…but DON’T get SEDUCED by it.

Pink Piggy Bank

In my previous post, I argued a firm case that – overall – school SHOULD be fun, and that we have a moral duty to our children to give such a ring-fenced positive first stage to their lives in the areas that we can control. Indeed, as with ‘safety’ for example, I think it should be an given aim for a developed education system in a modern society.

I could have been more nuanced and worded my argument to be about school life being ‘joyous’ or even simply ‘positive’, but I wanted to make a perhaps overly blunt point that – as with safety – a school-life where enjoyment is seen as an optional by-product (rather than an essential one) is serving an arguable purpose in the overall justification for a person’s existence.

Nevertheless, I think that we really should keep it in mind though that fun, joy, & enjoyment are not the actual purpose of schools – any more than “to keep children safe” is their purpose.

Our purpose of course is education, and this is not just for satisfaction in the here and now, but also for life. Part of this education involves a moral duty within our schooling system to ensure that we also gift to our children the best chance to be able to sustain the ‘good life’ into their future.

Time for tough love then…

For all this to be successful, it must mean that children are prepared fully to be able to square-up to the ‘World of Necessity’, to recognise and grasp the ‘World of Opportunity’, and to be able to engage perceptively and sensitively with the (hopefully joyous) ‘World of Experience’.


  1. Children do desperately need to learn how to sometimes do without fun, and to still feel optimistic.
  2. Children need to recognise that there are some goals – including pleasure and myriad forms of deeper satisfaction, joy and happiness – which come in direct proportion to what you have put-in to get there.
  3. And sometimes – as responsible adults – we have to force children through a situation which we believe will get them to a place where they will genuinely prefer to be in the long run – whether or not we can help them see this.

This last point is the most contentious, and I have avoided saying “…to a place that will be better for them” because I think it is essential that the people we are forcing onwards are ultimately the ones who make the subjective call about the value of where they have got to. But when? How far down the line should our educational strong-arming and forecasting really go? “You’ll thank me for it one day…!” Sounds reassuring to ourselves, but how much do we really want to bet on that?  We must be moderate in our moral forecasting I believe.

It does, nevertheless, sometimes seem hard for some people to intuitively stomach the idea of us even fleetingly forcing people through a situation that they don’t want to go through – irrespective of the well-intentioned and wise judgements we are using to call the situation. Ultimately though, this is the situation I think that we must confidently embrace as teachers.

Those of us who have the time and can be bothered to prepare fresh ingredients in order to cook a wholesome recipe will know that it always tastes better compared to a convenience food equivalent stuck in the microwave. Part of this is genuinely the quality of the food which emerges (hopefully!), but also some of it is what’s known now as the ‘Ikea Effect’, whereby we feel more positively towards something which we have put the time and effort into creating ourselves.

 “You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

If the lives we have forced upon children are to stand a chance of being worth living for them personally, then they do need to recognise this entry route to a whole domain of positive affect which is hard to unlock otherwise, and we as educators should tool them up to be able to make full use of it as they see fit.

Rarely though do many of us actually enjoy chopping the veg that can lead to the pleasure of cooking and eating; rarely do many of us enjoy practicing the scales for hours on end that can lead to us being able to joyously play along to whatever we hear; rarely do we enjoy the cleaning, tidying, mowing, weeding, mending which can gift us a home we take pleasure in relaxing in; and rarely as adults do we enjoy every part of everything which we are required to do in order to get the money to be able to live the life we want.

But we learn that delaying gratification, putting-in the effort, gritting our teeth and just getting-on with what needs to be done, is essential for being able to reach some of the higher fruits of both carnal pleasures and deeper feelings of self-worth and purpose. And in the process, we greatly increase the chances that our lives overall will be positive for us personally, and ultimately give moral worth to our parents’ act of conceiving us.

So life can’t always be fun, and not every moment can be joyous (without the heights of mysticism), but an acceptance of this, and a studious application to doing what needs to be done can lead to a life which is still highly joyous and pleasurable overall – not to mention ‘fulfilling’ in some hard to define way.

Returning to my previous post though, I don’t believe that any of the above should ever be used as an excuse for ignoring the overall happiness level of children during their school-life, but I also don’t believe that a determined fixation on achieving that should stop us from guiding children through times where the immediate positive affect is hard for them to feel.


School SHOULD be FUN…


School should be fun.

That statement might strike you either as trivially obvious, or as a worryingly subversive thing to say.

