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Environmental Education

Environmental Education Research and Culture

Theater in Downtown Buffalo
Creative Commons License photo credit: @andrewghayes

I’m back from Buffalo, having attended a two day research symposium organized by the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE). Held before the annual NAAEE conference, the research symposium is meant, as I understand it, to be an opportunity to talk meaningfully about “meaty” research issues and meet with a cross-section of researchers in the field. I had a good time, intellectually, academically and personally.

Some thoughts from the symposium:

Quantitative vs. Qualitative…

From the presentations and posters I attended, a high percentage of the quantitative work was being conducted by researcher working at US universities, while the opposite was true of those working at Canadian institutions.

I’m a qualitative researcher, so clearly I have something of a vested interest in the framework. I also know, living with an health researcher steeped in quantitative methods, that done well they are powerful tools for making knowledge claims.

So both paradigms have their place. I was struck, however, by the number of times I looked at completed work and thought to myself, “Boy, this project, conducted under a qualitative framework, would have really improved its quality.” In some cases, I saw work that seemed to cling to a quantitative method for the sake of clinging (e.g. the impression that quantitative methods will give you a “better” truth—less ambiguous, more objective, perhaps easier or faster to collect).

…often maps to U.S. vs. the rest of the world.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that researchers objectively match the “best” inquiry method to the question they’re trying to answer. Given that I noticed, however, something of a cultural difference between researchers in the US and other countries, I wonder if this dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative has less to do with “best” method for the inquiry and more to do with inertia behind long-standing research trajectories.

I’m not arguing that these approaches are wrong or misguided. I am, however, fascinated by my observation of the quantitative work being driven by US-based scholars.  Incidentally, I just did the quickest of lit reviews looking to see if there is work that has been done on how researchers choose their methodologies. Lots of “how to choose your methodology” type work, but nothing (not much?) on why researchers choose a particular framework.

Perhaps its worth looking at environmental education researchers to ask them how they came to choose their particular methods. I suspect that it has a lot more to do with the culture of their institution, former supervisor or impression of funding bodies than we might acknowledge. Which might be why, in part, I see such a dichotomy between the way work is done in the US and the rest of the world.