The research paradigms: Positivism

EDU 5 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the third paradigm, namely Positivism.

The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that one can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science. According to the positivist paradigm true knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality.

‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means collection of verifiable empirical evidences in support of theories or hypotheses. Knowledge stems from human experience. Furthermore, the researcher is seen as being independent from the study and follows a deductive approach. The researcher concentrates on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one. ‘Parsimony’ refers to the explanation of the phenomena in the most efficient way possible. ‘Generality’ is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.

With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.

Positivist paradigm thus systematises the knowledge generation process with the help of quantification, which is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them.

An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.

A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation. Positivism is a philosophy of knowing, also called epistemology, which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information gathering, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.

Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach postulate that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed. Positivism implies that there are objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws require discovery through scientific means.

Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world. A positivist approach emphasises experimentation, observation, control, measurement, reliability and validity in the processes of research. This implies a quantitative approach.

Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.

To explain the concept of doing research independent of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and don’t intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.

The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that the researcher can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:

  • Positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
  • Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals.
  • Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.

Note: Sources for all the articles on research paradigms will be acknowledged in the book that the writer is writing on Social Science Research. Posted by Dr J.P. Nel

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The research paradigms: Empiricism

EDU 8 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the second paradigm, namely Empiricism.

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from the experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience. Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated, things that happened to them and observations that they made. Experience can also be “staged” through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complimentary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. As the name and philosophy implies, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[1] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences. In his book entitled “Black Brain, White Brain”, Gavin Evans claims that religion is immune to logic. This is a typical empiricist argument. Evans does not understand, or conveniently ignores the value of abstract reasoning as a foundation of deductive reasoning. One wonders if Evans would also deny the possibility that there might be life in other corners of the universe as easily as he dispels the possible existence of a creator of the universe.

Second, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deducted or inferred from actual events that people can experience through their senses. The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition are rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge does not exist.

A strong distinction is made between fact (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. According to empiricism a person is born with an empty brain, like a clean slate, which is then filled by what he or she learns by experiencing things. Two learning processes take place – the individual experiences a sensation after which she or he reflects on it.

[1] Accessed on 11/07/2016.

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Assessment-driven Training

An advantage in Outcomes-based Education and Training but hardly understood…

The Outcomes-based (OB) approach in learning were implemented in South Africa’s schools and learning institutions, but endured much criticism – especially from those who did not grasp the advantages. Let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water…

Many benefits in the OB assessment approach

The assessment-driven approach in OB was thoroughly researched and proven to focus learners on the outcomes that are directly related to workplace skills. However, most assessment design and developers still do not grasp the difference between content-based and outcomes-based learning and the advantages embedded in the assessment-driven approach. When they need to design and develop assessment guides and instruments they reach out to the book and not the outcomes.

Does assessment-driven mean we don’t start with the book?

Exactly just that. You start with the assessment criteria in the unit standard. In fact, when you design and develop the whole programme, you are not even supposed to have a book until you have developed your draft assessment guide and instruments. Only after the assessment instruments are drawn up, the outline of the book should be drafted.

But what is wrong with starting with the content or the book?

Developers who start with the book rather than the assessment criteria usually end up having question papers with irrelevant questions. Their preferred method is to look for steps, formulas, procedures, definitions and difficult terminologies within the book. These will then be channelled into matching column, multiple choice, alternative choice and insert-type questions. When doing this, most developers do not take in account the weight of different outcomes, and assessment instruments are developed that’s invalid, unfair to the learners and unreliable. The context of the specific organisation is also not taken into account, which lower standards due to the generic approach that is being used.

What about subjective type of questions?

Most developers do not want to add open questions for different reasons. Firstly you need open-minded assessors to mark open-ended questions…seemingly hard to find. Secondly, it takes more time assessing them and thirdly not all providers trust their assessors to apply their minds. The truth however is that most learners like open-ended questions as many like to express themselves rather than being restricted. Are we fair to our learners by providing assessments that are accommodating their individual needs?

What about the memorandum?

