On the subject of my irrepressible positivity

I remember the first time that someone suggested that I was a ‘positivist’. I thought that it sounded quite pleasant. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be a ‘negitivist’ now, would you? However, there was something odd about it. The issue had been raised during a discussion about teaching methods and the person who raised it was acting as if he had delivered a killer blow. His look said, “How are you going to get back from that?” I was puzzled.

So I looked it up on the internet. According to Britannica, positivism is, “any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations.” Thus, the argument;

1. Positivism is wrong

2. You are a positivist

3. Therefore, you are wrong

would not convince a positivist because is rests upon an a priori assumption, namely that positivism is wrong. It is also not a convincing argument for a number of other reasons.

Firstly, I am not a positivist because I accept a number of a priori assumptions. I believe in objective reality and oppose relativism which I see as prone to absurdity and self-contradiction. I don’t need to count the daisies in my lawn in order to draw this conclusion. I also hold a number of moral convictions. For instance, I think it is wrong for students to swear at their teachers. I don’t even need to involve myself in defining ‘swearing’ in order to readily assent to this idea.

I have quite a few views that are like this. For instance, I don’t believe that states should be in the business of murdering their own citizens, whatever those citizens have done, unless they represent a clear and acute threat to the well-being of others (e.g. suicide bombers). This is not a view based upon empirical data. I also quite like this extract from the American Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Setting the arguments about the existence of a creator to one side, I like the sentiment of this statement because it speaks to the kind of world that I want to live in. I require no statistical correlation to accept the rights of men and women (I would add that bit in) to pursue happiness.

So why does this come about? Why do a get accused of holding a philosophical position that I do not hold? And what of the genuine positivists in all of this? Someone should at least do them the service of explaining why they are a priori wrong.

I think the criticism of me is due to a sleight-of-hand where the part becomes the whole. Whereas I have no problem in accepting the truth of statements that are not based upon experiment or observation, I am also fine with accepting the truth of statements that are. To me, this seems perfectly reasonable. Due to my a priori acceptance of objective reality, I believe that measurements give us insight into this reality. If someone is making truth claims that can potentially be measured against reality then I am interested in measuring them.

Of course, I also accept that things can be complicated. The business of education involves humans, after all. There are three possible truths:

1. Education is predictable – we can derive certain laws from experiment that will enable us to predict the learning of each individual.

2. Education is weakly predictable – we can derive laws that tell us what might happen on average with groups of students under certain conditions but these laws cannot fully predict the learning of each individual.

3. Education is entirely unpredictable.

I am not aware of anyone advocating for the first of these. Even if education really were this deterministic then we would probably need to possess information that no teachers could ever possess; details of the changing moods of all of our students, for instance. So it might be predictable in principle but chaotic in practice.

We can easily decide between the latter two possible truths by experiment and observation. If education is entirely unpredictable then anyone who thinks she has found a rule must be in error. If we repeat her experiment or observations a number of times then the finding will wash-out.

This does not seem to be the case. For instance, the fact that worked examples are better than problem solving for teaching novices the rudiments of algebra seems to be a robust result. But this is an example that I offer from my own home turf.

What is it that you believe? Do you believe that inquiry learning is more motivating for science students than explicit instruction? If so, this is testable. We could run the two conditions against each other and survey the students or perhaps measure the proportion that go on to further study of science. With a large enough group we could uncover even a very weak effect.

Granted, an experiment will never tell you whether it is morally right to shout at a child. I accept that. And yet educationalists are making experimentally testable claims all the time without usually providing much evidence to support them.

Every time you promote a particular teaching practice or curriculum, you are implying its advantages over alternatives in order to meet some objective or other; building creativity, collaborative skills, teaching kids to read. The claims you are making are therefore potentially testable: Presumably, there must be some way of distinguishing between a person with good or bad collaborative skills. If so, we can use it to see if your method produces more people with good skills – on average – than the alternatives [There is a danger here that is common in educational research of defining the desired trait so that it is basically equivalent to participating in the intervention, but that’s a separate issue]. In fact, if you accept that outcomes will vary a lot at an individual level then you have even more of a reason to pursue a larger trial and less of a reason to look at individual case studies where you have no hope of isolating the effect of any teaching from an array of other intra-personal factors. And guess what, some clever people invented statistics to help us try to make sense of it all.

Seen in this light, the cry of ‘positivism’ leveled at those who reference large scale educational trials looks like a defence mechanism. When the boy cried, “But the emperor has no clothes!” perhaps the emperor should have replied, “POSITIVIST!”

You see, education is in a poor state. We teachers desperately want to be seen as a grown-up profession, yet we can’t even agree that what we do should have some sort of measurable effect. How do we expect the public to trust us? Bear in mind that there’s a lot of their tax dollars riding on this. When asked to justify our existence, we must give a clearer account and we must take control of it ourselves. Otherwise, we will see flawed accountability measures imposed upon us by increasingly desperate politicians. Wait, that already happened.

One of the places where the debate is currently taking place is in social media. Recently, I was involved in a discussion with a researcher who wrote, “Well I’ve thrown down a challenge, back your evidence up with theory or admit you have no pedagogy.”

Back your evidence up with theory?

