SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 5 – PERFECT EDUCATION in an IMPERFECT WORLD

head-2147328_1280How will I wrap up these musings…?

As humans, we are consistently and systemically deluded as to state of the reality around us…

Suspend disbelief for a second – this isn’t a metaphysical statement, nor the claim of a conspiracy theorist about the big lies of [insert favoured unseen power here]. Indeed, the very fact that we find so much attraction in conspiracy theories arises out of the key delusion that I’m referring to here: We believe that the systems of human society (and the people within them) are far more controllable than they are.

What I’m talking about is a spin-off of what Stephen Sloman and Philip Fernbach call “The Knowledge Illusion”. In their book of that name, they contend that human functioning is so embedded within the affordances of the natural environment, and the seamless collective knowledge and social practices of human society, that we as individuals are naturally blind as to just how shallow our own personal knowledge and understanding of things really is.

There are lots of small practical examples of that on a day-to-day level, but I’m going to crank the whole thesis a step further up here: As a society we are also deluded as to the level of knowledge and control the human race possesses regarding itself.

We have all evolved to function as humans, embedded amongst humans. From a very early age, the behaviours of humans seem to us as one of the most reassuringly familiar and understandable things. Having used the scientific method to be able to unpick and engineer the physical world around us, it seems natural that – as long as we can chase out the few remaining mysteries about human experience (for example the nature of consciousness) – then our mastery and control of the world will be complete.

In the process we have come to believe that if we can break down and understand something, then we can predict how it will operate in the future. And through inevitable technological innovation, we will eventually be able to control it for purposeful ends. It is simply a matter of time, and we are surrounded by evidence attesting to the truthfulness of this belief.

We don’t even need to understand things perfectly to be able to make dazzling use of them. Consequently, despite us knowing that Newton’s Laws of motion are only an approximation of the full picture of dynamic systems, they still serve us well enough for the current limits of space-flight and for myriad other human purposes. Our everyday engineered environments and the technologies we use within them (carefully filtered through a natural selection process of what works and what doesn’t) have deluded us into seeing every problem as solvable by an appropriate ‘expert’. And there’s always an ‘expert’ to trust in. There’s always someone who knows more than the vast majority of the rest of us about a particular area. How uncomfortable does it feel to be that expert…?

We do of course accept that not all things have yet come under our control: We look outwards and acknowledge that – for now – complex natural phenomena such as weather systems and ecosystems are a bit out of our reach, but we just need to fill-in the details of our knowledge, and advance our computer models and our mastery of energy flow, and – they too – will gradually be tamed.

And so – clutched intimately close to us – is this very familiar terrain called human behaviour, which we have gradually de-mythologised, and completely surrounded by everyday evidence of our ability to control creation… given time. Human behaviour seems like a small island of tamed mystery in our domestic lives – and one which has an inexorably receding coastline. The old religious intuition – that there is someone who has full control of events (or can have) is still there: Mind control is clearly just around the corner; the conquering of misery and the secret of a perpetually happy state is also just around the corner. Perfect schooling and perfectly personalised digital teachers are just around the corner too. If we can just gather enough data… and get the policies right… and develop the technology sufficiently… everything could be sorted, everyone could be perfected, and education will be simply a matter of pressing a button, where everyone fulfils their potential to the full (whilst paradoxically also closing all attainment gaps in the fulfilment of social justice…)

Except it’s all a nonsense…

…a reassuring collective delusion…

For a start, the brain science isn’t even vaguely close. The brain simply doesn’t work like a digital computer; our understanding of how even individual elements work is far less complete than any lay person would suspect (and most of those hoping to sell ‘brain tech’ to consumers will admit); and practically no higher-order human calculation or experiential function can be isolated and localised precisely in the brain. Key building blocks of the educational enterprise such as an item of ‘knowledge’ will be represented uniquely in every individual person’s brain – setting-off and drawing on a diverse set of memories and emotions. [For a neat list of where we are with solving brain mysteries see here, and for a discussion of why it’s so difficult, see the first answer here]