For those in the latter camp, your resistance might be due to one or more of the following beliefs:

  1. “Life in general isn’t supposed to be fun – it’s something that we need to get through to have fun in the next life.”
  2. “Fun is a shallow proxy for deeper, more meaningful routes to happiness, so yes – school should be ‘happy’, but fun is a distraction.”
  3. “Fun is something that comes once you’ve put in the work. At school you earn the right to have fun later in life.”
  4. “A focus on fun can divert schools from the real business of ‘learning’, so it’s best not to point out its importance.”
  5. “My school years weren’t fun, so why should anybody else’s be? Life is a grind and you need to get used to it.”

If you believe number 1, then there isn’t much I can do to change your mind. Indeed I’ve spent a fair amount of my life with a similar martyr’s view of just getting through to the other side.

I have some sympathy with number 2. As with foods, there are some pleasures in life which seem to last longer and be more satisfying than others, and I think it is worth trying to educate children about that. However, it’s quite easy to slip into a puritanical moralising on this matter to the point that it’s considered better to have no pleasure rather than the shallow kind.

Numbers 3 and 4 also contain grains of truth which I will reflect-upon in my subsequent blogs, but my overall rejection of them is covered in my consideration of number 5, which to me is the most worrying belief.

Essentially, number 5 is just emotionally bitter. If we just believe that life simply is ‘tough’ and “who ever said that life should be fun?” then I wonder why we consider the human race as something worth perpetuating. I’ve been prompted recently to reflect on the philosophy of Antinatalism, which effectively posits that ‘not-existing’ is neither good nor bad, but that human existence is predominantly unpleasant, therefore it is immoral to have children and force another person to have to go through the misery of existence. Consequently, we should stop having children and let the race die-out…

This seems as extreme as a human philosophy could get, but such is the seriousness with which it is currently entertained, that philosopher Thomas Metzinger has recently mused about the possibility of a future artificial super-intelligence benevolently putting the human race out of its misery – purely for our own good.

Whatever your take on the antinatalist thesis, I think we should recognise that there really is no moral value in forcing children to grit their teeth as a whole through childhood, and ‘delay gratification’ until they are free to choose their own path. Additionally, it’s not enough to just pass the buck that fun is something they should be having at home, or just during the play-times. Effectively, school-children are prisoners in lives which they have very little choice over. We have a moral duty to ensure that whilst their lives are being force-fed to them by us in school  these lives are actually experienced as being joyous and worth living in the present.

There simply is no justification for denying them fun on the basis that that’s not the purpose of school, any more than we should be denying them safety and hygiene in schools.

Is fun necessary for learning? No. Is it sufficient for learning? No. Can or should every moment of schooling be fun? No.

But overall, school should be fun – and that includes lessons. It should create a guaranteed and ring-fenced positive first stage to human life (a “welcome gift” from an advanced society) which is joyous, pleasurable, and worth living in itself. Or else we really should be questioning what moral value there is to us bringing a new generation to life in the first place.

If ‘fun’ still sounds somehow wrong to you, replace it everywhere you see it above with either ‘joy‘ or ‘joyous‘ and see if you still reject it…


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…



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…



In Part 3 of this series of posts looking at the limits and possibilities in applying scientific findings and methodology to the practice of education, I looked at the basic characteristics of the scientific method, and some of the challenges faced by carrying-out ‘hard’ scientific research in an educational setting. For sure, if you are going to investigate teaching and learning in ‘ecologically valid’ ways, whilst also using the gold standard of double-blind randomised controlled trials, you are going to have your work cut-out for you.

But I declared at the end of the post that it wasn’t simply the nightmare of us ever accumulating enough methodologically robust research that was bothering me. Rather, I said that my concern is with the social human subject matter itself: with the explosion of complications you get through the interactions between different levels of elements, the reflexivity of the human subject matter, and the constantly shifting uniqueness of every situation which is looked at.

In this post, I am going to expand on this point, and explore just why I believe that these three factors mean that we will NEVER be able to

  • Completely understand why someone has acted the way they have
  • Fully predict how they will act in the future
  • Reliably control changes in a person


We are relentlessly researching just about every aspect of human activity. In the process, we are constantly uncovering patterns, dynamics and apparent mechanisms which come into play in myriad ways across the diverse range of human behaviours. We acknowledge that each one of these apparent factors give a weighting to what happens – they don’t necessarily allow you to predict everything – but we often read reports of new findings which do seem to imply that ‘this explains everything’ – that the mechanism which has been identified appears to have a hidden hand in just about all human occurrences, and now that we have found out about it…. well…

…Well what? Just how far do such discoveries get us? The famous concept of ‘The Butterfly Effect’– that small changes can lead to huge consequences down the line – simplifies a much bigger realisation. Not only might the flapping of that butterfly’s wings conceivably lead to a hurricane occurring somewhere, but the flapping of the wings will also have some indiscriminate effect on uncountable other future events in multiple directions within the same dynamic system (however infinitesimal these effects might be). Furthermore – and this is crucial to the ways humans like to rationalise things – going backwards in time, what was it that led the butterfly to flap its wings? An infinity of previous events and processes fanning-out prior to that moment (think of the way family trees spread out both before and after an individual’s place in them.)

