We can tell VAK to “Vak Off”, but is Cognitive Science just another pedagogic placebo?

Tom Bennett is currently touring with his new single, “Vak Off” and other hits from his new album, “No brains in the Brain Gym”. Echoes of half man half biscuit for those who recall the slightly anarchic band from the 1980’s. Appearing live at ResearchED York he wowed the audience with the warmth of his personality and on stage banter.  He describes his musical style as “Jazz-handed”, which sounds a bit dubious, but could possibly be described as neo-Trad. Not a progressive like Miles Davis but not exactly Dixieland either.

So I guess we can conclude that time is up for VAK learning styles. I did though detect a problem, which is, and I apologise if I misrepresent Tom’s views, but it goes something along the lines of; “I am a fan of research (hence ResearchEd), I am in favour of evidence, but I’m not that sure about it and anyway well erm”, and there it seems to end. In fact there was also a little side swipe at DT Willingham, the God head of the trad’ movement. It was only a teeny weeny one but even so.

David Didau says something similar on his latest blog:

“If all their empirical evidence turns out to be wrong, no one’s died. It may not be worth betting your life on, but it outweighs the risk of going with a hunch.”

Forgive me if I’m wrong but I think that there is a case for suggesting that a hunch is better than getting stuff completely wrong. I wrote about his on my last blog; David is brilliant at promoting teacher autonomy whilst at the same time denying anybody any agency other than cognitive scientists. Of course, I over egg the point, but I think I have one, however small.

It seems to me that a teacher’s hunch has at least as much value as the empirical meanderings of cognitive scientists, or other gurus of empirical evidence. The implication from Tom and David is, research is good , we don’t know why but something that sounds a bit like science is better than something, which sounds a bit like a hunch. This seemed to me to be the essence of David’s argument with Dylan William; evidence that looks and smells like science, even if it isn’t, is better than evidence which doesn’t.

Like any good placebo, the Cognitive Science placebo, makes us feel better but it won’t cure the ills of education. It makes us feel better because society equates science with efficacy, and if education lacks anything, it is some kind of social efficacy that gives it credibility in the minds of the general public and policy makers etc. Scientific knowledge affords scientists a measure of autonomy that pedagogic knowledge does not offer to the teaching profession. It’s a big problem for educationalists that politicians do not respect our professional knowledge.

Joe Kirby is singing to the same tune on Pragmatic Education in his article Three Applications of Cognitive Science. What we get are some great ideas but reliant on research that is more cognitive theory (or Cognitive Load Theory in this case) than cognitive science, or empirical evidence.

There is one  essential element missing, well two actually (but more of that later), and that is the point at which any piece of research evidence interacts with a complex and convaluted hierarchy will result in theories that become removed from the research itself. Pedagogic theory or knowledge distinct from the field that generates it, has to be accessible and therein lies the problem. Both Freire and Bourdieu make this point.

What is required is a theory of education that explains how knowledge exists within the education system and try to fit in the evidence based upon it, alright Bernstein and others have offered plausible theories but when are they ever mentioned on teachery BLOGS, or at least the ones I read. Let’s be clear there are over 400,000 teachers, many, if not most, are not interested in these debates. Many are paid little more than semi skilled factory workers or less than good tradesmen.

A much more robust sociology of education that understands teacher knowing and how evidence fits into a broader teacher knowledge base, will help to manage the empirical evidence that emerges from Cognitive Psychology and other fields that are education related but not education.  Often pedagogic knowledge becomes corrupted, because education itself, has become corrupted by a huge hierarchy of vested interests at every level.

I think it is wrong to assume that various fragmented pieces of empirical evidence will coalesce into a coherent whole.  We need an evidence based theory of  teaching and learning that incorporates empirical evidence not another placebo, the leftovers from the Cognitive Science dining table.

And before I forget I alluded to two points; firstly that we need a theory of teaching and learning but also to accept that Constructivism is the only game in the educational town. Ontological realists or those who have realist undertones will always encounter the point where they have to shrug their shoulders and say “I am a fan of evidence but….” because as Tom Bennett alluded to yesterday, the scientific method cannot explain teaching and learning, it can only contribute to an understanding of it. The science of teaching and learning needs a theoretical proposition to manage the empirical contributions.


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