Thursday, 27 November 2014

#design4learning, ProtScience and Empirical Integrity in Education

While I've been attending the #design4learning event at the Open University, I've been continuing to reflect on Steve Fuller's presentation at the Russian Academy of Science the other week where he characterised the position of science today as 'ProtScience'. At the end of the Open University event, Alejandro Armellini from Northampton University drew attention to the nonsense that is "pedagogical innovation", whilst Terese Bird from Leicester University presented a dystopian University of the future called PearBucksCity University (a delightful corporate combination of Pearson, Starbucks and Udacity). Armellini's criticism was well-made, although I expect it made some of the audience (who consider themselves 'pedagogic innovators') uncomfortable. Bird was entertaining about the dangers facing education in the kind of way that Audrey Watters also does so well. Nobody however was prepared to talk seriously about "The Management". "That's one for the economists and political scientists" said Armellini, batting away the awkward fact that for all the lack of any "pedagogical innovation" (whatever on earth that would look like!), there clearly has been 'managerial innovation' which has transformed beyond recognition the power relations and social structures of our institutions, much of it achieved with the help of new technologies developed under the guise of "pedagogical innovation".

On top of this, there were two keynotes at the design4learning conference, both of which reported on apparently successful attempts to 'transform learning', but neither of which successfully identified (as far as I could see) any 'independent variables' (although the first keynote from Edinburgh did identify 'trust' - but what's that??). Taken together with various presentations about Learning Analytics (which increasingly seems to be simply about "working out ways of keeping the kids on the course paying their fees"), which through various statistical jiggery-pokery ended with vague conclusions about ill-founded distinctions in 'types' of pedagogy (constructivist vs. explanatory, etc), I was again left thinking - where are the independent variables?

Are we condemned to this in education? Or in the social sciences in general? What are the implications if we are? What might we do about it if we're not?

First of all, the implications of woolly thinking, uncritical methodologies and bad learning analytics:

  • It creates false power relations within the research fabric of education which makes it harder to do any serious critical work on education: if the majority of researchers are uncritical of their methods, and are rewarded for doing so, then it becomes increasingly difficult for anybody who is critical to get published.
  • Consequently, this is another example (like so many others including the STEM agenda, econometrics, etc) of depoliticising education
  • This works to the advantage of institutional management who see no penetrating critique (but lots of confusing and meaningless statistics) and continue unchallenged to do what they want amidst the conveniently confused haze around them
  • Management keep the intelligentsia at bay by either trapping them in a circle of hell which they orbit forever chasing banners reading 'pedagogy', 'e-learning', etc or by excluding them from the discussion altogether. Research becomes political 'chaff'
Reflecting on this makes me think about why I am uncomfortable with Fuller's idea of 'ProtScience'. 

Fuller explains that "ProtScience" is short for "Protestant Science", which is his way of saying that science today has reached it's Protestant Reformation: that moment when people no longer believe they have to bow to the authority of the science high priests, but can learn things for themselves and make up their own minds. Fuller presents people like Ben Goldacre as a good example of a Martin Luther figure debunking the scientist's status. All fine - and at some level true. (Actually, as Oleg pointed out to me the other day, Goldacre found life a lot less comfortable when he took on 'Big Pharma')

Fuller wasn't uncritical of the ProtScience position (the l'Aquila earthquake is a striking example of its pathology), but what struck me at the design4learning conference was the extent to which ProtScience throws empirical practice out of the window, and the deeper extent to which this then works to the advantage of corporatist, managerial and functionalist elites who exploit the 'anything goes' zeitgeist and govern their institutions through adhoc quackery all the time appealing to meaningless statistics and groundless ontologies. There's a reason why scientists had authority - and it's not because science is authoritarian. It's because it's honest in its claim to truth. 

Truth has become rather unpopular in recent years. Fuller's 'truth', it seemed to me, was a kind of 'network theory of account' as Luciano Floridi puts it - a normative, networked invariance within a society, where somewhere between the opinions, differences, limits and capabilities of a population, a consensus is somehow arrived at. Scientific truth in the world of ProtScience only requires that the internet increase the bandwidth of information for the masses to coordinate more and more reliable truthful judgements. If Amazon and Google can do it, so can science. I don't believe it. It would all be fine if the world was flat. But it isn't: power, social structures, personal histories, the uneven distribution of capability, money, the means of production and information all skew the normative view. 

Scientists are driven to pursue the truth. That means critiquing methodology (rather than seeing it as a crank to turn in order to publish papers!). We barely know what makes us so thirsty for knowledge, but "truth" is not a bad word for something which as Bhaskar and Badiou seem to agree, is a dialectical process implicating societies, egos, institutions, experiments, theories and explanations.

If I've been mostly frustrated, irritated and astonished at the design4learning conference it is because I've largely witnessed lazy thinking which seems to me to be unwittingly complicit in the managerial pathology which is unfolding in front of us. I also think we should aspire to a better science of education. There is, unfortunately, no short-cut to this. Learning analytics certainly isn't it. What is required is new thinking about society and education's relationship to it. What is required are new ways of measuring the ecologies that connect us to each other (managers are destroying the social ecologies of our universities). And we should decide what we mean by 'Higher Learning' (perhaps it's no more than fearlessness and intellectual honesty).

I think I may be calling for a Counter-reformation to Fuller's ProtScience!


Alejandro said...

Excellent blog post! Just a note - I am from the University of Northampton, not from Nottingham.
Great to see people enjoyed the event and that our symposium has generated so much debate.
Alejandro Armellini

Mark Johnson said...

Thanks and sorry - I'll change it! Symposium was the highlight of the conference for me...