Why did Britain vote for Brexit again? After the event there was no shortage of analysts demonstrating our attraction to hindsight bias. This is the case after any unexpected event. We think that both it was obvious that it would happen, and that there was one key factor implicated in it and which can be used in the future to predict similar things.

Any effect which we think will be caused by a current action is but one of many consequences, rippling outwards and onwards. And any cause which we think has led to a current happening is also but one of very many, coinciding on this moment from legion previous happenings.

So, in human affairs we can NEVER point to a causal chain. It is ALWAYS a causal web of just how many strands we can be fully sure, and an additional thing to ponder is just how quickly different effects can multiply together to create fundamentally unpredictable consequences. Using the example of billiard balls colliding in turn, physicist Michael Berry calculated that by the 6th or 7th collision, in order to predict how the balls would collide, you would have to take into consideration the gravitational pull of people moving around the edge of the table…

In essence, what I’m saying is that the uncovering of ‘general principles’ influencing what seems to happen in brains or classrooms or social systems, give us absolutely no power whatsoever to predict – let alone direct – what will actually happen as a consequence of our actions.


One of the defining aspects of human intelligence is our ability to carry-out abstract reasoning, running simulations about what might happen in the future, and combining information intentionally to achieve goals. This means that we can consciously interact with causes and effects around us, creating either positive or negative reinforcement loops. In social science this is known as reflexivity.

This adds an additional layer of unfathomable complexity to what is going on, as any attempt to predict and openly control future behaviour can change the likelihood of that behaviour coming to pass. It could be that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies and placebo effects, or alternatively it could create a reaction against what would otherwise have been a smooth progression from one situation to an apparently inevitable outcome. Publically announced election forecasts are famously prone to influencing what they are purporting to simply be observing, and social science researchers getting close to the subject matter of their study are likely to effect the exact appearance of what it is they are most likely struggling to observe – and perhaps even the likelihood that it will appear again in those particular subjects.

It is not even the question of whether or not we have ‘free will’ that would make this situation hard to factor into predictions. Just the very belief in free will can make people respond differently to situations, and every shift in a person’s beliefs, understanding and experience can change the ground for future outcomes. We never return to the same state we have previously inhabited. Whether or not the Illuminati are cleverly controlling our behaviours, believing that they are or that they aren’t will likely affect the way we go about our lives in some way.

How to control for reflexivity, in a way which would allow researchers to unambiguously measure the inner workings of a human decision, untangle the web of causality which has led to it, and then take an action which will reliably lead to predictable and replicable outcomes, seems impossible to untangle. And that is made all the more certain by the final concern I have…


Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why can’t we properly learn from the lessons of history? The infinite webs of interactions – both seen and unseen, known and unknown – between causes and effects, systems and entanglements, mean that we never enter the same situation twice. The famous saying “no one steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” (derived from attributions by Plato and others to the teachings of Heraclitus), show that this reality was apparent at least 2500 years ago.

We bemoan the fact that no-one learns from history, and also mock naïve assertions that “this time things will be different”, but there are good reasons for our inability to sagely avoid previous missteps – despite our most reflective best intentions – as well as our inability to repeat the successful formulas of the past: The exact same circumstances are simply never repeated.

If you were to raise the idea at this present moment in Britain of having a referendum about some big issue (such as becoming a republic perhaps), then, irrespective of people’s feelings about the monarchy, the reaction would likely be different to how it would have been 3 years ago. Our collective and individual thoughts and feelings about things such as referenda will have been sizeably changed by the experience of the Brexit vote. We can’t go back to a previous state of naivety, but, even if we could, the situated reality in which we are operating will have changed anyway. Technology and interconnectivity, norms and opinions, all of these things are evolving at such a rate that we can never tell from one day to the next just which way the wind will blow with a proposed idea, or an unexpected – or indeed expected – action.

