Davis vs. Walbesser on Research in Math Education

Robert Davis:

“In a society which has modernized agriculture, medicine, industrial production, communication, transportation, and even warfare as ours has done, it is compelling to ask why we have experienced such difficulty in making more satisfactory improvements in education…one is immediately struck by how often education has turned to agriculture, physics, biology, or medicine for suggestions concerning the best over-all conceptualization; how rarely has education turned to architects, novelists, concert pianists, dramatists, actors, clinical psychologists, painters, or psychoanalysts…In the belief that we are being scientifically objective and concerning ourselves with observable aspects of reality, we have often lapsed into counting (or otherwise recording) highly explicit events which are, in fact, too narrowly defined, and too unclearly related to the ideas inside the student’s head.

Henry Walbesser’s response:

“The effect is to question even the possibility of obtaining reliably observable data on human behavior. I find myself in disagreement with such a position…I would claim that we in mathematics education are only now beginning to attempt to be scientifically objective. To dismiss this possibility as “too explicit, too narrowly defined, or too unclearly related” to the learning is a naive position for a scholar such as Dr. Davis…Davis is asking that we replace the analytical tool of reliable observable behavior with the mystical construct of cognitive schema. As for myself, I find such a request completely unacceptable…It appears that [Davis’s] suggestion for action is one which resembles alchemy in its tactics, not experimental research. I find such a suggestion ridiculous and such a course of action without value for researchers.”

Cited in From Amateur to Professional: The Emergence and Maturation of the US Mathematics Education Research Community. All this is in 1967, a year the authors mark as the beginning of the emergence of the math edu research as a  distinctive community.

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