Discipline-based education research, or DBER, has received a lot of attention lately. In 2012, the National Research Council published a report on DBER. The report suggests that DBER is both broadly focused on a wide array of sciences (“physics, biological sciences, geosciences, and chemistry”) and narrowly focused on undergraduate settings. Other disciplines, although not discussed in detail, are acknowledged – this is good since education research within math and engineering has a long history in undergraduate settings. Overall, I think the report suggests that DBER is: 1) focused on undergraduate teaching and learning; 2) grounded in deep understanding of natural sciences; and 3) grounded in the science of teaching and learning.
I suggest that DBER is both more and less than the work described in the report. More – DBER scholars already investigate learning in settings far afield from colleges and universities. Less – DBER scholars still struggle to build from pre-existing research paradigms or build new valid and reliable research theories/approaches.
This may sound silly, but I really do love the definition of “education” offered up at dictionary.com: “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” This definition encompasses the classroom, but does not require it, and in fact recognizes that learning occurs as a normal part of maturation and simply living. I would argue that limiting DBER to undergraduate settings fractures a community of scholars. Under this model, researchers of learning in undergraduate science are embraced by DBER scholars. In fact, DBER communities often include only those scholars who study undergraduate science learning within Colleges of Science. Other researchers of learning in higher education coalesce around higher education groups, such as the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Those people who study science learning in K-12 settings will find an intellectual home among traditional science education scholars housed in Colleges of Education (see NARST, for example), other communities embrace scholars studying museum learning (ASTC), or learning in parks (VSA), or even the scientific literacy of the general public (a journal example). Each of these communities then works mostly in isolation from each other – it would be far better to build a larger community that embraces each of these sub-fields. The very similar research questions and methodologies suggest that these groups might be better off working together, recognizing the commonalities of scholarship in these different fields rather than re-inventing the wheel. This working together would naturally require building a common set of theories, research methods, and analytical techniques that all communities can value.
I leave with some questions: What does it mean for a field to have emerged as a new research discipline? Has DBER actually emerged as geophysics once did, or is DBER still, much like a butterfly in its crysalis, struggling through a metamorphosis?