The bottom line to all of these things is that hopes to ever be able to scientifically disentangle, predict and control human experience and behaviour, in the way we can now control silicon and electricity, are utterly deluded, and this has a significant impact on our vision for what education might become.

Exactly where this leaves us moving forward is the subject of my final post in this series.

SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 3 – The constraints of the SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

Constraints of Science

In this series of blog posts I am exploring the relationship between scientific research and our approach to education. In the first two posts I looked at the current suitability of the field of education for having the methods and insights of science applied to it, and found it lacking in two general areas: Clarity of definitions, and clarity of purpose.

In the next two posts I am going to come to things from the position of science, to look at how it might be suited for studying an area such as education, and just what the limits might be – not simply currently, but perhaps intrinsically.

In this post I am going to give a bit of a primer to the scientific approach, and in particular the constraints it faces in terms of studying areas of human activity such as education. In the next post I will be making more general claims regarding the actual limits of what it will ever be able to achieve in for us and our educational endeavours.

So firstly… What is science? See if you agree with my bluffer’s guide…

At its core, science is a way of finding out more about things which increases detail and levels of certainty.

Its methods are varied, but essentially require careful observation, as different ingredients in a situation are strategically isolated and manipulated.

In the process it identifies patterns, from which it tries to infer the most probable causal relationships.

In exploring patterns, scientists create theories – plausible explanations of the patterns drawing on existing evidence, and which ideally make predictions which can allow the theory to be tested further.

From a purely logical sense, science can never give us absolute certainty regarding lines of causation, nor exhaust the possible limits of a situation. Consequently, the strength of a theory is assessed according to how well it fits within the existing body of theories, how much explanatory power it possesses, and how parsimonious it is in terms of the number of assumptions it has to make.

A good theory will allow some possibilities to be ruled out (falsified), and in the process of accumulating and replicating results increase our confidence in the probability of a theory being true to the point that – for everyday purposes – it is a useful shorthand to treat it as a true representation of a situation, or a scientific ‘law’.

If the subject under investigation is too difficult to observe directly, scientists employ models – metaphorical situations supported by theory, which function as similarly to the study area as can be conceptualised.

Sometimes different factors being studied can be shown to vary together (correlation), but whether one causes the other, or both are caused by something else, remains hard to pin-point.

What can science give us?

In discovering patterns which point to some genuine cause in nature, science can – at the very least, satisfy a level of human curiosity – expanding the cognitive satisfaction we experience at finding out something new. In the process, it might educe from us a new way of acting towards people and situations in the world.

It might also allow us to make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future, and – in its highest practical form, it might allow us to take actions to control aspects of the world around us – possibly through the creation of new technologies.

‘Hard’ vs ‘Soft’ Science

Scientific fields and endeavours are sometimes characterised as being ‘harder’ or ‘softer’. Generally speaking, a science is ‘harder’ the more that it can precisely isolate and manipulate individual phenomena, with a high degree of predictability and replicability, often in tight consonance with mathematical logic.

In distinguishing sciences this way, ‘natural sciences’ – those that study natural phenomena in and of themselves – tend to be viewed as hard.  Whereas ‘social sciences’ – those which study the behavioural phenomena arising through the interactions of processes within the mental lives of people, and between multitudes of people, – tend to be viewed as soft.

Increasingly, the simple catagorisation of a discipline such as Psychology as ‘soft’ is problematic, because the field now encompasses and draws upon such a wide variety of approaches and areas of focus. Neuropsychologists for example work at the interface between brain biology and observable behaviour, and much cognitive psychology functions within highly rarefied laboratory settings, increasingly informed by what does and doesn’t work in the practical applications of artificial intelligence. Indeed, many people working in these areas would these days prefer to be identified under the new interdisciplinary area of Cognitive Science.

The ‘lab’ approach to trying to gain hard evidence

Scientific research into education is similarly going to be a multi-faceted beast, focused on different areas, at different levels and using different techniques. As with psychology, whilst we may gain a lot of information from existing areas of brain science, and we might be able to ‘grow’ some theories through isolated and artificial laboratory experiments, exactly how things work together in real-world educational settings may remain elusive.

At the ‘harder’ end of the research scale, there is work which extrapolates from more general research into brain functioning and cognitive architecture, whereby scientists deliberately try to isolate individual processes which are going-on in the brain and see what this might be able to teach us as educators about dealing directly with the brain through these mechanisms.

This is of course particularly of interest when trying to understand and provide ways to address Special Educational Needs – or atypical functioning of one kind or another, and there is an increasing wealth of research data now in terms of how the brain appears to go about its business, due to highly controlled investigations into our functional constraints in particular situations.

