement through the conceptual lenses of Positivism is that such an approach does not take into consideration the effects of the researcher’s state of mind on how he or she goes about interpreting the discursive/practical implications of the obtained insights into the studied phenomenon. As Ponterotto (2005) pointed out, “(Positivism)… emphasizes cause-effect linkages of phenomena that can be studied, identified, and generalized, and proffers… an objective, detached researcher role” (p. 129). In light on the recent breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience, however, there can be only a few doubts as to the socially constructed essence of just about every type of factual knowledge (Eisner, 1992).
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that subjecting one’s educational underachievement to the positivist inquiry often results in the person’s objectification/marginalization, which ultimately serves the purpose of justifying the society’s stratification alongside racial/class lines. As Drew (2006) argued, “The danger that objectivism presents… is the predominance of materialistic gain and neglect of human experience. Ultimately, objectivism supports a viewpoint that protects monetary wealth at the expense of the poor” (p. 182). After all, the very notion of “objectivism” is commonly regarded synonymous with the notion of “eurocentrism”.
Therefore, there is indeed much rationale behind the idea that when it comes to researching why some people tend to experience difficulty trying to catch up with their peers in the classroom, one will benefit from doing it within the paradigmatic framework of Constructivism, as defined by Ponteretto (2005). The logic behind this suggestion is that, unlike what it is the case with Positivism/Post-Positivism, Constructivism emphasizes the importance of assessing the discursive implications of the examined phenomenon in a systemically sound manner, thoroughly observant of the factor of epistemological intersubjectivity, as the cognitive process’s integral part. In this regard, Grajales and Gonzales (2008) came up with the insightful observation, “The (positivist) science of being is not enough for educational research because education is not just a science of being but a science of becoming” (p. 180).
Nevertheless, Constructivism has a number of the epistemological and ethical issues of its own. The most prominent of the former has to do with the fact that there is too much discursive vagueness to the paradigm’s axiomatic apparatus. What this means is that constructivist research in education can hardly result in yielding the findings that could be deemed thoroughly verifiable. The above-stated closely relates to the foremost ethical issue with the paradigm of Constructivism – the fact that it establishes the objective preconditions for its practitioners to be tempted to conduct sociological research for the solemn purpose of gaining more academic credits, with very little thought given to whether the would-be obtained insights may have any practical value or not.
Ontology, Epistemology, Methods
The inquiry paradigms of Positivism and Constructivism may appear incompatible – all because they differ from each other rather substantially, in the ontological, epistemological and methodological senses of this word. Whereas the Positivist paradigm is concerned with the deployment of the cause-effect (eurocentric) type of analytical reasoning, which utilizes ontological reductionism for discovering the actual “truth” about the studied phenomenon, the Constructivist one presupposes that there is a potential multiplicity of equally viable “truths” about this phenomenon’s essence/origins. Positivism calls for the adoption of a non-interactive posture by a researcher. Constructivism, on the other hand, considers such an epistemological prerequisite irrelevant, since the findings of just about every empirical study are predetermined to remain perceptually biased, by definition. The practitioners of both paradigms have their methodological preferences as well.
For example, positivists tend to choose in favor of the experimental (which often means quantitative) approach to researching a particular issue – something that is supposed to ensure the credibility and replicability of the would-be acquired findings. Hence, the main criteria of positivist social science – “internal validity, external validity, reliability, and objectivity” (Efinger, Maldonado, & McArdle, 2004, p. 734). Alternatively, constructivists clearly prefer the utilization of the phenomenological, critical and ethnographic approaches to collecting and construing the qualitative data, which supposedly allow a researcher to “describe and interpret the experiences of research participants in a context-specific setting” (Ponteretto, 2005, p. 128). This suggests that, as compared to the Positivist model of knowledge/cognition, the Constructivist one is much more person-centered.
I believe that for as long tackling the issue of educational underachievement is concerned, researchers will be much better off sticking to the Constructivist conceptualization of cognition, as something highly individualized/subjective. The two reasons that prompted me to come up with this suggestion are as follows:
By examining the concerned subject matter in accordance with the main
provisions of Constructivism, a researcher will be much more likely to take into consideration the systemic aspects of how students acquire new knowledge in the setting of a classroom, which in turn should help him or her to attain a holistic (multidimensional) understanding of the contributive forces at play.
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Researching the issue within the conceptual/methodological framework of
Constructivism will prove perfectly consistent with the discourse of multiculturalism/political correctness, which continues to exert a strong influence on the fluctuating dynamics within the educational domain in the West. Consequently, this will reduce the likelihood for the study’s findings to be used to marginalize the representatives of the economically disadvantaged/ethnically visible populations, which are presumed (informally) to be incapable of committing themselves to studying as their foremost priority in life.
If I were to apply the Constructivist approach to studying the phenomenon of academic underachievement, I would try ensuring the interdisciplinary quality of the data-collecting procedure.
Drew, N. (2006). Bridging the distance between the objectivism of research and the subjectivity of the researcher. Advances in Nursing Science, 29(2), 181-191.
Efinger, J., Maldonado, N., & McArdle, G. (2004). PhD students’ perceptions of the relationship between philosophy and research: A qualitative investigation. Qualitative Report, 9(4), 732-759.
Eisner, E. (1992). Objectivity in educational research. Curriculum Inquiry, 22(1), 9-15.
Grajales, T., & Gonzales, S. (2008). Theory development towards a new concept of research. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 17(3), 153–172.
Guba, E. (1990). The paradigm dialog. London, England: SAGE Publications.
Ponterotto, J. (2005). Qualitative research in counseling psychology: A primer on research paradigms and philosophy of science. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 126-136.