SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 1 – The fuzziness of EDUCATIONAL DEFINITIONS

5Triangle Soft Abstract Geometric Blurs Background

During this 5-part blog post, I aim to survey the current relationship between the enterprise of education and the application of scientific enquiry and research findings. In particular, I wish to assess the capabilities of the scientific method for examining the processes of education, and also how we might profitably apply the findings of scientific research from other areas.

A large amount of renewed attention has been focused on the potential for science-led innovation in pedagogy in recent years, with movements such as researchED aiming to help link teachers with relevant areas of scientific research and in general become a more ‘evidence based’ profession.

However, exactly what should we realistically expect from the most perfect marriage of science and teaching practice?

In the first two posts I wish to prepare one half of the ground, by looking at some of the current limitations of this thing we all call ‘education’ and which we all talk about from a position of such intimacy.

In the third post I am going to flip over to look at the enterprise of science, to give – I hope – an open-eyed perspective on what it genuinely could hope to offer education, and what – in all likelihood – it will never be able to give us.

In the fourth post I will portray the fundamental challenge to any theorist of the human condition – the mind-boggling challenge of interactional complexity.

Finally, in the fifth post, I aim to give a road-map as I see it regarding the emerging state of the relationship between the two fields.

Firstly then, into the ‘murky’ concept of Education…

“So what should we do? The point of much of what I have said is that we have to face up to the fact that education in the broadest sense is one of the most elusive subjects in the human sciences; that we are bound to disagree and never to get it right, and never even really know how right we are getting it.”

(Professor Mary Beard – from her keynote speech to the House of Commons Education Committee conference into the Purpose and Quality of Education in England – 13th September 2016)

In order for the techniques of science to have something useful to add to the practice of education, we need to be as clear as possible about what it is that we are wanting to apply science to. Of course, we all know what ‘education’ is… after all, even if we aren’t working professionally in the field as adults, all of us since our earliest memories have spent a significant amount of time on the inside of the education system, partaking in it and having it ‘done’ to us…

However, this intimate familiarity can blind us to just how fuzzy and confused an area education is, before we even start to talk about methods. This fuzziness comes from two general areas – definitions and purpose.


One of the most intriguing things in life (I think) comes from how much of it seems to make sense until we start to stare directly at it, and try to pin down exactly what it is, and exactly what we mean when we refer to it. In the same way that writing was invented as an approximation of direct verbal communication, verbal communication itself evolved as a way to approximate directly experienced  reality – sufficiently for everyday usage and survival – whilst not always quite getting to it with complete precision. In the process of doing this of course, it has also helped – in turn – to shape that experienced reality.

So… educationlearningintelligenceknowledgeunderstandingskills… all of these are commonly used words in everyday English, and must surely be close to the heart of what professionals should be doing in classrooms, but it seems clear from any modest amount of reading, that we have a very poor consensus regarding exactly what we mean by them.

Now, it is often the case that the popular usage of a word isn’t the same as its technical usage in a particular domain. For example, in the humanities and social sciences, the word ‘modern’ refers to a particular style or historical period, rather than simply the everyday sense of ‘whatever is the most up to date’.

However, rather strangely, in the field of education, it is hard to find technical definitions of the words I singled-out above which significantly differentiates them from everyday use, and certainly which defines them so unambiguously that everybody working within the field knows exactly what is meant by them. Take this recent blog post by Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham on the definition of ‘learning’ (the discussion in the comments section is essential to it) or the over 900 tweets which were spawned in response to this tweet of mine querying the definition of knowledge (David Didau also followed that up with a blog post exploring it further).

‘Knowledge’ is a good example to pick on, as it is frequently used at the present time to label differences in educational approach – ‘knowledge’ vs ‘skills’ – ‘knowledge-based’ schooling etc.

