Good researchers tend to pull methods out of a tool kit as they are needed" (2006, p. 54). Notwithstanding these criticisms and constraints, though, most social researchers seem to agree that classification by some type of research paradigm is a useful approach based on the need to determine which approach is best suited for a given research enterprise. In this regard, Corby concludes that, "The contested nature of research makes it impossible and unhelpful to ignore the different aims and purposes of various research projects and the methods and approaches being used to carry them out" (2006, p. 54). Therefore, the different aims and purposes of the positivist research paradigm, the constructivist research paradigm and the pragmatic research paradigm are discussed further below.
Positivist Research Paradigm
The positivist research paradigm is a quantitative-based approach that generally seeks to identify trends and patterns that can be used to formulate predictions concerning how humans behave. For instance, according to Neuman (2003), positivist social science is "an approach to social science that combines a deductive approach with precise measurement of quantitative data so researchers can discover and confirm causal laws that will permit predictions about human behavior" (p. 541). Likewise, Krauss (2005) notes that, "In the positivist paradigm, the object of study is independent of researchers; knowledge is discovered and verified through direct observations or measurements of phenomena; facts are established by taking apart a phenomenon to examine its component parts" (p. 759).
The quantitative basis of positivist research makes it appealing to some social researchers who cite the validity and reliability that can be achieved using these methods. In this regard, Davis (1998) emphasizes that, "The quantitative (or positivist) research paradigm is based on the assumption that research is 'value-free' and objective. It is used to test hypotheses in a controlled environment based on validity, reliability, generalization, and replication" (p. 5). It is this assumption of the positivist research paradigm as being "value-free" that has attracted some criticisms of this approach, with some researchers arguing that this is difficult if not impossible to achieve. Further, quantitative approaches such as positivist research may not deliver the reliability goods that its advocates promise. For instance, Davis adds that, "In quantitative research, the concept of reliability assumes an unchanging world, where inquiry can quite logically be replicated. In the real world, we know that change is a constant, and the social world we live in is always being constructed, therefore making replication and generalization difficult at best" (p. 5).
Despite these constraints, positivist and other quantitative-based research paradigms have been shown to be useful in educational areas as "exercise physiology, public health, trends in recreation and leisure services, and movement analysis in dance forms" (Davis, 1998, p. 5). Social researchers who are interested in discerning broader social processes in educational settings may also elect to use a positivist methodology. For instance, according to Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2000), "Positivist researchers are more concerned to derive universal statements of general social processes rather than to provide accounts of the degree of commonality between various social settings (e.g. schools and classrooms)" (p. 109). In some ways, the positivist approach relies on both numbers as well as resources that contain numbers which can then be used for further analysis. In this regard, Lin (1998) reports that, "Positivist researchers believe that they can take information from thick description or case studies about variables and hypotheses that they then test more rigorously" (p. 162). The positivist approach contrasts sharply with other research paradigms such as the constructivist paradigm which is discussed further below.
Constructivist Research Paradigm
In sharp contrast to the positivist research paradigm, the constructivist paradigm maintains that:
1. Knowledge is created via the meanings that humans attach to the phenomena under investigation;
2. Researchers interact with the subjects of study to obtain data;
3. Inquiry changes both researcher and subject; and,
4. Knowledge is context and time dependent (Krauss, 2005).
The constructivist research paradigm is also differentiated from the positivist research paradigm in that the former is essentially objectivist, or, there is the belief that it is possible for an observer to exteriorize the reality studied, remaining detached from it and uninvolved with it. The constructivist takes the position that the knower and the known are co-created during the inquiry" (Krauss, 2005, p. 761).
To help illustrate the hierarchy of the constructivist research paradigm compared to other lower-level approaches, Kincheloe (2002) makes the distinctions concerning the three levels of research cognition shown in Table 1 below, with the constructivist research paradigm being situated at the top of the research cognition hierarchy.
Three levels of research cognition
Level of Research Cognition
First level: Puzzle-solving research
First-level research revolves around the concept that puzzles are well-structured problems. All aspects necessary for a solution to a puzzle are knowable and there is a particular procedure for solving it. The role of the researcher is to learn this procedure and then to go about solving puzzles. Educational problems, thus, are viewed as puzzles for which particular solutions may be inductively agreed upon after researchers have all been exposed to a common set of empirical observations. Certainty is deemed possible because puzzles push researchers into one way of thinking -- a correct pathway to a solution exists, the goal of the research act is to find it. Research as puzzle-solving does not require the consideration of alternative strategies; such a view of research often blinds the inquirer to information which does not ostensibly relate to the solution of the puzzle. The attempt to verify or refute existing educational theories is a form of puzzle-solving -- the rules are all established a priori. Indeed, puzzle-solving as a mode of research has little to do with the everyday world of schooling because educational decision-making rarely presents itself in the form of puzzles. It is far more complex.
Level 2 research involves a form of meta-cognition where researchers reflect on their Level 1 research activities. Such reflection may involve the identification of mistakes and the analysis of alternative strategies and data-gathering tools in the attempt to solve the puzzle. New variables may be found which make the research process more sophisticated, new forms of research which provide unique perspectives on the puzzle may be applied. The third level of research draws upon our notion of critical constructivism as it opens the door to epistemological considerations. Here, researchers examine the criteria of knowing, and the certainty of knowing, asking questions about the nature of problems themselves. An important difference between the levels of research cognition involves the Level 2 analysis of the problem-solving potential of a particular research strategy and the Level 3 questioning of whether or not particular research questions allow for a solution we know for certain to be correct. Most research in educational situations involves ill-structured problems. Puzzles and ill-structured problems are different epistemologically, that is, in the ways they can be known. To argue that the act of teaching is a puzzle problem is to trivialize its multi-dimensional complexity
Level 3 teacher research with its postmodern rejection of certainty transcends the conventional view of inquiry which accepts the universal applicability of the educational knowledge base. There is a correct way, conventionalists assume, to set up a fifth grade math class. The empirical research base does not support diverse ways of teaching this subject at this level; they are not just different, they are incorrect.
Source: Kincheloe, 2002, p. 154
The foregoing levels of research cognition indicate that the constructivist research paradigm takes place once the foregoing levels of research have been completed, an assumption that is consistent with Kincheloe's guidance that, "Each level of research is necessary to the understanding of the next. Indeed, there are puzzle-like questions in education that lend themselves to empirical analysis. A form of meta-cognition is undoubtedly valuable to increasing the sophistication of such empirical questions. But such forms of research cognition do researchers little good when we begin to look at ill-defined questions such as 'What is the relationship between school performance and social class?' And 'How do definitions of intelligence affect that relationship?'" (2002, p. 155).
In order to formulate timely answers to these research dilemmas, educational researchers must proceed along the continuum of research cognitions until they gain the background information they required to establish the evidence needed to proceed with the subsequent stages of inquiry (Kincheloe, 2002). Once this level of illumination has been achieved, the researcher can conduct the constructivist analyses in an informed fashion assuming that the steps needed for this type of research paradigm are also taken into account. For example, the constructivist research paradigm maintains that sustained engagement with a study's participants is an essential element that is required in order to establish trust and build a rapport; however, even the advocates of the constructivist research paradigm have warned researchers concerning the danger of "going…