Teaching is at the new frontier of human endeavour; making social practice work better

Policy makers, watchdogs, think tanks all want evidence. It gives them control. The levers with which to manipulate, those who need manipulating. It also gives some protection when things go wrong; “the evidence pointed in that direction”.

The government wants simple solutions it can sell to the electorate. OFSTED wants to pretend that it has expertise. Senior leaders need the crutch of the known to help them to make their decisions. Business leaders want a slice of the “public” pie. When the evidence is not there they are quite happy to make it up; play the game. Evidence can be complex.

Often we have simple theories such as VAK learning styles or memes related to mind growth or cognition. The difficulty of evidence relates to the multi-variant  nature of the social world. There is no gold standard, no teaching approach that is three months better than the other. The consequence of the evidence problem is that the teaching profession has little choice but to ditch the “pig weighing hubris machine” and embrace complexity. Teaching is at the new frontier of human endeavour; making social practice work better.

So why is teaching practice so complex?

My last few blogs have been, directly or indirectly concerned with the issues of quantitative science in educational research, the problems of qualitative research are well documented. More specifically how researchers (not just educational) socially construct quantitative research using mathematics, effect sizes etc. Of course various twitter debates contribute to the thinking, not one in particular, the general randomness of twitter tends to cohere into some thought or other. In this case  Hume’s sceptical view of causation. Hume  was a Scottish philosopher known today for his empiricism and scepticism.

He was also known for thinking rather a lot about billiards; whether or not we can know the truth of “cause and effect” when one billiard ball strikes another and the second ball moves. The problem is that we can only see “cause and effect” at the level of perception. Just because we perceive a billiard ball doesn’t mean that a “billiard ball” is what is happening in the natural world. Clearly it isn’t; Hume was writing at the time of the atomists and science has subsequently de-constructed the billiard ball to components and physical forces beyond the level of perception.

As David Didau points out frequently you cannot see learning all you can do is study the effects and theorise on the causes. Take the example of “critical thinking”. I admit it is a bugbear of mine. Studied from the perspective of cognitive psychology we can see that the issue “the difficulty of teaching critical thinking”, is the effect and the variable “lack of knowledge” is the cause because that’s relevant to the field of cognitive psychology. There is a relationship. Admittedly critical thinking has to be socially constructed because it isn’t a “thing in itself”; it is a discursive tool to describe a certain type of thinking.

So you have a discursive effect, the “difficulty of teaching critical thinking”, and a cause, “lack of knowledge”, beyond the realms of perception. Not easy science by any means. In the natural sciences a billiard ball is a billiard ball and if you hit it correctly it goes into the pocket. The effect is the same even when you cannot perceive the cause.

Where do the memes come from?

The complexity of the science of social practice means that the ability to create a simple discourse to substantiate the claim is important. Critical thinking and knowledge are inextricably linked. It means that in the wars of the research fields we can create a simple meme. Write the book; sell the concept.

Of course, there is no thinking that does not depend on knowledge.In the same way that no car driver ever drove a car; without a car. You can imagine the twitter debate:

Q) What makes good car driving?

A) Obviously the car; have you ever observed “good car driving” with no car?  A study of 1000 car drivers found that in very demonstrable case of good car driving; a car was present. Therefore the car must be the cause of good driving.

Similarly who can argue against the concept that a growth mind set is better than a fixed one? Disagree? It’s because you have a fixed mind-set.

The gold standard: replicability

Even the gold standard of replicability is no guarantee. Replicability can be achieved when the effect of an event can be repeated but that still does not mean there is evidence of a cause. We can reliably assume that one billiard ball will move the other. Billiards would not be possible without it. Someone had to theorise on why the ball moved. It wasn’t easy science. Fortunately there wasn’t a “hubris machine” telling Newton that it was VAK learning styles that moved the ball.

In the case of critical thinking replicability is never going to be the answer to whatever question is being asked unless, of course, you dumb down the education system to being a relationship between knowledge and memory. Thinking becomes an un-falsifiable complexity that can’t be measured and therefore doesn’t exist. There is no getting around it. Praxis in education is a social activity. It needs a different approach to evidence.


Many educational leaders and decision makers are not really concerned with praxis. They are administrators in the results game. OFSTED and the accountability culture has turned the profession into a group of “pig weighers”. Unfortunately weighing the pig is a notoriously difficult task especially when the pig in question happens to be an intangible socially constructed body of skills and knowledge.

In the past the temptation has been to accept the hubris and use the hierarchy to challenge anyone who disagreed with it. The consequence of that is, we are where we are, almost nowhere. Science has changed our world for the better. The science of social practice has to change it so that it is more equitable. Our children’s future depends upon it.


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