One of the interesting things about the denial of objective truth is that, in its own terms, such a denial cannot be objectively true. If nothing can be known then neither can the fact that nothing can be known. If all perspectives are situated then so is the perspective that all perspectives are situated. It’s a cheap shot – I know – but these paradoxical loops occur a lot. It’s like the one about ‘learning to learn’; if you don’t already know how to learn then how can you learn how to learn? And if you do then…
I was reading Linda Graham’s debut post today. Linda is an Australian education researcher and a powerful voice on Twitter. The post is an interesting read and a welcome new voice in the debate. But I couldn’t help feeling that I was perhaps in her sights.
Firstly, as an aside, it’s worth just mentioning tone. The thing about tone is that it really is so situated. What we and our friends think is fine might come across differently to others. For this reason, I don’t tend to comment on tone at all. Those that choose to complain about ‘snide invective’ should really pay attention to the way that they go about this. Otherwise, it’s another one of those loops.
I find it valuable that Linda identifies a concept that we can cling to amidst a realm that some of us find so difficult to wrangle. This realm is the ‘posts’ of postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and so on. For Linda, the concept of subjectivity or standpoint – situatedness – are key to these approaches. Yet it is clear that Linda’s position is itself highly situated and this is not really dealt with. Let us deconstruct it a little.
Linda does have thresholds of quality for educational research. This is why she rejects many papers sent to the journals that she edits. However,
“…the thing is, sometimes work that seems esoteric, indulgent and irrelevant to some can be of value to the author herself.”
Of course, people are free to research whatever they like and I am sure that there are personal insights to gain from this. Equally, a person might gain significant personal insights from a hiking tour of India and these might even inspire her to better, more original research in the future. But we wouldn’t expect the India trip to be subsidised through public taxation in the way that university research is subsidised. Claiming a right to indulgent and irrelevant research represents quite an entitled perspective.
I am not arguing that all education research should be purely instrumental. This is not what I believe about knowledge creation. In fact, I think that ‘blue skies’ science research makes a pretty good case for itself with the wider public. My point is that the ‘posts’ do not do this. It is hard even to describe ways in which they impact society at large; so caught are they in reifying new nouns. To their credit, Linda and others such as Greg Thompson have taken on the task of blogging about these ideas for a wider public and so their value may become more apparent.
Linda’s defence also seems to show little insight into the perspective of the attacker. It is more a kind of defensiveness. Why do you think there are those of us out here questioning the value of some forms of educational research? Do we all serve some common agenda, got up by the think tanks and Pearson? Certainly, there is much fretting about shadowy right-wing forces and this has generated plenty of research papers.
No. Let me help explain so that others can understand what drives this. There are a number of bloggers out there in the UK, US, Canada and now even in Australia who share something of my perspective. We wouldn’t agree on everything and our political views are diverse. Contrary to stereotype, we are not all white men. What happened to make us form our views? There is a common theme in many stories and I know this because people have blogged about it.
We went to university to train to be teachers and were fed a specific ideology. We were not told that traditional, transmission methods might be effective for imparting academic knowledge but there were other reasons why we should limit teacher talk and increase student choice and group work. We weren’t told that at all. We were explicitly told that following these latter methods would lead to better academic outcomes. We were told that research proved it to be so; constructivism, Piaget, Vygotsky and the research of our tutors proved that students needed to construct their own knowledge through inquiry. We were told that poor behaviour was the result of poor teaching and that if we only made activities engaging enough, behaviour issues would be solved. This had all been previously established and the only remaining question was how to get more teachers to teach the right way.
We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective. We were told it as if it was the truth and we believed it as if it was the truth because it was coming from authority figures who we trusted to know what they were on about. Which is ironic, given the same ideology’s criticism of transmission teaching. You’d get a greater range of perspectives explored in a 1960s middle school history class.
Later, when we started to read, question and connect with each other online, we began to realise that we had been misled, intentionally or not. We learnt that some key research showed the opposite of what we had been told and that vast swathes of studies had effectively been forgotten or ignored. And so this is why we are all here, kicking up so much fuss. The trust is gone. We don’t necessarily believe what we are told any more. And we are exerting our right to scepticism, together. I am starting to wonder if silly-sounding research papers are actually just silly.
Outrageous, I know. What right do upstarts like us have to criticise? And with such a snide tone? We haven’t even passed through the initiation rights to enter into the club. But there it is.
It is not the case that I think that I am somehow free from ideology and that the people I disagree with ideological. The problem is that educational research seems to exists in such a narrow ideological bubble. Yes, there are factions within this and passionate debates to be had and this has convinced many participants that they are part of a robust, pluralistic dialogue. But a good analogy would be the heated disagreements that took place between the many different communists political groups in 1970s Britain.
And so we have a group that prioritises the study and analysis of subjectivity that presents itself as if it is quite unaware of its own.