In everyday practice we use the words ‘know/knowledge’ to mean – amongst other things…

  • a ‘justified true belief’ – something we can’t be proven wrong about.
  • a familiarity with something/someone – “I know the basic rules of football” or “I know the sister of the Headteacher
  • an acknowledgement of understanding – “I know what you mean, it’s just that…”

In addition, taking a lead from cognitive science, for David Didau knowledge doesn’t simply imply true beliefs, it is all of the ‘stuff’ we have learned and stored away in our brains – however trivial or erroneous. It is the sum total of what veteran philosopher of cognitive science, Daniel Dennett, in his recent opus “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”, handily refers to as ‘informational structures’ in our brains, which includes understanding, skills, beliefs and anything else we might pick-up during our life.

So when some of the derision on Twitter aimed at the recent announcement of the new BPP “Knowledge-based PGCE” was because (effectively) “we all teach knowledge don’t we?!”, it was facilitated by the weakness of the term. Perhaps indeed, the description of the course should read:

The first teacher training course to prioritise the voracious accumulation of domain-specific propositional/declarative ‘know-that’ as the route to building capabilities in pupils, rather than the oft celebrated alternative approach of trying to prioritise the development of domain-general procedural ‘know-how’, independently of the ‘know-that’…

I admit that it could look awkward on a poster, but it might have deflected some of the less necessary ire.

It could be deduced then, that if we’re to debate a lot of these things, we really just need to make sure that we’re using key words according to the ‘expert’ definitions. However, as my link to Willingham indicates, we might find that there are no definitive answers out there.

Indeed, despite referring to ‘informational structures’, Dennett points out that we struggle to properly define what ‘information’ is in itself. Certainly, we can’t view ‘semantic information’ in our brain and culture in the same way that we have come to view ‘Shannon Information’ – the binary unit measure of data in computing. The brain storage and representation of units of ‘knowledge’ is, at best, understood as being distributed widely, and in constant shift as processes interact (something which I’ll come back to in the final post).

There is a general problem here that, even if we come up with a definition wide and general enough to allow a word to cover all the things that we – seemingly intuitively – feel that it should, every concession makes it harder to do anything particularly useful with that word. If ‘knowledge’ for example, does cover all of the informational structures in the brain, then it becomes meaningless to talk about ‘knowledge-based’ schooling, and we need to create new terms with much more specific meanings in order to facilitate debate and research. If we can’t operationalise a concept – clearly demarcate what it means distinct from other concepts – then we can’t begin to scientifically verify that it does function as a discrete entity, and any investigation of it might equally well be done through the realm of poetry.

An example from wider culture could be the word ‘love’ – used constantly without people getting too confused. But are the following emotions really linked by anything more than the word love?

  • The romantic passion which we feel for someone we’re making plans to marry (“I’m in love with her”)
  • The heartfelt compassion which we feel towards the victim of some disaster (“I’m demonstrating love for that person”)
  • The pangs of attachment which as a child (and maybe beyond!) we feel towards our favourite cuddly toy (“I love that teddy!!!”)

Arguably then, we should derive more meaning from the well-known song lyric “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (attributed by songwriter Stephen Stills to Billy Preston) by turning it into “If you can’t be with the one you feel passion for, act compassionately towards the one you’re with (until you develop an attachment to them…)Perhaps best off not trying to sing it to the same chorus line though.

It is clear that any scientific investigations of the concept of ‘love’ then have to very clearly define some quite different processes, even if they notionally share the same umbrella term (and that is indeed what researchers do with love – 7 or 8 categories are not uncommon).

So the first big message to come out of these blog posts is that, if we wish for the scientific method and its body of existing findings to have much utility in education, we need to put much more concerted effort into defining and operationalising the concepts which we all, so far, only loosely talk about.

In many cases I suspect that this might require creating or adopting new terms to give extra clarity to things such as ‘learning’ or ‘intelligence’, and perhaps not being so quick to reduce so many things simply down to the heading of ‘knowledge’.

In my second part, I’m going to return – once again – to the hoary old topic of the purpose of education…


2 thoughts on “SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 1 – The fuzziness of EDUCATIONAL DEFINITIONS

  1. Pingback: SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 5 – PERFECT EDUCATION in an IMPERFECT WORLD | Stepping Back a Little

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