The Quest for Meaning in Educational Research

Deborah Court , Bar-Ilan University, Israel


Deborah Court researches educational cultures in Israel and abroad. She teaches qualitative research methods and curriculum evaluation at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.



This article explores different senses of the concept of meaning in educational research, presenting ‘meaning’ as personal (the researcher’s quest for meaning through research), contextual (meaning in relation to linguistics and culture) and shared (through communication), offering illustrative examples from the literature and from her own work.

Why Do We Perform Educational Research?

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in anthropology thirty years ago, the professor of our cultural anthropology course gave us a provocative assignment for our final paper. We were supposed to ask, and attempt to answer, one of the great, unanswered questions in cultural anthropology. Flirting with youthful cynicism on the one hand, and beginning a genuine search for meaning on the other, I entitled my paper, “One of the great, unanswered questions in cultural anthropology: Why are we doing this?” The details of my answer are long forgotten in the dustbin of essay history, but the gist of it was an attempt to find human significance in the description and analysis of cultures. Looking back, I blush at the naive presumption that I could answer such a question, but the question itself, “why are we doing this?” has recurred, sometimes at a hum and sometimes at a roar, for most of my professional life.

Why, collectively, do we perform educational research? At first glance the answers seem clear. We want to learn about effective programs and teaching methods to help students learn. We want to discover relationships between variables in educational settings to plan interventions. We want to understand cultural contexts of schools to create schools that embody justice and reduce prejudice and inequality.

From the individual researcher’s perspective we investigate topics about which we are curious or passionate; as well, we do research because it is an integral part of the academic role and a central factor in academic promotion. We may sometimes be paid or co-opted to do research in a setting that we did not choose out of personal-professional interest, but I think examination of most researchers’ work over years or decades will offer substantial revelation of what is important to those people. A researcher’s voyage may be long, the seas calm or stormy, the tides of circumstance insistent, but the journey is driven at least in part by the winds of ontological longing. Individually and collectively, we do educational research as part of a quest for meaning.




Meaning is Personal

Most difficult to define, what might be called ontological meaning involves the individual quest to find and make meaning in the daily activities of one’s life. It is the quest to answer the individual form of the question posed in my forgotten essay. Why am I doing this? Why am I living my life this way, taking this path and not some other? It may be a useful kind of reflection for a researcher to examine the motivations and turning points in his or her career trajectory. In my own case, since I came to live in Israel my quest for meaning has become sharper, more urgent, the motivation for doing research more keenly focused. Moving from crisis to tragedy to crisis in this tiny country, I want my work to mean something, to me, to my grandchildren, to others. For the first time, I am an outsider, trying to find my way in, rather than a native taking so much for granted. When I lived in Canada my concerns were related but different; in a less intense setting I sought through research to understand teachers’ knowledge and the nature of school culture. Now I ask, what happens in schools in this region? How do we teach about violence and non-violence, about respect, courage and difficult decisions? What is the role of schools in this regard, and can schools counteract other influences? At every stage human beings seek to animate the details of their lives with spirit, with connection. Amidst busy, sometimes stressful, sometimes mundane professional lives, perhaps fitfully but inexorably, we strive to place ourselves and our work in a context of meaning. We strive towards meaning like plants towards the sun.

Viktor Frankl, who sought survival during his years in Auschwitz and meaning in the years after, wrote that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone: only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning” (1984, p.121). While this struggle and this will are individual, meaning is not found in some existential vacuum, but in relation to others.

Meaning is Contextual


Linguistic meaning is the relation between meaning and language. Persons acting in a context use words in order to name objects and activities and to express thoughts; in order to communicate. We communicate our thoughts, ideas, intentions and feelings to others through speech and writing. Speech necessarily represents thought imperfectly. Vygotsky (1962) wrote that metaphorically, “A thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words. Precisely because thought does not have its automatic counterpart in words, the transition from thought to word leads through meaning” (p.150).  He further states that to understand other people’s speech we need to understand not only their words but their motivation. This comes about through knowing, and especially through being a part of, the context in which another’s words are spoken.