The outcomes and assessment criteria direct and assist in the formulation of the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes should be stated and developed in the book. Audience and context is crucial in the selection and research of the content, which should only answer to the learning outcomes. The memorandum and the book are now developed concurrently as both documents should answer to the learning outcomes. Although the book is used as guide in drawing up the memorandum, open ended questions should acknowledge learning acquired outside the boundaries of the book. That will also simplify assessment in recognition of prior learning (RPL) where a holistic approach rather than a delimited style is preferred.

Doesn’t the unit standard become the content?

Even the unit standard can become content if we see it as the Alpha and Omega. Remember, unit standards are compiled by Standard Generating Bodies which consisted of people…who have limitations. They recognise their own short-comings through publishing it for a time period so that the public can participate in a democratic manner. Therefore the unit standard only becomes a guide and not the only source in developing assessments. The context (obtained through analysing the internal and external environment of each specific organisation) of learning plays a much larger role when developing assessment activities.

But Higher Education still believes in books, journals, publications…content!

Maybe with a better balance between knowledge based and workplace based learning, they will understand the gap that was created through the years of content-based learning. Maybe then they will understand why our economy look like it does and why workplaces are reluctant to provide jobs for graduates.


The value of assessment-driven training is the fact that it focuses on the outcomes within the workplace context instead of generic content. It increases standards and excludes irrelevant learning. It is valid and reliable as it focuses on the purpose of the skill.

Let’s keep and feed this baby!

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RPL Challenges in Higher Education

Easy to legislate…difficult to apply?

Initially when Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) was proposed and imposed through different legislation and prescripts in the early 2000s, the purposes of RPL in South Africa were social redress and transformation.  Higher Education institutions realized sporadically that RPL implementation will not only change their mission statement, but will also influence their admission policy, existing resources, assessment procedures, staff, exit policy and mode of delivery.

Today, 16 years later, Higher Education institutions still struggle to grapple with challenges in RPL implementation which may compromise high standards of institutions which provide them with credibility and integrity.  Some challenges still hinders implementation…

Challenges in RPL implementation

During a RPL workshop in May 2016, the following challenges were anticipated by high level (level 8-10) attendees from different faculties in Higher Education:

  • Conceptual knowledge can be difficult to find in workplace evidence.
  • Inexperienced assessors will have difficulty to assess RPL evidence in a holistic manner due to lack of workplace experience.
  • Admission policy guidelines will have to be amended to be more inclusive.
  • Exit points are currently protecting HE interest –open exit points can be misrepresented.
  • Fee structures can’t be generic, but should differ over the huge range of programmes.
  • Promotion of RPL to own management and training staff.
  • RPL Office for speedy implementation rather than immediate integration.

Conceptual knowledge difficult to find in workplace evidence

One of the challenges of RPL assessors in Higher Education is to identify and recognize conceptual knowledge within the evidence provided from the workplace.  Conceptual knowledge is different from procedural knowledge that simply follow rules to get to the same outcome. As long as you know “how” to do geometry, you will achieve acceptable marks, but why you are following the steps might be unknown for the candidate.  Conceptual knowledge answers to the “why”.  An excellent chess player can win a match purely by using his procedural knowledge in pattern recognition. However he will not necessarily prove conceptual knowledge.  Conceptual knowledge however can develop through years of experience in following procedures, but this is the question academics should ask:  ‘do we have proof of conceptual knowledge in prior learning, to recognize learning in a Higher Education context?’.

To enable recognition of learning in an Academic institution, emphasis of conceptual knowledge should be higher than procedural knowledge.  A person’s competence can only be justified if he/she understands why he/she is following the procedure. Assessors need to be advised on the difference so that the integrity of deliverables from a Higher Education institution will uphold their credibility.  In the case where an RPL candidate lacks conceptual knowledge as required through set assessment criteria, the candidate should be referred to institutions where the emphasis is more on procedural knowledge.

Holistic RPL assessment approach

Consistency in assessment judgement can only be obtained if assessors speak the ‘same language’, e.g. share a common understanding of competence in their subject matter.  Holistic thinking skills are developed through years of experience, which leaves young RPL assessors as a risk in making an RPL judgement.

