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A response to Heshusius' "Curriculum-based assessment and direct instruction: critical reflections on fundamental assumptions." (response to Lous Heshusius, 57 Exceptional Children 315, 1991) (Point/Counterpoint)

It is the system of data-based explanation that distinguishes science from dogma.

(McCain & Segal, 1988, p. 38)

* In a recent issue of Exceptional Children, Heshusius (1991) advocates holistic/constructivist (H/C) approaches to assessment (and instruction) in special education, as alternatives to "mechanistic/newtonian" approaches, ostensibly exemplified most prototypically by direct instruction (DI) and curriculum-based assessment and curriculum-based measurement (CBA/CBM). We are responding to that article on behalf of DI.

What is most interesting about Heshusius' critical reflections" is not her personal views of instruction and valid instructional assessment, but rather, her elaborate attempt to create the impression that there is uncontested, authoritative philosophical support for her preferred alternatives. To be sure, the "paradigm wars" wage on, but few "solid conclusions" have yet emerged. (See Miller & Fredericks, 1991, for a recent discussion, including a critique of Heshusius' views on ontological-methodological distinctions.)

In her campaign to discredit empiricism in education, Heshusius dichotomizes the world as mechanistic-Newtonian-positivist on the one hand and holistic/social constructivist on the other. We find little evidence among philosophers of science or scientists for the implication that a rejection of mechanism and positivism requires a rejection of empiricism. In fact, we need not look further than some of Heshusius' own citations (von Bertalanffy, 1968; Bronowski, 1965) for views differing from her own. Postmechanistic science, rather, appears to embrace a more sophisticated view of empiricism and scientific method.

The development of empirical methodologies for dealing with multivariance, for example, arose from the inability of classical physics/mechanism to adequately describe the complexities inherent in the study of biology. Those same methodologies have more recently been applied to the complexities of social science. (See von Bertalanffy, 1968, pp. 92-93.) Another authority cited by Heshusius, Bronowski 1965), says, "Logic and experiment are locked together in the scientific method, in a constant to and fro in which each follows the other" (p. 44).

Bronowski specifically contrasts modem and mechanistic science when he describes modem science as a "creative process, the exploration of likenesses; and this has sadly tiptoed out of the mechanical worlds of the positivists and the operationalists, and left them empty" (p. 48).

Ironically, the exploration of likenesses is at the heart of DI, as clearly explicated in another source Heshusius cites (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982). Further, Bronowski points out that the step in the development of scientific theory that precedes the creative exploration of likenesses is the collection of data, the stuff' from which likenesses are extracted.

Von Bertalanffy (also cited by Heshusius, see pp. 100-101) discusses two types of empiricism quite explicitly: (a) "one-sided" empiricism (akin to the "blind" empiricism Heshusius rightfully eschews), in which data are merely accumulated in the absence of theory; and (b) theory without experimentation-"conceptual experimentation"-which on Bertalanffy characterizes, crediting Kant, as "mere intellectual play." When Heshusius (1986) speaks of "positivist and empiricist traditions as profoundly inadequate" (p. 25), she erroneously equates modem empiricism with antiquated and discredited philosophies of science (mechanism) or schools of philosophy (positivism) and, therefore, attempts to reject modem empiricism as the principle means by which theoretical inquiry moves beyond mere intellectual play.

Not only do some of the authorities cited by Heshusius clearly support the thoughtful application of modem scientific method, but they support specific instructional practices renounced by Heshusius as well. Of all the tired educational aphorisms, the weariest might be, "the whole is more than the sum of the parts," which von Bertalanffy refers to as "somewhat mystical." He goes on to say, "If ... we know the total of parts contained in a system, and the relations between them, the behaviour of the system may be derived from the behaviour of the parts" (p. 55). It is quite a metaphysical leap from this description to a conclusion that components of a system are "not real."

What is unclear to us are the alternatives to modem empiricism that Heshusius proposes to keep educators from descending into a quagmire of dogmatism. This is not to say that we charge Heshusius or other H/C advocates with dogmatism, but simply that the means for preventing H/C ideologies from becoming dogmatic or doctrinaire is not inherent within those ideologies.

How, specifically, does Heshusius propose that we, as a community of scholars and practitioners, resolve the multiplicity of interpretations inherent in many indicators of student achievement? If "hard data" is subject to the concept of indeterminacy according to the "new philosophy of science," is not the same true ten-fold for Heshusius' preferred alternatives? As Miller and Fredericks (1991) point out, in reference to the quantitative-qualitative debate, "There is no guarantee that their [qualitative researchers] own findings are any more credible than either those of the quantitative camp or differing ones within their own camp" (p. 6). McKerrow and McKerrow (1991) express a similar view: "The naturalistic researchers appear to assume that by arguing against the efficacy of the rationalistic paradigm, vis-a-vis Heisenberg, they generate support for a naturalistic one. This does not follow" (p. 19). (McKerrow and McKerrow's main point is that naturalistic researchers don't understand Heisenberg in the first place.)

