It’s the ideas, stupid

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People have ideas. So, in a sense, you cannot really separate the people out from the ideas. And this, I believe, is a source of great confusion.

This morning, I was watching Insiders, an Australian TV show that aims to summarise and analyse the week in politics. There was plenty to analyse this week because we have just had a number of byelections. I find these shows frustrating because they inevitably focus on personalities: Will there be a leadership challenge in one of the parties? Who looked silly and fumbled their lines this week? So I almost got out of my seat and applauded when Katharine Murphy made the following observation:

Too many commentators, and I make a point of including the keyboard warriors on Twitter as ‘commentators’, see politics as a pantomine. They want to boo and hiss at the villain and cheer prince charming. This phenomenon has reached such a fever pitch that Julia Baird, host of another politics show, The Drum, felt the need to write an op-ed appealing for calm. In her case, she finds that when representatives of the IPA, a conservative thinktank, appear on her show, they get abused on Twitter, “irrespective of what they actually say”.

Such tribalism is not just foolish, it is deeply misleading. Sitting in your bubble of self-righteousness, you can convince yourself that nobody should vote for Mrs X because Mrs X is the devil incarnate, but then the pesky voters disobey and vote for Mrs X anyway. There then follows much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Academic journals fill with articles asking why the silly voters made the wrong choice and voted for Mrs X. The answer is simple: they were attracted to her ideas; the ideas that commentators have summarily dismissed, at best, and ignored, at worst, as the focus is instead on what Mrs X is wearing or whether she is a representative of her race or gender or whether she wrote a bad thing ten years ago or where she was educated or whether she has just put her foot in her mouth when she said a thing to a person (or, in the case of a man, whether he is fat/bald/pink/orange – highly amusing stuff like that).

We have this tendency in education, too. I’ve seen a number of articles over the past few years wondering about why teachers believe in things like learning styles or cannot appreciate the complexity of research. Again, it is personalised, with discussions about the kinds of cognitive biases these silly people must possess and the psychological tactics we might deploy to subvert those biases.

Yes, it is really hard to change people’s minds and that is a very good thing. Otherwise we would be constantly having frivolous revolutions and we would all belong to a cult. Persuasion is necessarily hard, but the only thing that has ever convinced me that an idea is bad is being exposed to what seems like a better one.

There are some very poor ideas and deepities current in education generally and yet we have some great ideas in our little corner of it. With the advent of social media, we can now talk directly to each other without any mediators or gatekeepers. When teachers and others involved in education hear clear rebuttals of bad ideas and clear explanations of concepts such as limited working memory, explicit instruction and a knowledge rich curriculum, they find these ideas so strong that they often exclaim that they are obvious. So be it. I’ll take that, especially if it spares folks the psychic pain of having to consciously change their minds.

So, forget the manipulation and the personality politics. People are incidental. It’s their ideas that matter. Let’s focus on those.


2 thoughts on “It’s the ideas, stupid

  1. It must be true that criticising your opponents too harshly is inappropriate. Lots of people do it on Twitter etc and it doesn’t benefit anyone except in a fleeting emotional way. Evidence-based ways of thinking, in particular, should be presented in a calm, clear fashion. It’s unpleasant and indeed often scary when Mrs X is subjected to personal attacks — and the frequently observed flipside, which is that Mrs Y, who disagrees with Mrs X, is considered to be perfect and infallible, is just as bad.

    On the other hand, I don’t agree with the “ideas, not people” conclusion. Teaching involves more person-to-person contact than many similar professions, and it also constantly involves coercion and persuasion. What people think and how they behave is absolutely crucial to teaching, but for some reason many people act as if this was only true of the people being taught.

    If someone makes an argument which can be caricatured as “evidence-based Nazis are hurting my feelings and conflicting with my worldview”, then just presenting more evidence obviously isn’t going to solve the problem. Because the people who get involved in these sorts of debates like to appear smart and demonstrate that they can pontificate about things other than education, we often see ideological caricatures which are supposed to explain how one side thinks. (Gramsci and “cultural Marxism” has been a right-wing favourite for a while. Mr 19 Votes Fraser Anning mentioned Gramsci in his recent maiden speech. I think this mean Gramsci has jumped the shark.)

    Point being, there is a lot of emphasis on ideologies and theories not just as a source for educational practices, but also to explain how people in education BEHAVE, and therefore how policies are implemented. I think this is misguided. The distance between ideas, set forms of practice, and implementation can be massive. Surely this is largely due to the people who implement them.