But on top of our crippling knowledge deficit regarding how we would master brain control are all the other things which I have mentioned across this series of posts:

  • The interactions, reflexivity and uniqueness inherent in human systems – leading to the impossibility of any useful calculations (Part 4)
  • The frustrating truth that any really useful ecologically valid educational research is either blunt or flawed in some way (Part 3)
  • The perpetual, un-ending wrestle to agreeably define ‘the’ purpose of education and schooling (Part 2)
  • And the lack of any real common understanding regarding what we all mean by even basic educational concepts in the first place (Part 1)

It is not surprising then that we are forever dissatisfied with – or battling hard to justify – an education set-up which seems a suspiciously comfortable fit with the only kind of assessment system we can properly operationalize and roll-out on a large scale. Have we truly just learned to value what we can measure, rather than seeking to measure what we value…?

My way forward…

I am not by instinct an iconoclast, a nihilist, nor a naïve dreamer. I have not set-out during these posts to try to bring the education system to its knees, nor to try to champion an anti-science stance. I see little purpose in life of ripping something up unless there is something which can pragmatically take its place and which appears as an improvement overall.

I believe that the instinct to scientifically research and polish any aspects of the educational enterprise that we possibly can is both correct and highly useful, though I do not support the notion that properly conducted scientific research will ever be able to dictate exactly how – in every circumstance – any individual teacher should teach any individual child.

I am nervous of scientism, and indeed greatly prefer the term evidence-informed to the widely used evidence-based. But I do believe that every teacher should set-out on the journey of becoming scientific innovators of their personal pedagogical artform.

Overall then, I have three recommendations:

Stop expecting silver bullets and perfect solutions!

Whether in the classroom, in the school, or in education systems as a whole we seem fixated on finding the magic ‘keys’. We keep arguing as if there could be some perfect solution to the problems of education (or indeed the problems of society itself). Indeed, it seems a psychological need to constantly out-source our problems and frustrations to the government, or the parents, or the SLT, or simply ‘them’. We rail against inequalities and injustices and setbacks and imperfections as if they are always somebody’s fault, and as if there is always something which could be done to fix things if only ‘they’ would get their act together.

The truth is that there is no elegant, simple, perfect solution to any of society’s problems, and that includes education. Even if we had the single task of designing a perfect education for a single individual person we would never know exactly how that should be set-up. We will never know enough about the exact make-up of that person – their history, their genetics – in any one moment, nor what they are going to encounter in their lives. The image of a perfect education is something perceived out of the corner of the eye, at a particular time, from a particular perspective during a particular set of circumstances.

No amount of scientific research or technological development will ever be able to change this reality. We refuse to accept this, and try to make things more attainable by trying to define our role – or that of schooling – along a single dimension. But life, society and what we require of education just isn’t simple.

Indeed, the most perfectly realisable education system will look anything other than perfect to the majority of our eyes…

So…..

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Triangulate between the most powerful ideas and approaches

When trying to categorise things in the human world we can regularly zoom-in or zoom-out to find a level at which we can identify a differing number of ‘key’ things to focus on. There may be an attraction to picking just one key thing (purpose: to be ‘cleverer’ for example), or as many different things as we think might be relevant (Art Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind anyone?). In general however, just one thing rarely encompasses everything of value which we want, and can loose any specific meaning in the process. Too many things on the other hand can lead to a lack of manageability and attainability.

Therefore, amongst the myriad proposed purposes to education, I believe we should select no more (and no less) than three of the most diverse and widely encompassing. Three is the perfect number for combining complexity of application with simplicity of approach. To our human minds, 3 perpendicular dimensions always feel more powerful than something flatter, but we struggle to visualise the interaction between any more than that.

