Educational Research: Why ‘What Works’ Doesn't Work

  • Paul Smeyers
  • Marc Depaepe

About this book


Education and educational research, according to the current fashion, are supposed to be concerned with ‘what works’, to the exclusion of all other considerations. All over the world, and particularly in the English-speaking countries, governments look for means of improving ‘student achievement’ as measured by standardized test scores. Although such improvements are often to be welcomed, they do not answer all significant questions about what constitutes good education. Also the research on which they are based is not the only legitimate way to do educational research. Social research, and therefore educational research, cannot ignore the distinctive nature of what it studies: a social activity where questions of meaning and value cannot be eliminated, and where interpretation and judgment play a crucial role.

In this book distinguished philosophers and historians of education from 6 countries focus on the problematical nature of the search for ‘what works’ in educational contexts, in practice as well as in theory. Beginning with specific problems, they move on to more general and theoretical considerations, seeking to go beyond over-simple ideas about cause and effect and the rhetoric of performativity that currently has educational thinking in its grip.

Freedom of inquiry in educational research can no longer be taken for granted. Narrow definitions of what constitutes ‘scientific’ research, funding criteria that enforce particular research methods, and policy decision processes that ignore any research that is not narrowly utilitarian, create a context in many countries that discourages scholarship of a more speculative, exploratory, or critical sort.

This book brings together an exceptional combination of international and cross-disciplinary scholars who bring the perspectives of history and philosophy of science to ask, ‘How did we arrive at this place? and ‘Where is educational research heading? The book illuminates the anti-intellectual consequences of a ‘what works’ mentality in education, and shows that the ostensibly ‘scientific’ revolution in educational research in fact reflects an ahistorical and conceptually muddled understanding of what actually constitutes ‘science.’ This book could not be more timely and important.’

Nicholas C. Burbules, Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor, University of Illinois

With research increasingly tied to State policies with the instrumental purpose of guiding school reforms, the volume provides an important historical and philosophical questioning of the possibilities, limitations and challenges of education research. Internationally leading scholars engage in a significant conversation that is sophisticated and nuanced for understanding contemporary debates.’

Thomas S. Popkewitz, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

This publication is realized by the Research Community (FWO-Vlaanderen / Research Foundation Flanders, Belgium) Philosophy and History of the Discipline of Education. Evaluation and Evolution of the Criteria for Educational Reseach.



Evaluation Governance Philosophy of Education, History of Education, Philosophy of Professor education educational research science university

Editors and affiliations

  • Paul Smeyers
    • 1
  • Marc Depaepe
    • 1
  1. 1.Katholieke Universiteit LeuvenBelgium

Bibliographic information