    This (fascinating) blog constantly asks “why do bad ideas get chosen for implementation and good ideas not?”. It also provides many answers to this, lots of which have to do with marketing and political/academic hierarchies. It hardly ever touches on one sensitive issue which is deeply related to personality. I’ll phrase it like this: why don’t we all assume that most teachers are selfish and will always maximise their own personal utility over that of others? Of course this isn’t wholly true, but a) it’s a useful worst-case assumption when you’re reflecting on how ideas might get implemented; b) obviously there must be SOME teachers who are like that, so the people who implement policy need to be ready for them; and c) it would be a useful exercise to work out how many teachers are like that, but you could only get a sophisticated answer to the question if you understood personality, on a psychological and sociological level.

    Take a random idea, let’s say “critical thinking” from the recent post about the ACT. Proponents of the idea say it will “work” and improve education standards. Opponents say it will “fail” and decrease education standards. “Evidence” is provided for both sides. It’s a common style of debate, and it’s worthwhile — but with a few problems. One problem with the debate is that the system as proposed is never going to be implemented, even in the “best-case” scenario. Public opposition from education people, together with every other influence on policy, is going to mean that the things that are supposed to be implemented don’t necessarily have a close connection with the “ideas” in the ACT government’s announcement. Put briefly, humans will interfere with those precious “ideas”!

    Let’s assume that in a few years the ACT ends up with something called “critical thinking” somewhere in its schools. The second group of problems is going to occur because some of the teachers who implement this are going to be selfish. Even if the “critical thinking” guidelines are great for learning (which they won’t be) and accurately reflect the principles made in the statements recently made about them (which they won’t), these selfish teachers aren’t going to implement them as intended, and the main reason for that is that it’s too much effort to do new or complex things. (This is why you almost never see completely “progressive” or completely “knowledge-based” practices in schools. They’re both too much work for the average teacher! Instead you get a mix of different approaches, which actually could sometimes work better than one approach or the other.)

    We commonly hear talk about teachers being dumb (at least through the means of debate about ATAR scores). We also hear talk about those teachers who are actively immoral (like sexual abusers, and rightly so of course). But my teacher friends often say that a colleague is “lazy”, but it’s incredibly rare to hear this brought up in public debate. (Teachers often advocate for themselves by saying that their job is busy and complex. That’s 100% true… if they do the job properly.) Anyway, “laziness” is just a convenient and sometimes unfair label. The real question is how teachers perceive and balance their own interests. Managing work and life, avoiding criticism, fitting in with colleagues, boosting one’s ego, seeming capable, minimising difficult thinking, minimising drudgery (cf Kahneman, I think most teachers greatly prefer the drudgery), and many other factors all tie into this. How teachers balance these different interests depends on their personal histories and beliefs, so to know anything about how ideas become policies and then implemented practices, we need to know a LOT about people.

    We should hear a lot more reflection about self-interested teachers. Friends and family have taught in the ACT for many years. It might be totally unfair scuttlebutt of course, but a recent criticism I heard is that the non-private schools are declining in popularity and quality. The ACT government might blame poor marketing or planning (“critical thinking” is a marketing phrase rather than an actual philosophy, as far as I can tell, so their approach is probably not centred around educational ideas at all, rather it’s based on cool-sounding words). I’m sure in the Australian they blame Marx somehow. In the evidence-based camp people will gnash their teeth at why people would ignore the numbers. My friend’s suggestion was simple: too many teachers were slackers.

    I don’t mean to imply that most teachers are terrible or even that being a “slacker” is evil. But it does explain why so many people would advocate for critical thinking, personalised learning, etc. Compared to knowledge-based curricula, in such systems teachers need to know less, they need to assess less, and the standards for success are so vague that no-one can really point out when they’ve failed. It’s clear that slackers would prefer the latter type of system, and it would certainly be in their interest to advocate for it loudly if it made their day-to-day life a bit easier. I love this blog but I’m not an evangelist for a particular system. I would just beg educational authorities to think of teachers as self-interested beings rather than ideological drones. If they did this, we’d end up with systems which didn’t look fancy from the outside but were relatively foolproof. The “evidence-based” systems are more often foolproof because they’re more specific, but if supporters of those system act as if they can promote them without thinking about how people are going to implement and react to them, they are going to be frequently disappointed.

    (This is my second comment on the blog, and like the first one it has turned into a tangential rant. Apologies. :))

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