Polanyi (1962, pp. 57-58) calls the kind of meaning that a context itself possesses existential; words (together with more complex entities such as concepts and theories) used in a cultural context have what Polanyi calls denotative or representative meaning. Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) makes it clear that language has no absolute meaning; the meaning of a word is found in its use. Dictionary definitions give a general set of accepted usages of a word, but nuances, subtle variations and colloquialisms may be understood only ‘in play’. According to Wittgenstein, the context of culture and activity within which a word is spoken, the ‘language game’ within which it is played, dictate its meaning in that setting.

Closely related to linguistic meaning is conceptual meaning, the tacit understanding of concepts amongst participants in a culture, and upon which cultural knowledge is based. As Polanyi writes, “In learning to speak, every child accepts a culture constructed on the premises of the traditional interpretation of the universe, rooted in the idiom of the group to which it was born, and every intellectual effort of the educated mind will be made within that frame of reference” (1962, p.112). This important idea has many ramifications for educational research.

One example of the contextuality of meaning can be found in the notions of professional and organizational culture. These are metaphoric senses of the term ‘culture’ (Alvesson, 1993). In this metaphoric way we speak of the different cultures of the school and the university. This conception has helped to shed light on some of the misunderstandings between teachers and researchers over central concepts like ‘knowledge’ (Kliebard, 1993; Page, Samson & Crockett, 1998), and led to serious attempts to map and define these different meanings in order to facilitate mutual understanding (Hiebert, Gallimore & Stigler, 2002).


Conceptions of knowledge, like linguistic and conceptual meaning, are both personal and contextually based. In recent years some educational researchers have focused on epistemological meaning. This work has helped us understand how students’ views about what constitutes knowledge, and the boundaries between knowledge and belief, affect their learning (Alexander & Dochy, 1995; Alexander, Murphy, Guian & Murphy, 1998), as well as how teachers’ beliefs about knowledge affect their teaching. Whether a teacher sees knowledge as absolute or as constructed and reasoned, for instance, will profoundly affect the way that teacher teaches (Brownlee, 2001; Tsai, 2002).

Context in Qualitative and Quantitative Research


The notion of context is extremely important for educational researchers, who must pay attention both to contextual factors and to supra-contextual theoretical concepts and standardized variables. Quantitative and qualitative researchers face somewhat different challenges in this regard.

Ethnographers need to capture and interpret what they hear and see in the field within the frame of reference of the participants. When ethnographic findings are disseminated, researchers must be vigilant in providing  ‘rich description’ (Geertz, 1973) of the context so as to convey as much as possible about the participants’ world. Finally ethnographers must, at least to some extent, ‘translate’ significant field references into theoretical terms in order to position findings in relation to previous research. If we do not attend carefully to participants’ meanings within their cultural context, we risk misunderstanding and misrepresenting them and producing inaccurate results.

Quantitative researchers, on the other hand, need to design measures of constructs like anxiety, intelligence or satisfaction in order to provide accurate and relevant statistical results. This could mean designing context-sensitive instruments for research in a particular setting, or it could mean designing instruments that can produce meaningful and comparable results over many different contexts. A well-known example of this kind of challenge is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA (Program of International Student Assessment) testing, which every three years tests students in industrialized countries (OECD, 2001, 2002). The year 2000 tests, despite measuring students in such diverse countries as the United States, Korea, Israel and Peru, produced comparable results because the tests were designed to assess literacy (not specific content knowledge) in reading, mathematics and science. The meaning of these results and the comparisons between them stand on the quality of the measures used and the extent to which the test designers succeeded in creating questions which were relevant to students in different cultural contexts.

The PISA example also shows the interaction between qualitative and quantitative research. In Israel, whose results in all three tested areas were quite low, researchers and educators are now trying to understand the contextual factors at work in the Israeli education system in order to interpret the statistical results and plan programs for improvement.