Three purposes which I have recommended myself here (and which I will explore more expansively in my book) are “Preparing children for the worlds of necessity, opportunity and experience.” These might sound vaguely abstract, but actually give a structured rationale for pretty much all things of value which we might wish to teach, whilst acknowledging that the focus of education sometimes has to shift without it necessarily being confusing or frustratingly resulting in an ‘opportunity cost’. Another advantage of these three particular purposes is that they fit with – and can be adapted to – all cultures, times and local circumstances.

Similarly, in seeking evidence whether of learning or teacher efficacy, triangulating between three different sources and types of evidence seems the most manageably wise way of trying to capture a reality which is going to remain forever represented by imperfect proxies. There is nothing particularly reliable about exam results, lesson observations or student ratings, but if all three of them point in the same direction regarding the quality of teaching, then we might have something worth paying attention to. Conversely, if they paint a more mixed picture, we might want to be cautious about the consequences which we allow to flow from them…

Seek to foster evidence-informed professional autonomy

The Evidence Informed Teacher

Despite the fact that each person is a unique happening in an unmappable ocean of untrackable causal interactions, something seems to keep us humans in much tighter harmony than might otherwise be expected. In the same way that lottery balls – bouncing uniquely and individually around their machine, are nevertheless kept within a certain boundary, evolution has selected us such that our folk psychology intuitions and needs bond us together far more tightly than might be expected from points I was making in Part 4. There is a level of empathy and cohesion when people get together which defies the entropic possibilities in our unpredictable human world. We are drawn to collude, cajole and collaborate with each other in a subtly smooth – yet flexible – way which is surprisingly hard for A.I. to achieve.

Consequently, the potentially crippling limits to our objective science of human behaviour don’t exist in a featureless void; rather they fall onto the nurturing and adaptable soil of our existing (and unsuprisingly successful when you think about it) age-old ways of interpreting and predicting behaviour. The science is there not to re-build our ways of functioning, but rather to ‘hack’ our intuitions to work somewhat better. Conversely, our natural intuitions and adaptive ways of being are ever there to oil the joints and add muscles and tendons to the cranky robotic skeleton provided by the science.

We should then explore the widest range of scientific investigative and research techniques – and related findings – which are available to us. We need objective perspectives on trends and causal factors – however blunt and lacking in detail these may be – if for no other reason than to stop us going dangerously off course. The ResearchEd movement is a hugely valuable development down this line for helping ordinary teachers weigh and assess the relative merits of different approaches and techniques (as long as we don’t assume it contains a holy grail or a definitive roadmap).

On top of this though, it is important that we also adopt the scientific approach in personally exploring, evolving and fine-tuning our own unique teaching art. There is a point at which the train of mainstream scientific findings has got us as far as it can travel, and we have to continue alone on foot. At this point we are starting to enter the terrain of direct experience which could never be measured by large scale means. Yes, it is prone to delusion, collusion and flights of fancy, but it nevertheless has the power to get inside the intricate causal machinery which only a human, in a specific moment of direct relationship with another human, can get inside of.

Ultimately, the subjects of our educative enterprise are flawed, deceivable, fickle and impressionable in the same way that we all are, and it is to make such relationships work that we seem to have evolved our idiosyncratic human ways of interacting with each other. It is amazing how effectively highly subtle ‘in the moment’ perceptions, decisions and actions can sway a situation one way or another, in a way that simply could never be done from a script or by a supposedly ‘clever’ robot.

Best Practice” in teaching depends on what the goal is. But it is also something that is not imposed from afar. It is something that is grown by an individual teacher to best fit their unique personality, experience and talents. To get the very best out of the act of educating, teachers need:

  • to be fully informed about what has been shown elsewhere to be statistically most likely to work;
  • to have been immersed with eyes wide open in what most often seems to work for them – in situations that they have direct, tacit experience of;
  • to be free to make autonomous professional judgements that trade freely with their intuition, so as to knit together all the different sources of evidence which impact on a situation.

And that, with all its messiness, is how we can use science to help us tend towards perfection…

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