The problem however lies in the fact that if we only allow high level assessors to make RPL judgements, the cost of the RPL assessment should drastically increase.  RPL thus become an expensive option, which is against the intended purpose of RPL.

Admission Policy

The admission policy in Higher Education is expected to be very strict to be fair to all learners and the institution.  However, in the case of RPL, a generic approach should be used and applications should be judged in a holistic manner.  Once again high level subject matter expertise should be involved in the admission of individuals, which increase cost even in application.

Should exit be voluntary for the RPL candidate?

In all learning institutions, policy states that exit is voluntary for the RPL candidate.  This means that at any stage when the candidate feel he/she does not want to continue, they may exit.  Academics however reason that in most cases, the input of Higher Education is acknowledged within their products (publications or thesis).  In the case where a professor spent hours in finding the gap in the candidate’s evidence, and went through numerous hours of top-up learning, his institution should be acknowledged.  However this will not be possible if the candidate decides at this stage to exit and applies at another Higher Education Institution.  Policy should thus include guidelines to exit mechanisms to protect the interest of the institution.

Fee structures can’t be generic

An RPL candidate cannot be required to pay a minimum, generic fee for RPL in Higher Education, as the different fields, different levels and requirements on high levels will differ.  Fees must rather be broken down into consultation, assessor, moderation and administration fees per level and field.  The turnaround time of RPL is also a disputable concept as this will also increase fee structures.

Promotion of RPL in Higher Education

An advantage for Higher Education in applying RPL is the partnerships that they will form with different workplaces to associate with typical workplace evidence.  However, it seems that academics still fail to see these advantages for their own academic development.

Need for RPL Office

Although the integration of RPL into existing training structures seems to be the most cost-effective way of implementing RPL, it seems as if it will rather be an add-on that will only increase the workload of high level assessors.  If assessors do not agree on the necessity of this function, it will not carry sufficient weight to mandate this function.

The alternative is to start with a RPL office from which all initial RPL interventions are promoted and coordinated.  Promotion should take place not only outside the institution, but ideally internally so that staff can first pick the fruit of RPL endeavours.  Internal RPL will promote the concept to the highest levels and assist in the training of RPL facilitators, assessors and moderators.


So what do we say?  It is easy to legislate RPL, but not so easy to apply…

Unless Higher Education starts implementing it convincingly and forcefully, we will never know whether this will be feasible and viable in their environment.

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The research paradigms: Rationalism

EDU 11 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the first paradigm, namely Rationalism.

Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, as a result of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. It postulates that truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought. Rationalists assume that the world is deterministic and that cause and effect holds for all events. There are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They also assume that these can be understood through sufficient understanding and thought. A priori (prior to experience) or rational insight is a source of much knowledge. Sense experience, on the other hand, is seen as being too confusing and tentative.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world.

Rationalism adopts at least one of three claims: the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis or the innate concept thesis.

The intuition/deduction thesis claims that some propositions in a particular subject area are knowable by us by intuition only while others are knowable by being deducted from intuited propositions. Intuition is regarded as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “see” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, defensible belief in it. Deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premises through valid arguments, one in which the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.

Innate knowledge means having knowledge of some truth is a particular subject area. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis also asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, independently of experience. The difference between the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate knowledge thesis rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning. The innate knowledge thesis offers our rational nature. Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature. Experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but the experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along.

According to the innate concept thesis some of the concepts are not gained from experience – they are part of our rational nature. While sense experiences may trigger a process by which they are brought to consciousness, experience does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. The content and strength of the innate concept thesis varies with the concepts claimed to be innate. The more a concept seems to be removed from experience and the mental options we can perform on experience the more plausible it may be claimed to be innate.

The above three thesis are necessary for a paradigm to be rationalist. The indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis may also be adopted by rationalists, although they are not essential. The indispensability of reason thesis claims that the knowledge that we gain by intuition and deduction and the knowledge that are innate to us could not have been gained through sense experience. The superiority of reason thesis claims that the knowledge we gain by intuition and deduction or have innately is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience.

Rationalism is challenged by positivism, which seeks empirical evidence rather than relying on the perceived unreliability of individual thinking. It is also opposed by empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge.

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