Some of this research has proven exceptionally helpful in terms of identifying what appear to be universal characteristics of human cognitive functioning – the limits of our attentional system and ‘working memory’ for example.

However, we have evolved such that our perceptual and cognitive systems best function in a flexibly dynamic interaction in a rich 3D natural environment. What many lab experiments into humans achieve are demonstrations into what humans can do, but not necessarily what we do do in everyday situations. Similarly, they demonstrate the flaws and limitations of how our brain functions when situations are highly constrained, but these may not prove to be constant limitations in the real world. It could be argued that the human being is the most incredible ‘work-around system’ that has ever existed on this planet.

An obvious example of this would be the situation with the myriad optical illusions which entertain and perplex us in the contemporary world. It is far more rare to see (or at least fall prey to) optical illusions in the natural world around us than it is to see them in 2D images or computer animations. This is because illusions generally arise due to a poverty of information in our perceptual field. In general, we function in a world with binocular vision which can draw on motion information whenever it needs it, and a wealth of environmental light affordances which together enable the brain to piece-together a functionally accurate view of the situation in front of it.

What we find in the lab may not really allow us to make concrete practical conclusions then. A significant problem which cognitive scientists have faced over time is that – in the process of becoming ‘harder’ as a science – in the move towards increasingly tight isolation of variables and processes in a laboratory – they run the risk of loosing what is termed ‘ecological validity’ – the results may not reflect what does happen when these processes are situated in a normal human context.

The ‘situated’ approach to gaining ecological validity

And hence, much research goes into looking at real-world settings, but these situations start to greatly reduce the ‘hardness’ of the science which can be done. It is much harder to properly isolate and exactly replicate individual processes within a classroom.

Social Scientists have gone a long way over the decades in trying to develop techniques which allow them to derive the most objective benefit from studying real-world processes, but it becomes very difficult to go much further than to derive general patterns of correlations.

For example, if we were to use the gold standard medical trial model of research into whether a ‘treatment’ has significant benefits (the double-blind randomised controlled trial) in deciding on whether an educational technique has real benefit, you would need to do the following:

  1. Ensure that you had a very large sample size
  2. Ensure that fully informed consent had been given for participation in the trial by either the participants or their legal guardians.
  3. Ensure that your two (or more) groups of participants were randomly made-up and (hopefully) equivalent in all key areas which could impact on the outcomes of the trial.
  4. Consistently and equivalently apply the circumstances of the different experimental conditions over as long a period of time as possible.
  5. Ensure that none of the subjects undergoing the trial knew the significance of which grouping they were in (i.e. whether they were meant to be a control group, a placebo group or the group undergoing the treatment being studied.)
  6. Ensure that none of the administrators of the trial knew the significance of who was in each group…. In other words – they don’t know what they are doing to each participant (this is the double blind part)…

If trials for drug treatments haven’t gone through such a procedure, you can bet that the claims coming from their findings will be picked-apart from one angle or another.

It is of course very hard to create such circumstances in educational settings (particularly number 6) in a way which doesn’t have frustrating degrees of fudging at one level or another. Even if you could manage to properly satisfy every feasible aspect, the effort and time involved in doing such research makes it a highly slow, laborious and inconvenient process for many schools to be involved in.

Consequently, for much educational research – if being reported honestly – any findings would be introduced by many concessions to the circumstances in which the results were obtained, and therefore in which we could gain most confidence in them being relevant. Effectively they would say “For this particular group, of this kind of children, done in this way, in this setting, for this duration, at this time of the school year, and being taught by teachers who have this kind of knowledge and predisposition…etc. etc. it was found that there was this particular statistical chance that this approach….etc.” And then you have the problem of replicating the same circumstances to find out how robust those particular findings were…

These factors are of course messy, and should constantly be a source of concern for people involved in professional educational research. Consequently, there has been a big move in social science to go for ‘meta-analyses’ – attempts to say “well if you group together all the bits of research into the same phenomenon [assuming that all of those bits of research were indeed investigating the same thing – conceived and operationalised in the same way – see Part 1] then this will help to balance out all of the flaws contained in the individual bits of research, and any remaining statistically significant effect will show that something is definitely going on there. Well, maybe….

If laboratory research can only give us pieces of the ‘capabilities jigsaw’, without helping us see just how these things come-into play (or not) in real world social situations, large-scale field research can only give us forever contentious general patterns – constantly in need of additional clarification and contextualisation to really tell us something we can use with any great confidence. And so we are on a project to constantly improve, refine and extend both kinds of research such that they might one day meet in the middle and then… and then what…?

