A hyperindividualism meme. There is little evidence Einstein said this – see Quote Investigator

Hyperindividualism is perhaps the most damaging aspect of educational progressivism.

Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality in the US describes, “the belief that every student is so unique that the best teaching practices cannot be applied” as, “a fierce ideological obsession“. In Walsh’s view, this leads to the rejection of the idea that there may be a best way of teaching early reading. In turn, this therefore leads to a rejection of systematic synthetic phonics which is, as we know, the best way of teaching early reading.

Hyperindividualism is behind everything from the obsession with differentiation, despite the lack of evidence for many practices that are given this name, to the rejection of fair and consistent behaviour policies. The theoretical basis changes over time – it used to be Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences – but the underlying obsession remains.

Hyperindividualism is also the Achilles heel for those who wish to present educational progressivism as some kind of extension of left wing politics. Historically, socialists and trade unionists have emphasised collective action, solidarity and the idea that what unites us as humans is greater than our divisions. Conversely, a emphasis on individual difference can easily lead to the idea that some kids are just not academic and can therefore be denied access to the intellectual fruits of our civilisation.

Be alert for hyperindividualism. Notice the different ways it is justified and, if it’s safe to do so, call it out.


14 thoughts on “Hyperindividualism

  1. J.D. Fisher says:

    Wheelahan’s book is excellent on analyzing the effects of hyperindividualism/libertarianism in education (https://www.amazon.com/Why-Knowledge-Matters-Curriculum-Education-ebook/dp/B008SA2ES0/). It’s a philosophical treatment, but lucid and readable.

    It still stands in the way of accepting scientific answers to educational questions as well–even standing in the way of accepting *that* science could say anything helpful about education. If each student is completely unique, there is no hope of answering at-large, general questions, no matter how incremental. All of statistical thinking is basically out of the question too. We can only do surveys about perceptions and personal narratives and compare notes and then conclude what we want.

    I will say that it seems to me that the situation has improved somewhat in the U.S. over the last decade.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      I’m not sure it’s fair to link hyperindividualism and libertarianism. A free society depends to a large degree on shared values, and I’d guess that most libertarians would support civic institutions which promote a common culture. For instance, I support Core Knowledge–but where I part ways with Hirsch is in his belief that it should be mandatory,

      Likewise, I think we should abandon the concept of ‘best practice’; although I have long been an advocate of synthetic phonics, the Reading Reform Foundation website has hosted some pretty heated debates as to what exactly this entails. This is as it should be–for all we know, in another generation or two, the ‘best’ way of teaching early reading may look very little like what our best teachers do now.

      • To my mind best practice means best evidenced, Tom. Sounds like you are arguing for an anything goes approach based on the fact that our evidence base/knowledge might change in the future?

      • Tom Burkard says:

        Derek–I think it’s a bit optimistic to think that any kind of research in education or any other social science can incontrovertably define ‘best practice’–there are just too many variables (and professional reputations) involved. Think back to 1975 when the Bullock Commission concluded that on the basis of existing evidence, the explicit teaching of phonics was “profitless”, and that phonological knowledge was best acquired “in the context of reading for meaning”. During the 1980s, Sue Lloyd–a primary teacher who lacked even a degree-level qualification–was developing what we now know as synthetic phonics. More recently, Greg has exposed some very questionable conclusions by the EEF. The goalposts are forever shifting and we are better off thinking of research in a dynamic context, with working teachers being an essential (if not dominant) part of the process. The concept of ‘best practice’ discourages innovation and hence progress.

      • J.D. Fisher says:

        I was relying on memory of what Wheelahan wrote when I mentioned libertarianism. Turns out, her choice term is neoliberalism, not libertarianism.

  2. Agreed. I have been trying to fathom what drives the progressive view point and it does seem to be based on moral convictions/beliefs about the sacredness of individuality, particularly in children and their potential. Sure there are other aspects too, but the key underpinning thing is it is driven by moral/philosophical beliefs often held at an emotional level, and not empirically based (obviously).

  3. Matt Unicomb says:

    Greg, fair points, but let’s go a step further. Students ARE individuals and ARE all different, and while common classroom approaches that reflect this reality fall short, diversity in the TYPES of schools and learning situations, which genuine school choice and ‘unschooling’ could help encompass, would surely be welcome. Just as you see the merit of Twitter in teachers discovering research that has been kept by gatekeepers, surely a more decentralised method of finding the right learning environments would be optimal, too. Reduce the role of govt in curriculum and running schools and allow an emergent system to develop. This would rid the problem of centrally-planned fads and one-size-fits-all approaches. It would also help students find the right learning environment for them. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this larger issue.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      You’ve conflated two different issues. Reducing the role of government in the curriculum is clearly desirable, even if we do need some sort of coordination so that pupils moving from one school to another aren’t thrown in totally at the deep end. And I couldn’t agree more that government can kill a good idea stone dead by imposing it from above. In a rare innovation, Ofsted decided to look at the primary schools with the best KS1 results to get some idea of what works best in Reception Year. Let’s just hope that these ‘Bold Beginnings’ lead to more innovations by working teachers, as they are far more likely to have ecological validity.

      On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that we should differentiate how pupils are taught. Granted, we need a certain amount of differention by outcome; this is built into post-16 education, and no doubt needs to be introduced at a much earlier stage to prevent pupils from falling hopelessly behind. However, there is very little research to support the idea of finding ‘the right learning environment’ for each child. Forest schools are fine for learning about forests, and as an old Boy Scout I’m all in favour of such things. But to think this could possibly be a substitute for learning about the great intellectual and cultural innovations that shaped the world we live in is preposterous. In the words of Robert Tressell, better known as the ‘Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist’,

      “What we call civilisation – the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal – he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.”

      • Matt Unicomb says:

        Fair point, though you’re still in ‘scientific planning’ mode in referring to the lack of evidence re learning environments. Probably the best assessor of the quality of teaching is the student. If we gave them more control, we’d be out of the realm of scientific planning and in the realm of user preference. You’re also presupposing kids want to learn about the great intellectual and cultural innovations that shaped the world. Some might, but many won’t. You can only take a horse to water..
        I think you agree that science can’t tell us what works in education, let’s try another method that puts the people who face the consequences of our decisions – the kids – in the driving seat.

  4. LT says:

    I’m still pondering your ideas around hyperindividualisation, but starting with NCTQ is such a bad move that it makes me question *your* reliability. They’re a BS organization that wouldn’t know research if it slapped them in the face, dedicated to making teachers look bad.

  5. Pingback: Smashing the icons of national assessment – Filling the pail

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