What’s Essential in the Education Debate Part 3: RefutationDecember 12, 2013
Previously I looked at the importance of a commitment to truth and a rejection of unreasonable methods of disagreement in the education debate. In this blogpost I will look at how claims and ideas can be reasonably rejected.
Here I start asking the most serious questions about what we can know in education, as wanting to know if one is wrong is at the heart of caring about truth. It is also here that we can see that claims that we can know nothing are most obviously false, because while we can rarely be certain we are right we can often recognise when people are wrong. What types of thought can be employed here varies depending on what is to be refuted, but I would suggest the following are key (and in, my highly subjective, experience are needed in roughly this order of priority):
Philosophy/logic. The most common wrong claims in education are those we know to be wrong because they are simply incoherent or contradictory. If somebody says they are not arguing against the teaching of phonics and then describe phonics as “barking at print” then we know that something they have said is untrue or badly expressed. The reason I bring philosophy into this rather than leaving this at “logic” is because very often we have to pick apart what is meant by certain words, phrases and ideas in order to identify what is incoherent or inconsistent about them. So for instance, the idea that lessons don’t need to be fun and that learning should be based on play are contradictory only when we look at what is meant by “play”. Because analysing meaning is so key we should be very wary of those who dismiss an argument as “semantic”. Very often it is only by looking at precisely what is meant that we can identify that ideas are incoherent or have been expressed by somebody who did not know what they were saying. Even the more historical form of philosophy, where we look at the history of ideas and what has been argued about them in the past, can help identify logical and conceptual problems with claims. That logic is such a key method of disproving claims in education both illustrates a lack of rigour in the discipline, but also gives us reason to be weary of those who demand evidence in every argument. Some claims are so inherently flawed they would be wrong in all possible worlds, and we don’t need to even look at the world to show them to be wrong. This is not, however, the end of the contribution philosophy might make to discussing education; there is also the matter of ethics. A large number of claims in education are, when explored thoroughly, actually claims about values. While I don’t believe moral philosophy can resolve all moral disagreements, it can certainly cast a light on incomplete or implausible moral theories of which there is no shortage in debates about education.
History. Remarkably, or perhaps not remarkably given the state of education as an academic discipline, a lot of claims in education are actually supported with little more than narrative accounts, such as claims that an idea is new (and should be tried because of it); claims that contemporary developments are unprecedented and require a new educational philosophy, or simply stories of what has allegedly failed in the past. While there is a limit to the confidence with which we can assert anything about the past based on the methods of the historian, much education debate is presented as completely ahistorical to the point where it can be rejected on the basis of a little historical context. A quick look at this blogpost by Daisy Christodoulou and the many examples I have provided in the comments would indicate how often educational progressives simply ignore the history of their own educational philosophy in favour of an alternative account of history in which they are the underdogs challenging the establishment with new ideas.
Cognitive Psychology. It may reflect on the state of the education debate rather than my priorities that we have got this far down the list before considering the contribution that can be made by science to education. It is only after we have analysed ideas and stated them as clearly as possible that we reach the point where they may be judged in light of empirical evidence. So many ideas in education hinge on theories about how the mind works and, therefore, the knowledge we have from psychology about how the mind works can often give us grounds to reject claims, particularly those which describe objectively observable properties of the mind. There are many empirical demonstrations which show that thinking is facilitated by knowledge. There are countless studies of the circumstance under which we remember effectively that contradict some of the deeply held convictions of many in education (for instance, claims that we can expect remember best when enjoying ourselves, or when finding things out for ourselves). There are many other results regarding our motivation and our capacity to absorb information. While there are no doubt plenty of limitations to experimental psychology and the theories inspired by it, there are plenty of ideas in education that can be safely rejected as incompatible with reliable and replicated experimental evidence or, at the very least, cast into some doubt by the lack of supporting evidence. However, we should be careful as not everything that passes for “psychology” has a sound empirical basis or, in some cases, remotely resembles a science.
Empirical studies of teaching methods. Unfortunately, we are far from having an agreed methodology for trials of educational techniques and methods. Sorting through studies to find what is reliable information gathered in a sensible way seems close to impossible. What, however, we do have is some limited grounds to make comparisons between methods. I would suggest that we can use empirical studies in the following ways.
- In the case of phonics, the empirical evidence, including much that was gathered by those who sought to disprove the effectiveness of phonics, is so overwhelming as to ensure we can dismiss phonics denialism.
- In those cases where the studies of interventions agrees with what we would expect from cognitive psychology we can, at the very least, shift the burden of evidence back to those who argue otherwise. So, for instance, we should demand that anybody promoting discovery learning or problem-solving learning provide firm evidence that it works. In such cases we have no good reason to think it would work or that it has worked.
- Many claims in education are themselves about what the empirical evidence shows and, therefore, can be directly refuted by the empirical evidence. This is particularly likely to be the case where claims involve “magic bullets”, methods which are meant to have been shown to be incredibly effective. The more overblown the claims, the more likely it is that they can be refuted by the empirical evidence, or even just a lack of evidence.
Common sense/tradition. I consider these two together, as one is simply what people would think in the absence of a particular theory and the other is what was thought before a particular theory was adopted. Knowledge of what has been done traditionally, or what ordinary people would expect to be done, is not worthless. It is, of course, easy to come up with counter-examples to the value of common sense/tradition, such as the unreliability of the common sense, traditional belief that the sun goes round the earth, but that would simply show that in certain questions (like those involving physics) scientific evidence is more likely to be accurate than common sense/tradition. However, that people and institutions have tacit knowledge built up from and filtered by experience cannot be denied and existing institutions and practices may have survived because they are effective, even if we don’t have direct evidence that they are effective. For this reason, I think that when making decisions about practice in general, then in the absence of evidence or a sound argument either way, we should default to common sense and tradition rather than novelty or imaginative theories. Change for the sake of it, without any commitment to evaluation, is a mistake. Too often in education it is assumed that new ideas are better than old and the leadership is the ability to make arbitrary changes. We should pay attention, but not slavish devotion, to what is obvious and what has usually been done. Not because this will always be right, but because the counter-intuitive and the innovative should be supported by a sound argument.
I am not going to justify the following point in detail, but as things currently stand I am not aware of any sound argument or evidence for or against any educational practice emanating from neuroscience, sociology, psychometry, geography, comparative politics, critical theory or genetics. There is no a priori reason why studies of data from some (but not all) of those fields shouldn’t produce useful results, I just haven’t seen any that didn’t raise more questions about cause and effect than they answered. As for educational economics, I think it probably has contributed useful research but it has been more relevant to policy makers than educators.