Professing Education


Book Review: Pragmatism and
Educational Research

Authors: Gert J. J. Biesta and Nicholas C. Burbules (2003).

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD

John M. Novak

Brock University

Every once in a while you get a book and say "Wow." This book got two "Wows" from me-one when I opened it and one when I closed it.

I had awaited the arrival of Pragmatism and Educational Research for sometime. It is the second in a series on "Philosophy, Theory, and Educational Research," and I had enjoyed the first in the series: Postpositivism and Educational Research. When the book came, I eagerly turned the cover and, to my surprise, found page 128 followed by 127 all the way to the beginning. Wow! Somehow the book made its way to me backwards. Some may say that pragmatists have always gotten it the wrong way around and they might say that this book just demonstrates that point once again. Our friendly bookstore bookseller offered to send the book back, but I insisted that I wanted to read the book now. Several days later, after rearranging my life schedule and reading habits, I reached Wowdom for the second time. This is a wonderful, insightful, and incisive book that should be read by anyone wanting to get a better understanding of the subtle workings of educational research seen from the perspective of John Dewey's pragmatism.

In five chapters Biesta and Burbules (1) clarify what pragmatism is; (2) pragmatically move from experience to knowledge; (3) elucidate the process of inquiry; (4) explore the consequences of pragmatism; and (5) skillfully link pragmatism and educational research. Each of these points deserves some elaboration so readers can get a better feel for the pragmatic project and its educational implications.

Pragmatism is a philosophy of action. The Deweyan variation of this tradition sees nature as an interacting whole of moving parts that reveals itself as the result of doings. In other words, we are not spectators in a finished universe but active participants in the evolution of reality. The method of knowing that comes from this perspective is experimental and fallible and is refined through self-correcting and open social inquiry.

For the pragmatist, "in the beginning was the transaction, and, in the present and future the transactions continue. May the thoughtful transaction be with you." The transaction is the most general process in nature. What else would we expect in a universe of moving parts. Sometimes my students tell me that they know that education involves transmission and transaction but they really care about transformation. I tell them, as a Deweyan pragmatist, that transformation comes about as a result of the quality and quantity of transactions that take place and that a good way to go about the transformation business is to examine and develop thoughtful transactions that deal with problems we face in our shared life. The practices they engage in, to fit into a pragmatic perspective, should be experimental and fallible and be refined through self-correcting and open social inquiry. Transformational zeal without pragmatic prudence can lead to sloganeering, dogmatism, and less than desirable experiences.

Experience, from a Deweyan perspective, involves the totality of ways that a living organism transacts with its environment. This emphasis on the organism transacting with its environment enables pragmatism to get beyond objectivism and subjectivism, the ideas that reality is either out there in the world or else in here in the mind. As an alternative to the mind-matter dualism, the Deweyan perspective posits a transactional realism, one in which reality only reveals itself as a result of the activities of the organism (pg. 10). From this point of view, we do not know the thing-in-itself and knowing is just one, albeit an important, mode of experience. This knowing mode of experience involves doing something with experience so as to understand the relationship of actions to their potential consequences. It is about the reflective transformation of experience so that we can have a more coordinated response to a situation. We are a part of a moving whole and we are working to respond to disrupted or disturbing relationships. Thus, to return to an earlier point, we should see the knowledge we develop as experimental, fallible, and capable of being refined through self-correcting and open social inquiry. Perhaps it could be said that in some ways social inquiry is like trying to hit a moving target while going up and down on a merry-go-round that is being rebuilt. It is bumpy, changing, and uncertain, but is something we can get better at. Social inquiry, however, is even more complex than this.

The process of inquiry deals with conflicting habits of a person or persons in an indeterminate situation. It is about the transformation of a situation because our present habits of transacting are not working. The conceptual outcome of an inquiry is a warranted assertion. The existential outcome is a unified or determinate situation for the organism in its environment. From this point of view, knowledge is not a picture of reality but something we use in order to meaningfully act in a world-in-the-making (pg. 69). Educational inquiry begins and ends in educational practice. Educational research is about and for the improvement of what goes by the name education. The results of this research are not recipes to follow on the way to perfection but information about possible directions and consequences to consider. Educators become informed by understanding, using, and doing research individually and collectively. By doing so, they become intelligent participants in the world-in-the-making.

For Biesta and Burbules, the practice of education is an art that can be informed by research. They have written a short but powerful book that shows both the consequences and limitations of taking seriously pragmatism and educational research. I think that readers will get more than two "Wows" from this book.