Is this assessment accurate? Is there any evidence that scientific research in education accumulates to provide objective, reliable results? Does knowledge from scientific education research progress as it does in the physical, life, or social sciences? To shed light on these questions, we consider how knowledge accumulates in science and provide examples of the state of scientific knowledge in several fields. In doing so, we make two central arguments in this chapter.
First, research findings in education have progressed over time and provided important insights in policy and practice. We trace the history of three productive lines of inquiry related to education as “existence proofs” to support this assertion and to convey the promise for future investments in scientific education research. What is needed is more and better scientific research of this kind on education.
Our second and related argument is that in research across the scientific disciplines and in education, the path to scientific understanding shares several common characteristics. Its advancement is choppy, pushing the boundaries of what is known by moving forward in fits and starts as methods, theories, and empirical findings evolve. The path to scientific knowledge wanders through contested terrain as researchers, as well as the policy, practice, and citizen communities critically examine, interpret, and debate new findings and it requires substantial investments of time and money. Through examples from inside and outside education, we show that this characterization of scientific advancement is shared across the range of scientific endeavors.
We chose the examples that appear in this chapter to illustrate these core ideas. We do not suggest that these lines of inquiry have provided definitive answers to the underlying questions they have addressed over time. As we argue in Chapter 1, science is never “finished.” Science provides a valuable source of knowledge for understanding and improving the world, but its conclusions always remain conjectural and subject to revision based on new inquiry and knowledge. As Thomas Henry Huxley once said: “The great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” (cited in Cohn, 1989, p. 12).
Thus, the examples we highlight in this chapter show that sustained inquiry can significantly improve the certainty with which one can claim to understand something. Our descriptions necessarily convey the state of