The central question Heshusius raises is not so much one of quantitative versus qualitative data as it is a question of reliability. Suppose," she queries, "a teacher reports that a student, whose progress according to CBA/DI measures in reading achievement is poor, nonetheless has read several books, who can tell you very well what has been read, and who has gained insight and poses questions about the material. Does that mean that the teacher's observations cannot be trusted as an indicator of real progress?" (p. 323). One interpretation, of course, of this unusual, hypothetical situation is that the CBA/DI measures" (we are aware of no such thing as a CBA/DI measure) in question are invalid indicators of progress.

And there are many other possible interpretations of this scenario in which a student fails on a quantitative reading measure and yet appears to read well, with understanding and insight. Perhaps the measure tested at a level too high for this student. Perhaps the student was proficient reading far below his or her grade level. Perhaps the student thought the test was stupid and didn't try hard. Or perhaps the student "read" several books that were pretaught. There are many other possible interpretations as well, but this last one suggests a cruel hoax in which a nonreader or poor reader has been tricked into believing she can read. The hoax is perpetrated through a device which, along with Heshusius, we condemn: teaching the test.

Heshusius recommends that educators attend to a multiplicity of data. DI proponents concur. We applaud current efforts to develop valid and reliable measures of educational progress, quantitative and qualitative alike. Although we readily acknowledge that many measures in education are primitive and inadequate in many respects, the multiple interpretations inherent in anecdotes cause us to give more reliable data a place of primacy among multiplicities of data. Certainly, however, we do not ascribe truth or certitude to any single "objective" measure, which is why we look for broad homogeneity and weight of evidence in experimental research. ("Objective" and "subjective" are convenient ways of referring to different dimensions along a continuum, and there is no clear point along that continuum at which one becomes the other. In this view, the goal of being objective is that of reducing alternative interpretations to the minimum possible.)

Dogma may be best served when anecdotal or otherwise "non-reliable" data is given primacy, formally or not. For example, an acquaintance of ours visited her son's first-grade teacher for the first time. This teacher subscribed to a particular approach to reading, and she raved on about how the woman's son represented the goals of that approach: He was a voracious reader, one who could not read enough, and would, if allowed, read through recess. He seemed to love books more than toys and games. He understood everything he read, and talked about what he read, incessantly, almost to the point of disrupting class.

After listening proudly to such a tribute, the mother said that, yes, she concurred. Her son had been like that since he was 4 years old, when he was taught to read at home, using a program of synthetic phonics. Oh," the teacher responded diffidently, "I don't believe in using phonics."

Neither the teacher in the above scenario nor any other morally motivated, inquiry-oriented educator would intentionally pick and choose among multiple interpretations on the basis of the extent to which the choice nourished an a priori position of moral certitude, for such is without doubt the quintessence of dogmatism. But what alternative to modem empiricism does Heshusius offer as a safeguard against even inadvertent, unintended dogmatism? If she is not calling for the abandonment of modem empiricism, then Bronowski's (1965) observation on the application of scientific method to social science pertains:
 Surely, say the righteous, it is the wicked who
 flourish, and they flourish because they practice
 what is wicked. So that if social science studies,
 as natural science does, what works and what
 does not, the laws which it traces are likely, they
 fear, to be very unsavory. I doubt whether this
 dark view will bear the light of history. (pp. 53-54)


Bertalanffy, L., von (1968). General systems theory (rev. ed.). New York: George Braziller.

Bronowski, J. (1965). Science and human values. New York: Harper & Row.

Engelman, S., & Carnine, D. (1982). Theory of instruction: Principles and application. New York:Irvington.

Heshusius, L. (1991). Cuniculum-based assessment and direct instruction: Critical reflections on fundamental assumptions. Exceptional Children, 57,315-328.

Heshusius, L. (1986). Pedagogy, special education, and the lives of young children: A critical and futuristic perspective. Journal of Education, 168(3), 25-38.

McCain, G., & Segal, E. M. (1988). The game of science (5th ed.)., Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

McKerrow, K. K., & McKerrow, J. E. (1991). Naturalistic misunderstanding of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Educational Researcher, 20(1), 17-20.

Miller, S. I., & Fredericks, M. (1991). Postpositivistic assumptions and educational research: Another view. Educational Researcher, 20(4), 2-8.

Reyes, M. (1991, April). The "one size fits all" approach to literacy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL


ROBERT C. DIXON (CEC Chapter #1111) is a Research Scientist and DOUGLAS W. CARNINE (CEC Chapter # 1111) is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 461-463 [C] 1992 The Council for Exceptional Children
COPYRIGHT 1992 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dixon, Robert C.; Carnine, Douglas W.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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