From the Ancient World to Modern Times: Tracing the History of Educational Research


The late 19th century marked the beginning of the development of educational research, with Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949).

playing a significant role in this field. Thorndike was a pioneering researcher who conducted studies in learning theory, as well as other areas such as comparative psychology, intelligence testing, verbal behavior, transfer of training, and the use of quantitative measures to address socio-psychological issues.

In 1898, Thorndike’s doctoral dissertation titled “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals” summarized his years of animal research. Through his work as a scientist in the laboratory, Thorndike aimed to transform education through research, and his approach helped to elevate the status of educational research. Additionally, Thorndike’s research on verbal behavior and word counts laid the groundwork for a novel method of developing dictionaries that earlier lexicographers had not conceived of.

The cohort that succeeded Thorndike includes Sidney 1. Pressey, Burrhus F. Skinner (born 1904), Jean Piaget (horn 1896), Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886-1959), Clark Leonard Hull (1884-1952), J. B Watson, Max Wertheirmer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967), Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), and Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936).

Although Sidney L. Pressey developed the concept of programmed learning through his “Testing Machine” in 1927, his invention did not gain popularity when he first introduced it. Despite its effectiveness, it was B.F. Skinner who popularized programmed learning in 1958.

While Edward Thorndike was the pioneer of connectionism in behaviorism, it was B.F. Skinner who developed the concept of operant conditioning within the framework of stimulus-response theory. Skinner was known for his prolific writing and aimed to apply his laboratory research to real-world human problems, as evidenced by his numerous publications.

“The Behavior of Organisms” (1938), “The Science of learning and the Art of Teaching” (1954), “Teaching Machines’ (1958), and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971).

Jean Piaget’s significant contribution to educational research commenced when he was appointed as the Director of Research at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva..

By carefully observing the intellectual development of their three children and the variables that affect children’s test performance, Piaget and his wife became renowned authorities in child psychology. Their work was published in 1958, and Piaget’s theory has since had a significant impact on educational practices, including the formulation of educational policies and the development of curricula in various countries worldwide.

Edwin R. Guthrie’s major work waS “The psychology of learning” published, in 1935.

Edward G. Tolman’s significant contribution was in the field of molar behavior, as described in his book “Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men” published in 1932.

Clark L. Hull contributed so much to learning, and his major book on learning was “Principles of Behaviour” (1943).

The research conducted by Hull was a significant breakthrough in experimental psychology, and it earned him the Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychology in 1945. Meanwhile, J.B. Watson, known as the father of behaviorism, popularized behaviorist psychology through his article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” which was published in 1913.

Max Wertheirmer was the founder of Gestalt

Other Co-founders of Gestalt psychology are Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka.

The famous work of Kohler was on “The Mentality
of Apes” Published in 1925. Kohler’s experimental
atrangement involved a detour problem, in which an animal could clearly see his goal but is unable to
reach it directly.

By conducting this experiment, Kohler demonstrated that chickens struggled significantly in finding solutions to problems, while apes were adept at resolving them. These findings emphasized the importance of problem-solving as a teaching and learning strategy.

Ivan P. Pavlov was the Originator of classical conditioning in stimulus-response theory.

He carried out experiments on psychic reflexes using the dog and salivation in response to the stimulus of food.

The findings of Pavlov and skinner contributed
much to the development of Associative learning, in this modern time.

Presently, the focus of educational research has shifted to the use of the Internet, a modern information technology. This 20th-century invention has been widely adopted in developed countries like the United States and Britain to enhance educational communication and technology.

The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (ACT 1994) reported that all libraries in the United States are linked to the Internet, as indicated by the United States National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Additionally, AECT noted advancements in hypermedia technology at the University of Toledo in Ohio and Indiana University, where electronic classrooms have been established to utilize multimedia

The majority of educational research in Nigeria is primarily conducted within the faculties of Education in Nigerian universities and colleges of education. However, the Nigerian Education Research and Development Council (NERDC) is a distinct federal government research organization focused on education.

The Federal Government established the Comparative Education Study and Adaptation Centre (CESAC) at the University of Lagos to develop an education system that aligns with the nation’s needs, conditions, and aspirations through a research-oriented approach. While both Federal and State Ministries of Education have research and planning units, educational research in Nigeria has yet to experience a significant breakthrough beyond the various curricular development projects undertaken by these ministries.

The reasons for the poor research achievement in Nigeria was presented in the previous chapter, specifically highlighting the issues that hinder research development in the country. Nevertheless, it is hoped that Nigeria will promptly make the necessary preparations to connect to the global internet and join the league of developed nations in embracing the latest trends in educational research and information technology.

  • The Nature of Educational Research

Throughout history, humans have constantly sought solutions to challenging problems in their environment. In their quest to unravel the unknown, they have employed various approaches and conflicting practices. Therefore, the most logical method is to adopt a systematic inquiry to uncover these facts. As a result, research is a systematic inquiry aimed at finding solutions to the challenges that humans face in all aspects of their endeavors.

The process of systematic inquiry involves utilizing scientific procedures to discover solutions to problems. These procedures typically include defining the problem, formulating hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions.

The application of research to education is known as educational research. According to Nkpa (1997:1), educational research is defined as a “systematic inquiry into the educative process.” It involves using scientific procedures to find solutions to problems related to teaching and learning, as well as other aspects directly or indirectly associated with the teaching-learning situation. Therefore, any topic pertaining to education in areas such as psychology, guidance and counseling, administration, philosophy, sociology, curriculum, educational technology, measurement, and evaluation would be considered an educational research topic.

  • The Educational Research Process

As noted by Borg and Gall (1979), Nworgu (1991), and Nkpa (1997), educational research is a scientific undertaking that involves a series of sequential steps constituting the research process. These steps include:

  1. Identifying and defining the problem
  2. Reviewing related literature
  3. Formulating hypotheses and research questions
  4. Developing a research plan for data collection
  5. Collecting pertinent data
  6. Analyzing data
  7. Drawing conclusions and inferences

Subsequent chapters in this book will delve into the details of each of these steps in the research process.

  • Types of Educational Research

Educational research can be classified in two ways,
depending on the purpose/objective of the research,
and the methods of investigation.

  • Purpose / Objective -Based Classification

When classification is based on the purpose of the
research. there are two distinct groups-basic and applied research.

Basic or Fundamental Research

The purpose of this type of research is to expand the boundaries of knowledge. Its outcomes are employed to develop theories that will contribute to the advancement of knowledge in a particular field of study. According to Nworgu (1991), basic research is not focused on the usefulness or application of its findings to practical problems. Although the findings may eventually be applicable to practical problems with social significance, the researcher’s objective is to formulate and expand theories using the findings or results.

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