Context: The health professional education community is struggling with a number of issues regarding the place and value of research in the field, including: the role of theory-building versus applied research; the relative value of generalisable versus contextually rich, localised solutions, and the relative value of local versus multi-institutional research. In part, these debates are limited by the fact that the health professional education community has become deeply entrenched in the notion of the physical sciences as presenting a model for 'ideal' research. The resulting emphasis on an 'imperative of proof' in our dominant research approaches has translated poorly to the domain of education, with a resulting denigration of the domain as 'soft' and 'unscientific' and a devaluing of knowledge acquired to date. Similarly, our adoption of the physical sciences''imperative of generalisable simplicity' has created difficulties for our ability to represent well the complexity of the social interactions that shape education and learning at a local level.
Methods: Using references to the scientific paradigms associated with the physical sciences, this paper will reconsider the place of our current goals for education research in the production and evolution of knowledge within our community, and will explore the implications for enhancing the value of research in health professional education.
Conclusions: Reorienting education research from its alignment with the imperative of proof to one with an imperative of understanding, and from the imperative of simplicity to an imperative of representing complexity well may enable a shift in research focus away from a problematic search for proofs of simple generalisable solutions to our collective problems, towards the generation of rich understandings of the complex environments in which our collective problems are uniquely embedded.