Well, I have fundamental reservations as to whether both wings of the scientific enterprise as outlined will ever get us to the place – in the social science orientated side to things – which our science-fiction orientated minds assume it will.

Firstly, it is not because I think that human experience and interactions are somehow the wrong kind of ‘stuff’ for scientific study, as in they can’t in theory be reduced to mechanisms within the natural world. In this sense I think that human functioning can be reduced (if useful to do so) to natural science. The key differences between social and sub-atomic processes are degrees of complexity, and levels of organisation.

Furthermore, I don’t think that the problem is simply that we have more processes to distinguish from each other – that the increase in complexity just makes them harder to spot because there are more things going on – like trying to find a product in a big shop that you usually spot easily in a small shop.

Rather, my concern is the explosion of complications you get through the interactions between different levels of elements, the reflexivity of the human subject matter, and the constantly shifting uniqueness of every situation which is looked at.

Unpacking these concerns will be the focus of Part 4.

SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE


In this series of posts I’m aiming to paint an overview of the issues surrounding the drive to make educational practice as open to scientific insight as possible. In the first two posts I’m looking at problems with the current state of ‘education’ as a philosophical entity, and how this might impact on our ability to usefully apply scientific methods to it. In the first post, I focused on the difficulties we have with clearly defining many of the key concepts which seem to be at the centre of educational debate. Unless we can clearly ‘operationalise’ a concept, we can’t unambiguously set about systematically investigating it.

In this second post, I’m returning to the perennial migrane of much educational debate, the lack of agreement around the purpose of education.


It goes without saying that there must be some purpose to education, otherwise – what on earth would be the point of doing it?

Furthermore, if science is to be of any use to the enterprise of education, then it is important that there is a clear direction of travel which it can demonstrably help us to journey towards.

However, there appear to be 5 key problems with us being able to provide this visible end point:

  1. We seem fixated by the idea that there should be one ultimate purpose
  2. Even if we identify more than one purpose, it might be that methods of best achieving one could conflict with achieving another
  3. To be of any real use in guiding action, the end goals should be recognisable when they are reached – or in other words – measurable
  4. The complete project of ‘education’ might not necessarily be the responsibility of schooling?
  5. We don’t seem to have any real way for agreeing on the purpose(s) anyway


Problem 1: One Single Purpose?

Perhaps it’s an evolved psychological thing, but it seems that we wish there to be a single, overarching, preferably pithy and punchy, headline purpose to education…

“To enable people to fulfill their potential!”

“To prepare people for life!”

“To make people cleverer!”

Probably the single biggest problem with this approach is that any one goal seems to miss something else out which feels important to many other people. Consider as an alternative the situation of the prison system. Whilst (like any field) there are disagreements about the significance of different elements, it is generally accepted that the prison system has as its remit a combination of the following 4 purposes:

  • Retribution (making criminals feel bad for what they’ve done, and victims feel somehow better)
  • Prevention (physically restricting criminals from continuing offending)
  • Deterrence (putting people off the idea of committing crimes in the first place)
  • Rehabilitation (ensuring that, if they are to be released at some point, criminals are prepared for going ‘straight’)

Despite the debates within the Justice System, I don’t believe that there is anybody who states “No, no, no… the purpose of prisons is simply_______!

So, in the same way, why can’t there be more than one clearly agreed-upon purpose for the education system?

Problem 2: How compatible might multiple purposes be?

Perhaps then – as with the prison example – we could define several distinct purposes to education, which together satisfy the different key things we reflectively want from it as a society.

A problem which could then arise is that the pursuit of one purpose might mitigate against our pursuit of another. In the prison example above, some attempts at rehabilitating prisoners can put them in a situation where prevention from continued re-offending could be weakened, or indeed, if the opportunities opened-up by correction are too good, they could reduce the deterrence effect of incarceration for would-be offenders whose lives seem to be spiraling downwards on the outside.

A similar problem arises with the tripartite ideals of the French Revolution (still entrenched in the  French constitution) – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Over time the French have wrestled with how to make these compatible bedfellows. Liberty doesn’t sit well with either equality or fraternity, most obviously if it is equality of outcomes that you’re after. If you want ‘equality under the law’ things just about work, but if you wanted, say, equality of opportunity – where children of all backgrounds get an equally good education, then you have to place limits on the liberty that people have to spend their money as they want. You certainly can’t have them spending money on enhancing their own children’s education, whether in the form of extra tutoring or private schooling, or trips to stimulating places etc.

