Come, join the enlightenment

The age of enlightenment was the period leading up to the French and American revolutions and extending back perhaps as far as the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. It was a reaction against the excesses of clerics. Philosophers built upon the renaissance, humanism and their classical heritage to argue for reason over irrationality, logic over superstition. And reason needed methods such as science and deductive logic.

We have met our enlightenment moment in education. We have our clerics who generate ethereal dogmas. Rather than being founded in Christianity, these find their roots in Marx, mediated by postmodernism. These ideas represent the opposite of enlightenment thinking. For the postmodernists, it is important to focus on who is producing an argument or how an argument might be interpreted; anything other than the argument itself. It is by this means that we create angels-on-pinheads research that sounds rampantly silly to the outside world.

Although this kind of thing is supposedly in the service of The Revolution, it has quite the reverse effect. Whereas doctors are largely allowed to regulate themselves, with pay and conditions the only political issues, the world at large is inclined to make the substance of education a political football. Nobody thinks we are capable of running things because we have little sensible to say. This allows politicians to force ideologically driven reforms on the profession; some fair and some daft. If we really want to mobilise and define our own future then we need to cast off the embarrassing stuff. We need to call it out.

Doctors no longer talk of the four humours or become offended when asked to clean their hands before performing examinations or suggest that diseases are caused by ‘miasmas’ or insist that illnesses are all unique to specific individuals and the most important thing is to understand each person’s particular circumstances.

Yet we are still in precisely this phase in education. There are common, well-established principles (here and here are a couple of useful summaries) that are largely not taught to trainee teachers in favour of teaching them about theory driven approaches that have long been known to be ineffective.

Perhaps you are approaching a threshold yourself. You are unlikely to have got here through established educational publications which are rapidly being made irrelevant in the internet age. Instead, you might have read my blog or the blogs of other teachers. You probably don’t agree with everything I write and that’s fine because the chances are that I am wrong about a lot of it. But what we share is a belief that there are better and worse ways of teaching things and that these may be established by the use of reason; that we have a right to question and to challenge.

You might want to observe the discussions between the old and new guard and see for yourself who makes the most sense. I don’t think that I will ever persuade many members of the educational establishment to agree with me. It takes a particularly strong personality to retract previous, publicly announced positions. Instead, my prediction is that you will see the following dynamic: This new movement will address specific ideas and practices and the establishment will challenge their right to an opinion on these things, either on the basis of experience, gender, some other personal characteristic or because they don’t like the manner in which the argument is expressed. The word ‘positivism’ will no-doubt be deployed as if it were an argument. But see for yourself and make-up your own mind.

And when you’re ready, there is a place for you here; an empty seat with your name on it. Come inside. Come, join the enlightenment.

File:Tessanek - Principia Mathematica.png


21 thoughts on “Come, join the enlightenment

  1. Thanks for the invite Greg. I think you’d like the way my dad teaches. He’s RAF background and taught flight engineering. Then he was trained to teach teachers of flight engineering. Then he went into training commercial pilots employing his RAF teaching methods; very organised, methodical, tell a story until the problem becomes clear to the students- work through the problem with Q&A as a class. Based on what you write about I believe you’d thoroughly approve of his teaching and would be convinced of it’s success seeing the transformation in his students. Would he ever teach in a school? Probably not. And I’d advise him against it, because it’d be sad for me to see an instructor if his quality being required to train students who have not decided to be there. It would be such a waste of his talent and the students’ time. Interested in your thoughts and P.S. I’ve opened up sign-ups for a 5 day eCourse based on the content of the Politics in Education Summit. You and your readers are certainly invited:

  2. Hi Greg
    As you might expect, I agree with much of what you say about the unhelpful hold of ideology over education policy and practice, however I do take issue with aspects of your medical anaologies and I do so from two perspectives – as someone who worked in medical education for a decade, and as someone who is surrounded my medicos at home, so I get to hear a great deal about the nuances of how they navigate their way through some tricky clinical spaces. Science can have very little to do with many of the everyday decisions they have to make. Instead, good outcomes arise from the presence of human qualities such as warmth and rapport. Yes, there is an emerging evidence-base around how to teach these, but I doubt they will ever be as easily taught as pathology or pharmacology. Medicine does a MUCH, MUCH better job than education of being evidence-based, but a huge amount of what goes on everyday in clinics and hospital has little or no evidence behind it. If you talk to any any doctors they will confirm that in a blink. We need to be careful that we don’t deify medicine in this debate, but rather work out what it does well and discuss how we can learn from that.

    Related to the above, modern medical programs are strongly built around bio-psycho-social models of both wellness and ill-health. Further, students are taught to understand the difference between *disease* and *illness* – nicely summarised in this paper 35 years ago:


  3. Your analogy to historic medicine is very apt. In the early 19th century in America, there was a reaction to the stodgy “classic” four humours approach to medicine, which led to the development of many different competing armchair “philosophies” or theories of medicine, each with its own medical schools and passionate advocates. The last sentence below is particularly reminiscent of the current situation in education:

    “At the turn of the century, many regular [doctors] began flirting with some of the newer theories of medicine imported from Europe, and still, none of these were based upon science. Regular medicine of this time, though deemed the best science of the age, was more a philosophy or art than a true science. One movement to which Dr Benjamin Rush was a leader, attempted to refine all diseases into one disease, while other movements categorized diseases in hot and cold, acid and alkaline categories. Many of the papers published by physicians from this period were philosophical in nature, promulgating theories, which like most theories, easily found both proponents and evidence to back them up while ignoring all evidence to the contrary; that is, until another theory came along.”

  4. “But what we share is a belief that there are better and worse ways of teaching things and that these may be established by the use of reason; that we have a right to question and to challenge.”

    Trouble is, even people who agree with those tenets disagree on their implications. You even disagree with yourself. You’ve linked to a list of better ways of teaching in this post that includes a way of teaching you criticized in your last post.

  5. Pingback: Who Are These Educationalists? | i^i

    • I am by no means an expert but following a bit of twitter and couple of blogs it is pretty clear there are two camps. Those that will talk about actual evidence and care if someone has counter evidence and those that when the topic of evidence comes up find it all too much and switch to talking about the other person’s use of language.

      It is certainly useful for Greg to get lots of input on his word choices but the lack of response on the more critical issue of evidence for or against his point of view paints a sad and at the same time amusing picture of people to intent on playing a word game when there is a more important issue at hand.

      Is the i^i commenter playing games? Looks like it to me as they could have simply asked their questions about language taking care to show ever so carefully how to use neutral language to get an important point resolved. Instead they treat us to another version of “Trying (..) not to argue with idiots” – yes lessons on neutral language are easier to give than practice.

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  7. Pingback: The Uncanny Progressive versus Traditional Debate – Research Blog

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