Some kinds of analytic work are not so directly context-dependent, but are based on logic of a kind generally shared across cultures. Mathematics offers the prime example of this shared logic. Analytical claims, like those made in mathematics, are verified through logic and agreed-upon rules. When we examine meaning as the validation of truth claims our focus is on the kinds of evidence offered as support for analytical, empirical and value claims. (Wilson, 1968, pp. 82-90). In educational research we are most concerned with empirical and value claims. Empirical claims are verified through the accumulation of appropriate and sufficient evidence in the world of experience; value claims (as opposed to statements of preference or attitude, which are not ‘true’ or ‘untrue’), while much more difficult to verify, also have an empirical basis. In general, to have meaning a statement must be true. But what is true? The kind of evidence needed to validate the truth of the empirical claim, “There are ten apples on the table” is different than the kind of the evidence needed to validate the value claim, “Apples are better than oranges”. Better how, first of all? Tastier (this is preference)? More nutritious (in terms of which nutrients, and for whom)? Giving a more cost- effective balance between production costs, nutrition and shelf life?

We need empirical evidence to validate an empirical claim. This is a simple exercise in the case of a statement like “There are ten apples on the table”, but a complex enterprise indeed when the claim is that treatment or program X causes Y. Obviously the research ramifications of the search for empirical meaning include meticulous, systematic and repeated accumulation, analysis and interpretation of appropriate kinds of empirical evidence.

Value claims, such as those we make in program evaluation and evaluation of students, are based on a shared set of criteria and accumulated empirical evidence. In education we might say that constructivist science teaching is the best approach, that we should teach non-violent ways of conflict resolution, or that it is right to include a reflective component in teacher education. Underlying all of these statements is some shared set of criteria about what is valuable. If it is right or worthwhile to include a reflective component in teacher education, it is because we have generally agreed that we want teachers to reflect on their experience, rather than, or in addition to, learning methods and theories through practice, repetition and memorization. Having generally agreed upon these valued traits and this notion of knowledge development we then, through research, accumulate considerable evidence about teachers’ learning, until we reach a point where we can verify that including a reflective component in teacher education does lead to the development of these valued traits.

To summarize these last ideas, meaning as verification of truth claims involves logic and methods which may not be strongly contextual, but the values underlying such claims, and the motivation for researching certain questions, do spring from context.


Meaning is Shared

Obviously these different senses of meaning are interdependent. My personal desire to find meaning in my work leads me to do educational research, usually into questions that touch my life in some way. I try to delve into the context and culture of those I study, in order to understand their meanings rather than imposing my own. I try to make visible to my students and to those I meet as a researcher my own meanings, based as they are in my own history. I work from the linguistic, conceptual and epistemological structures that I have acquired as a Canadian, a teacher, an academic and researcher, and an immigrant to a different country and culture. My goal is not only to satisfy my own quest for meaning, but to learn from those I come to know in the context of research, and to communicate in terms that are authentic, accurate and understandable to my colleagues and others. Meaning, finally, is shared. In Martin Buber’s analysis, “The fundamental fact of human existence is neither the individual as such nor the aggregate as such. Each, considered by itself, is a mighty abstraction. The individual is a fact of existence in so far as he steps into a living relation with other individuals. The aggregate is a fact of existence in so far as it is built up of living units of relation. The fundamental fact of existence is man with man” (1971, p.244).

What does this mean in terms of educational research? At its most basic level, perhaps only that each of us remember to raise our heads above the waters of pressure, stress, competition, ego and habit, to ask ourselves how we are utilizing our own unique situation and set of talents to contribute in some way to knowledge, understanding and communication. This kind of grounding connects us both with the still, small voice of Buber’s I, and with the thou of our research subjects, colleagues and students. Meaning is personal, but personal meaning is realized through connection with other travelers on the road.

In terms of the conduct of our research, it means care, honesty, rigor, time and patience, with our methods of data collection and analysis, our interpretations and our language. These things apply equally, though with differing details, to radical post-modernist feminist researchers and to positivist statisticians.

Why are we doing this, after all? Surely it is to fulfill our individual strivings for meaning through contributing to and connecting with diverse communities of researchers, teachers and learners, and with the disenfranchised. The quest for meaning is like a lamp, illuminating the passages and turning points as we make our way through complex and diverse settings, questions, methods and bodies of knowledge.




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