How secure is a Newtonian paradigm for psychological and educational measurement?

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    From the early 1900s, some psychologists have attempted to establish their discipline as a quantitative science. In using quantitative methods to investigate their theories, they adopted their own special definition of measurement of attributes such as cognitive abilities, as though they were quantities of the type encountered in Newtonian science. Joel Michell has presented a carefully reasoned argument that psychological attributes lack additivity, and therefore cannot be quantities in the same way as the attributes of classical Newtonian physics. In the early decades of the 20th century, quantum theory superseded Newtonian mechanics as the best model of physical reality. This paper gives a brief, critical overview of the evolution of current measurement practices in psychology, and suggests the need for a transition from a Newtonian to a quantum theoretical paradigm for psychological measurement. Finally, a case study is presented that considers the implications of a quantum theoretical model for educational measurement. In particular, it is argued that, since the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is predicated on a Newtonian conception of measurement, this may constrain the extent to which it can make accurate comparisons of the achievements of different education systems.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)117-138
    Number of pages22
    JournalTheory and Psychology
    Issue number1
    Early online date11 Dec 2014
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


    • Newtonian
    • PISA
    • psychological measurement
    • quantum-theoretical


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