A continuum can be created with educational scholars placed at one extreme and educators at the other; educational theory is placed on the extreme with scholars and models of instruction are placed on the extreme with practitioners. Between these two extremes, there exists a gap that must be filled if instruction is to be informed by theory and if instruction is to inform theory (see figure 6.1).
Figure 6.1. Frameworks fill the gap between theory and practice
Scholars approach complex problems by reducing them to clearly delimited and controlled factors; this is fundamental to the work of solving tame problems.
Many educators, on the other hand, concur with educator and philosopher John Dewey who concluded classrooms are influenced by many factors that cannot be delimited and controlled. This leads to the conclusion that classrooms cannot be reduced in a scientific manner. Effective planning, however, is facilitated when educators are aware of and can recognize relevant factors and have a cognitive structure with which they can interpret the activities in a classroom.
Planners who design solutions to wicked problems have introduced frameworks to support the design of solutions to these problems. Mehlenbacher (2010) noted “A framework in the most literal sense, aims to describe the fundamental structure underlying a concept, technology, or system….” (194). The structure arises from the reduction of the complex setting to several relevant factors that can be recognized and studied in diverse settings and about which diverse populations can concur. In education, a framework becomes the tool whereby the complex and wicked nature of classrooms is maintained, but is reduced to a manageable level. Mehlenbacher and other scholars use the term dimensions to identify the limited numbers of constructs that define the essential aspects of the framework. For educators, a framework will be comprised of dimensions that identify the relevant factors that exist in all classrooms that must be addressed when designing curriculum and instruction.
Curtis Bonk and Vanessa Dennen (2003), scholars from Indiana University, suggested frameworks and dimensions provide a structure that is useful for both scholars who are gathering data and educators who are designing classrooms, as well as those who are assessing instruction and evaluating educators. Because a framework creates a common language, it facilitates clear communication between scholars and educators and between professional educators and other stakeholders in all aspects of designing and researching curriculum and instruction. Andrew Dillon (2004), a scholar at the School of Information at the University of Texas, at Austin, observed dimensions that are accurate, relatively non-complex, suitably generic, and modifiable are most suitable for defining frameworks that facilitate communication between scholars and practitioners.
There is no expectation that scholars generate accurate theory; science is designed to replace inaccurate and incomplete theory. Although educators trust that advocates for (and vendors who sell) a particular educational model are accurate in their claims about the results that can be obtained by using the model, they have no assurance that is so. Those claims are commonly based on weak science, or claims about educational benefits of instruction are being made in a manner that is not justified by the science. In reality, advocates for any practice are under no obligation to support their claims with science other than their own ethical tendencies.
Conversely, when a framework is presented, there is the expectation that it accurately reflects the domain it describes. Accuracy is a difficult property to define when dealing with a wicked problem such as education because evaluation is subjective. In general, however, the dimensions will arise from empirical observation made by scholars and will be universally applicable in the settings of the domain. This leads to other properties of dimensions that are described below. The dimensions do not undergo the scrutiny that a theory does, and it is more general and thus more transferable; as the product of scholarly inquiry, however, each dimension is subject to empirical and logical validation to a degree that classroom practices are not.
Educational researchers go to great lengths to explain the conditions under which they collected their data. These details are important because other researchers must assess the transferability of the research and because others must decide if unexpected results are the result of variables that were not controlled or the result of a previously unknown effect. While this level detail leads to a complexity that is necessary to evaluate the quality of the research, it can be an impediment to the effective use of a framework in a classroom. As a result, scholars who present a framework have the obligation to use sufficiently complex language and detail that it can be used by scholars to guide research and practitioners to guide curriculum and instruction design, yet not so complex as to interfere with efficacious classroom planning.
In order for the dimensions of a framework to be both accurate and non-complex, they must be sufficiently generic that they can be used in a broad range of situations. In the case of a framework for 21st century K-12 education, the dimensions should be sufficiently generic that it can be applied to all settings regardless of the age of the students, that nature of the curriculum, the location of the school, or the experience of the educator.
One of the defining characteristics of scientific theory is that it changes, but it changes only when new observations or more satisfactory theory emerges. Educational practice can also change, but it can be changed as a result of political whim or personal preferences. A framework and its dimensions are subject to modification, but the changes must arise from empirical or logical reason from scholarly inquiry and not for political or personal preference. An educational framework and its dimensions define the characteristics of curriculum and instruction that are supported by current knowledge and within that there will be various practices that are justifiable. Educators may select from those practices based on political or personal preferences, but the dimensions of the framework can only be changed based on empirical and logical evidence.
Bonk, Curtis, and Vanessa Dennen. 2003. “Frameworks for Research, Design, Benchmarks, Training, and Pedagogy in Distance Learning.” In Handbook of Distance Education, 2nd ed., edited by Michael G. Moore, 331-348. New York: Routledge.
Mehlenbacher, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.