In education itself, does the aim to create community-minded citizens necessarily fit snugly with developing liberated individuals? At the very least – if there is no philosophical conflict between different purposes – focus spent on one of them will likely take time away from another (the oft used ‘opportunity cost‘ objection), but then you can say that about the teaching of different subjects anyway. Time spent teaching Maths is time lost for the teaching of English.

So it could well be that the acknowledgement of multiple purposes to education will introduce new complications into discussions of the ‘best’ methods – but those are the complications which already seem to plague debate at every level anyway due to the underlying disagreement over the ‘one true purpose’ – particularly in internet discussions where it is clear that participants are simply ‘talking past each other’.

Problem 3: Clearly measurable outcomes?

It is a fundamental truth (I believe) that not everything of value to humans can be measured – at least not in a transparently unambiguous and objective sense (more in my next post). However, if we are discussing the application of science to the act of educating, then measurements of some kind are clearly going to be needed at certain points.

The problem with a purpose such as “For every child to fulfill their potential”, is that – as it stands – it is only meaningful at an intuitive or personally defined level.

  • For every child to fulfill their potential in what exactly…? In ‘life’? What – all of it? Love, career, happiness…? If just in their career, is this to be measured by money, status, job satisfaction…?
  • Or should we be asking: For children to fulfill their potential as what…? As everything that they want to be? As just the key things that they want to be? As everything which they could be? As the thing for which they have the potential for being the most successful at, irrespective of whether it’s what they want…?
  • And even if we manage to isolate which of the above we’re aiming for, who is to decide what that means for the individual child? Their parents? Their teachers? They themselves…?
  • And when should this outcome be judged? School leaving age? When they’ve finished making a family? When they’ve got as far up any career ladder as they are going to get? When they reach the point of retirement? On their death bed…?

Given all of this, how on earth should schools decide on the correct methods to help bring about such a purpose, and how would they measure their progress towards it? How would they ever know if they are taking the right approach?

It is no wonder that the Neo-Traditionalist movement is on the front foot at the moment with its simple purpose of “To make people cleverer” (see here and here). Not only is it relatively focused on one thing, compared to the many competing suggestions from more progressive educators at present, it seems relatively easy to specify, measure, and create methods for.

Problem 4: What aspects of ‘Education’ should actually be the responsibility of ‘Schooling’?

Another perspective which helps strengthen the arm of the Traditionalists is the stance that there should be a distinction made between the grand project of ‘education’, and the specific instance of ‘schooling’, as being a particular, institutionalised form of formal education.

For sure, most parents would be appalled at the idea that their children have learned nothing from the long years of family nurture and care, or indeed that schools might propose completely shaping children in the image that they or the state considered best. Furthermore, surely nobody would assert that the everyday messages and role-models which children meet throughout society – the media, the high streets, any groups that they are part of outside of school – have no formative ‘educating’ effect – for good or for ill.

Consequently, some educators suggest that the existence of schooling – following-on from its original reason for coming into being in its classical and medieval forms – is not to train or shape the character of people (that is the role of other aspects of society), it is to carry out the far more specialised function of developing the intellect and transmitting to the next generation the best that has been produced by human culture.

Again, there is a certain elegant purity to this position, and it certainly fits well with a more ‘libertarian’ as opposed to ‘paternalistic’ form of political outlook, where you’re trying to open up the opportunity for children to become whatever kind of person they might want to become, and make the choices they want to make, rather than forming them in a particular moral image chosen from above.

From what I’m saying here, it might seem that I am quite predisposed to this purpose (I do think that it is perhaps the defining cornerstone of a professional teacher’s job), but I still see it’s ‘single prong approach’ as a limitation (written about here) and anyhow, for now, it is lost in the 5th problem…

Problem 5) We just can’t find consensus on the purpose of education

As I have written previously, the purpose of education belongs to the society in which the education system is established and supported. It simply ISN’T a ‘given’ from some Platonic realm of Forms, to be hotly declared by me or any individual reader out there. If you are the head of an independent school, you certainly have some power to declare what your school is going to treat as its purpose, but a society-wide system of compulsory, tax-payer funded schooling needs something bigger.

Short of having a system made-up entirely of ‘free’ schools, from which parents can choose the one with the purposes they most approve of (logistically unworkable), or on having a public referendum on such a thing, the most democratic way of making sure that we have clear purposes representing our society will be through the consultations and deliberations of the elected government – informed by as wide a range of interested parties as possible.