I retweeted this and James Theo commented, “I laughed. And then I realised that this sort of thing is why we struggle to be seen as a profession and was sad.”

Quite so.


7 thoughts on “On the subject of my irrepressible positivity

  1. I think one of the problems we have is educational philosophy. It seems to have taken a very different character to say political philosophy which I was taught when studying my masters. I struggled with it for a while because I couldn’t let go of real world constraints and needed help from the Professor!! He was a lovely man and would say that ‘it’s just following a train of thought’. At no point was it suggested that philosophy rather than theory should be involved in real world situations.

    The fact is that we are impacting on real human beings. We affect their lives in ways that can not be easily overcome or undone – for example the teaching of reading.

    I also think that ethics has been non-existent. Progressives assume that because they think they are doing things for the right reasons, that makes what they do ethical automatically.

    Philosophy doesn’t require evidence of course – it is about the imagination and suspending the real world conditions can produce a kind of utopia in the mind. However, it is not a value free exercise which it is made out to be.

    Some of the assumptions that are taken for granted – such as poorer parents are worse at looking after their children – means that all sorts of leaps can be made in terms of who should decide what is right for the child and the amount that they need to be consulted.

    The professionalism of teachers has been called into question and quite rightly in the UK. The generalisations that some teachers make simply can not be supported.

    Sickening are quotes that talk about how we shouldn’t prepare children for reality but seek a better one for them. How exactly is this happening? I mean seriously, if you prepare children for reality, they have a much better chance of improving it. Otherwise the folks in question need to get out there and do something other than sending round quotes!!

  2. I think that there is little difference between “logical positivism” and “verificationism”, which should more accurately be called “falsificationism”, which I think is generally attributed to Karl Popper. It says that a truth claim is meaningless if you cannot state how you would disprove it, giving unlimited resources, supernatural abilities etc as required. There is therefore nothing wrong with a priori reasoning, so long as it is at least in theory possible to disprove what you say with empirical evidence. You should also bear in mind that many a priori statements may not amount to truth claims, but statements that are true by definition (logical tautologies) or reflections of deeply felt emotion (if that is how you explain ethics and/or aesthetics).

    Educationalists generally oppose positivism because they see it as reductive – reducing education only to what is measurable. My answer to that is, what educational outcome is not measurable? People say “creativity”, “aesthetics”, “teamwork” or “morality”. But we all have ideas about what these things mean in practice and there is a fair degree of consensus between us in our judgments – so it is perfectly possible to create defensible measurements of these things. If education is about socialising children, then what most people think is an ethical way to behave provides a perfectly proper reference point.

    Einstein’s theory of relativity is absolutely based on verificationism – without accepting what educationalists would call logical positivism, you cannot follow the argument. In “General Relativity” – a book for the general reader published in 1915, Einstein writes something along the following lines (my copy is not to hand so I cannot quote it verbatim – but I am confident the following is pretty accurate).

    <<Imagine two lightening strikes occurring simultaneously at different points along a railway track. Now consider what we mean when we say that these lightening strikes occurred simultaneously. Consider how we might show by experiment whether this proposition was true. We might, for example, find a point equidistant from the two strikes, and erect two mirrors at 45 degrees to the railway track, such that the light of the two strikes is deflected onto a light sensor by the side of the track. If the light from the two strikes hits the light sensor at the same time and the mirrors were equidistant from the two strikes, we would conclude that the two lightening strikes were simultaneous.


    Another positivist simpleton, obviously.

  3. Good post Greg, and completely agree with your position Crispin. Emotional claims, moral claims, purely introspective claims- these can all expect some immunity from positivist prosecution (although with caveats). But any claim about a communicable, shared reality requires communicable, shareable empirical verification, at least in principle. Otherwise we consent to a Hell of relativism, and doom ourselves to solitary and unsatisfactory lives

  4. Writing my own piece on logical positivism, I found my copy of Einstein and came back to check this post. Thanks Thomas – completely agree with the need to avoid your hell of relativism – but I had never consciously made the connection between relativism and the solitary life. Maybe that is why, as the 1998 Tooley Report observed, that “The picture emerged of researchers largely doing their work in a vacuum, unnoticed and unheeded by anyone else”. If only they accepted logical positivism, they would have so much more fun, getting together for a pint and a good argument!

    I thought I would copy the passage from Einstein’s 1920 Relativity. He is discussing the meaning of “simultaneous”, as applied to two lightening strikes that occur at different points on the same railway track.

    “The concept does not exist for the physicist until he has the possibility of discovering whether or not it is fulfilled in an actual case. We require a definition of simultaneity such that this definition supplies us with the method by means of which, in the present case, he can decide by experiment whether or not both the lightning strokes occurred simultaneously. As long as this requirement is not satisfied, I allow myself to be deceived as a physicist (and of course the same applies if I am not a physicist), when I imagine that I am able to attach a meaning to the statement of simultaneity. (I would ask the reader not to proceed farther until he is fully convinced on this point.)”

    Einstein clearly did not have much time for anyone who did not accept the principle of verificationism / logical positivism. And I don’t think physicists think any differently today (see the Sokal Hoax).

  5. Pingback: The elephant in the room | Ed Tech Now

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