Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Educational science and Educational innovation

On a similar theme to yesterday's post on the awkward relationship between Systems theory (particularly social systems theory) and management science, I want to deal with the specific issues of 'educational science' (that is, the scientific study of the educational system, learning, teaching, etc) and 'educational innovation' (that is, pedagogical innovation, technological innovation, organisational innovation, etc).

We tend not to talk about a single 'educational science' in the broad sense of a scientific discipline which looks at all educational phenomena from learning and teaching to the sociological issues of educational organisation because the issues of education are scattered among a variety of different academic disciplines: psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, educationalists, etc all have their claim to a bit of 'educational science'. But this presents us with a big problem, because often the different disciplinary critiques are not commensurable, and as with the relationship between systems theory and management science, the theoretical traffic tends  to be one way: theoretical ideas inspire innovations, but innovations are evaluated in terms of their immediate benefits within the organisational context, with no deep questioning as to whether the underpinning theory behind them was a good one or not. If they work, great! - the theory must have been good! But the causal link between what happens on the ground and the explanatory and predictive power of the theory is tenuous and rarely inspected.

I'm thinking about this as I read Klaus Krippendorff's collection of essays "On Communicating". His concern is what he calls 'communications research'. I think that is basically another term for 'educational science'. But Krippendorff is well aware of the difficulties of the role of theory, which is itself a communication, in communications research. He argues that
"Theories of human communication must not contradict how they are created, communicated and used"
What happens with educational interventions based on theories? On the one hand those theories articulate ways in which people learn by discovery (say), but then do not apply the same principles of discovery to the technologies that are pushed onto teachers and learners in the name of innovation. In this way, constructivist pedagogy becomes fascist technology. But I don't want to make a political or ethical point here; I want to make a scientific point. Krippendorff is right. The thing we must be particularly alert to is inconsistency.
In terms of how we might deal with inconsistency in education, I think there is another of Krippendorff's aphorisms in another essay ("An alternative paradigm"). He indicates a number of imperatives for communications research, and amongst them is his "empirical imperative". That says:
"Invent as many alternative constructions as you can and enact them to experience the constraints on their viability"
That's the closest I've heard a constructivist (which Krippendorff is) get to a 'critical realist' position regarding empirical activity. It seems to me very close to the practices of 'Realistic Evaluation' argued for by Pawson and Tilley.

But in this phrase, the two important elements are 'constructions' and 'experience'. Too often in education, we pay scant regard to 'experience', overlooking it by simply giving learners and teachers a questionnaire. But the questionnaire cannot capture experience. It merely captures information in response to being asked the questions on the questionnaire. Our current conception of 'learner experience' is a classic example, where National Student Surveys (a questionnaire) is regarded as capturing the experience of students, and so guiding policy decisions. Those policy decisions presumably have some sort of theory behind them. But where is the link between the theory and the 'experience' of students? Where is the process of identifying the inconsistencies between the theory and its implementation? Where is the process of identifying the inconsistencies between the theory of experience and the implementation of a questionnaire?

These may seem like abstract academic questions. But I'm convinced that they're vitally important. There may be only one deep reason why people have bad experiences in education: bad theory.

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