Consequently, it was encouraging in the November of 2015 when the UK House of Commons Education Select Committee convened an inquiry into “The Purpose and Quality of Education in England”.

At the outset they stated… “As a Committee, we want over this Parliament to explore the fundamentals of education in England. Approaching this basic question of the purpose of education will pave the way for the Committee to examine whether our curriculum, qualifications, assessment and accountability systems really are fit for purpose.” They accepted written and oral evidence from a variety of sources, before concluding this process with a conference in September 2016, following which they stated …“The Committee plans to reflect on the conference before deciding its next steps.

At the present time of writing this blog post, the inquiry is categorized as ‘Concluded’ and of course there has been a change of parliamentary session, but as yet no ‘next steps’ or decisions ever seem to have been made public, 11 months on…

It could well be that they realized the problem of pinning down the ‘Purpose of Education’ was nigh on impossible. Here were some of the varying suggestions that they received from organisations submitting written evidence:

  • The City of London Corporation: “To educate and inspire children and young people to achieve their full potential
  • I CAN: “…we feel that education should prepare children and young people for life, learning and work, to be active and successful members of society.”
  • Teachers are Gold:The intended purpose of education for children of all ages is to prepare them as completely as is possible for life.”

(A broader selection of contributed purposes were reflected on by the University of Hull here)

Perhaps the most insightful contribution to the inquiry was the keynote speech during the conference of Professor Mary Beard (also quoted from at the beginning of the previous post) which seemed to acknowledge many of the issues I have pointed to here, and (just perhaps) might have resulted in the dead-end which the inquiry seems to have reached:

“If I was forced to say what I thought education is for. I guess I might say that it is “the process by which screaming babies are turned into the kind of human beings we would like them to be, both individually and en masse”. It’s not usually put that way but it’s broadly true, uncontroversial and doesn’t tell us very much. It only gets interesting and controversial when we try to pin down what kind of human beings, or human society, we want, and which of the many desiderata we should prioritize…. More practically it gets controversial when we try to narrow down those desirable aims into something that the formal education system can or should deliver and how we judge whether it has done a good job. Schools aren’t the only places involved in turning babies into people and what particular contribution we can expect of them is always going to be a matter of debate.”

Despite the insightful nature of Professor Beard’s summary though, perhaps the most telling contribution came from the oral evidence of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools and head of OFSTED at the time (a role he’d held for several years – so he should have been clear what he was talking about). The significance of his contribution came from the apparent fact that he couldn’t actually seem to conceive of educational purposes beyond getting good exam results and thereby a good job (which could make people ‘happy’. See the transcript here – perhaps he felt it was beyond the technical remit of his professional role to state anything more).

The reason for me seeing significance in this statement is that, despite all our rosy, heart-felt, idealistic ruminations about what the real purpose of education should be, we are all already united by a universally established pithy single purpose, (however much we rail against it) which is easy to measure, and which is very much firmly in the remit of ‘schools’ as opposed to ‘society as a whole’; namely… to get children the best exam results we can.

It seems to me that pretty much the only useful debate which is ever had about methods etc. comes from the presence of this always flawed, never popular, public exam system.

If we took this system away, and then started to have a discussion about how best we could use the scientific approach to help with education, where exactly would we be? One way or another, we have to have some way in which we can justify the value of education to the society which pays for it. However flawed the current assessment system is, there does HAVE to be some kind of assessment system, and the best one will result in a currency that has broad recognition and utility past the point of exit – society will not stand for anything else for very long. Consequently, any replacement headline purpose for education, which isn’t just the nice additional ‘value added’ window dressing, which so many worthy additional aims are on the billboards of schools, must start by establishing EXACTLY how it will be quantified and be of use as a genuinely versatile ‘paper currency’ for young people once they pass the departure gate. However many employers might say that they’re going to start ignoring paper qualifications and administer their own aptitude tests for job applicants, I don’t believe that this will never become a wide-spread or efficient system for HR and employers.

So, to summarise then: As it stands, the ground in education is poorly prepared for scientific research and insights to make much impact beyond seeking ways to increase the grades achieved using traditional assessment structures. If we wish for wider applications of the scientific method, we need to identify and clarify ways of operationalizing other goals such that progress towards them can be in some way meaningfully measured – both as an end point, and as a path of progression towards them.

In part 3 of this series of blog posts, I will turn my focus onto the enterprise of science as a means for informing and developing the enterprise of schooling.

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…