In one of her lasts posts as a blogger for Education Week, Jennifer Jennings (better known as Eduwonkette) argued that the development of good policy “depends on compelling answers to ‘why’ questions about both the observed effects and non-effects of policies and programs.” She emphasized that these “why” questions pertain both to the “inner workings of policies and programs” as well as their contexts.
Given the pragmatic fanaticism that demands the rush to adopt what authorities deem “best practices”, this observation cannot be overstated. Jennings continues: “Borrowing policies that have been found to be effective in one setting and expecting the same results in another setting makes sense only if we know why the policies were effective in that first setting. A research study showing that a policy or program ‘worked’ in a particular setting doesn’t tell us that.”
Researchers that are conducting investigations with the aim of influencing practice should be particularly adept at answering “why?” Why might there be little effect of a well-designed, new program for this or that educational or social malady? Even knowing why a program or policy yielded positive results can lead to not adopting that program, for the cost of achieving “results” might be found to be high. For example, recent documentation of the physical and mental violence of KIPP’s bootstrapping methods, would reveal the “how and why” of test score increases.
Thus, research that addresses “why” questions is more useful than research that addresses “what works?” questions because it has so many more applications. Knowing “why” a program failed to yield a specific improvement might in fact help make that program effective in the future, thus reducing the sense of waste and frustration that accompanies no documented evidence of positive change.
Yet, Jennings notes, researchers are often trained to ask “what,” not “why.” “Asking ‘why?’ more often will require some hard thinking about research training and the infrastructure for education research in the U.S.”
It is for this reason that I continue to grow in my enthusiasm for training in case study method and design as this method is best suited to ask these “why” and even “how” questions. I recommend the pursuit of case study, especially as developed by Robert Yin, who has the most advanced discussion, to my knowledge, of case study method and design.