Looking for the way out

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A couple of years ago, I published an ebook, the central claim of which is that education is caught in something of a strange loop. We are condemned to constantly repeat our mistakes.

One of the tools of this cyclical reproduction is a form of thinking that rationalises away the need for change. Periodically, a research project will generate strong scientific evidence against popular and widely-accepted practices. This causes shock in the short-term and the scales fall from the eyes of a small number of educators. But time soon brings a rationalisation. Critics, pretending to be philosophers rather than educationalists, zoom out, put on their deepy-thinking faces and start asking, “But what does it mean to know something?”

In short, it is claimed that education is like really complicated dude. This is then seen to imply that tools for establishing facts in other domains of knowledge – simpler areas like genetics or quantum physics – are totally inappropriate for education. We need something else. It is naive to present supposedly ‘scientific’ evidence about education. In fact, there is a name for it: “positivism”. Given that evidence can now be dismissed because positivism, we can go on believing in the demonstrably false things that we believed in before.

Instead, the suggestion is that education needs theory. But this is not the kind of testable theory that we see in science. It’s deeper and more philosophical than that. As I was once told on Twitter, “Back up your evidence with theory or admit you have no pedagogy.”

Of course, none of this is explained as simply as I have just explained it. Part of the mystery play involves obscuring obvious meaning by deploying long and complicated words and endless definitional arguments. It is a performance, intended to convince you that the performer must be very clever and therefore right.

It is clear that this particular form of (non)logic is holding education back. It is as if medics were still clinging on to theories of the four humours. So, the only thing to do is call out the flaws in this thinking.


4 thoughts on “Looking for the way out

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I don’t think it’s quite that easy. Above all, there’s a need for ‘theory’ in order to maintain that teaching is a profession requiring specialised training (over and above mastery of the subject to be taught). Granted, mastery of a range of knowledge from the cognitive sciences is useful, but it’s surprising how little of Willingham is much more than a validation of what was once regarded as common sense.

  2. Mitch says:

    I feel you have a healthy respect for theory Greg as evident by your piece on correlation.
    I think a lot of this comes from the ‘context is king’ answer to education research that I often hear. At its most extreme I have been told that quantitative research has no purpose in education as every context is unique.

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