In education, there are primarily two forms of research: Quantitative and Qualitative. Quantitative research depends on mathematical models and statistical techniques. Qualitative research is based on the researcher’s understanding. There are arguments for both. Some of the most significant researchers in education used qualitative research. Jean Piaget’s research on his three children changed our understanding of child development. On the other hand, qualitative research is vulnerable to individual biases, to say nothing of the possibility that someone will fabricate information. However, there is also the criticism that quantitative research turns individuals into numbers, and excludes factors that wouldmake results difficult to replicate. A question for education researchers is which carries greater conclusion.
My conclusion is that qualitative research can typically be more influential than quantitative research in education. The major reason is that quantitative research gives concrete figures that can be incorporated in numerous ways by the media, and the various decision-makers, who will often be influenced by what is said in the media.
I think there has been a shift in society towards preferring numbers in research. The Western World currently has celebrity economists like Paul Krugman, Thomas Pikkety, Tom Sowell and Steve Levitt. While there is much dispute over the significance of cited numbers, there’s still a preference towards numbers as the basis for understanding the world, and the effectiveness of various forms of intervention in education, as well as other fields.
There’s skepticism of qualitative research for a variety of reasons. Part of it is a growing understanding of how people can be mistaken in their perceptions. As an example, You Are Not So Smart started as a blog about cognitive errors, and has spun off into a podcast and books. This kind of incredulity regarding subjective understandings and direct experience, either from researchers or the people they interview, makes qualitative research less convincing for anyone who distrusts the conclusion. And anyone supportive of the conclusion will be just as happy with quantitative research.
While narratives matter, the most influential stories are usually not the ones told by researchers with impeccable academic credentials. The media will find these stories themselves. When they cite research, my feeling is that it’s more likely to be quantitative research than qualitative, as that provides concrete numbers to add to a story about someone’s experiences. There are also different incentive structures and audiences. A news network is going to prefer telegenic teachers for a report on the state of education, while this is not as significant a priority for someone writing for a peer-reviewed journal on education.
There may be rare cases in which qualitative research is more influential. A particularly persuasive report could have a greater impact than quantitative research if read by the right person, but I think this would be the exception.