Sunday, 24 January 2016

Why does educational theory get 'stuck'?

An educational theory is an attempt to calibrate understanding about educational process with experiences gained from educational practice. Yet since education is a moving target, changed by government policies, technologies, new teachers, new students, and attempts to theorise it, the calibration process must be a continual effort. Yet so often, as with the social sciences more broadly, it isn't. Instead we see educational theories "solidified" (or reified) as a kind of blueprint for educational practice. This is particularly surprising given that most educational theories have grown from the system sciences (either General Systems Theory - Piaget, Vygotsky - or Cybernetics - Kolb, Pask, von Glasersfeld... maybe critical pedagogy theorists too) which are fundamentally concerned with circular and continually emergent processes. Why does this happen?

One symptom of the "stuckness" of educational theory is the fact that few educational theories are explored for their explanatory and predictive failures rather than their successes. In cybernetics, failure, or error, is the driving force behind the dynamic process of calibration. Bateson summarised this with his 'zig-zag' diagrams in Mind and Nature, here explaining the relationship between a thermostat managing room temperature and a person:

A theory is a way of logically generating possibilities which provide a lens for exploring reality. Ross Ashby, a cybernetician whose attempts to model the brain (and indeed unsuccessfully make an artificial one) led him to think deeply about his methodology: he argued that his knowledge arose from seeing what wasn't accounted for in any model, or where the model was wrong. Of course, models will always be wrong at some level. But seeing knowledge as emerging from where things don't fit rather than where they do is something of a Copernican turn in epistemology. And there are some obvious things that educational models cannot model: for example, the process of modelling cannot account for the factors that affect modellers (and everyone else): there are constraints bearing upon the modeller's brain: not just biology, but discourse, economics, physics, chemistry and education itself. How could Ashby's brain know a brain? To be fair to him, Ashby knew the question well, and his efforts were really about exploring the parameters of his lack of understanding. Following his example, we might ask how a brain can understand education? How could we pursue our lack of understanding of education scientifically?

To explore the lack of understanding of something, or the contours of understanding/non-understanding, first demands that the separation between knowledge and practice is dissolved. Ryle's distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that doesn't make much sense to a cybernetician. The only thing to say about practical knowledge as opposed to theoretical knowledge is that the balance of constraints bearing upon each is slightly different: academic knowledge is constrained by social forces like discourse and social norms; practical knowledge, whilst also being situated in discourse, is perhaps more directly constrained by individual bodies and psychologies. The two are entwined: the utterances of theoretical knowledge are the results of skilled performances which would fall under Ryle's 'knowing how'.

Having said all this, the fact is that we don't explore constraints in education. Instead we look for causal mechanisms. In the process, theory gets stuck. Why is this, even when it appears that educational theories are deficient in some important aspect or other?

As a critic of  this situation, I am in the position of a 'modeller' whose model of the complexities of education and the role of theory as calibration is not borne out by the experience of observing the dynamics of educational theory. However, if I am true to the principles that I have outlined, I am not seeking to identify mechanisms in my model which explain reality. I am looking for the deficiencies in my model in the light of experience, for those deficiencies give me more information about the boundaries constraint of education. The pursuit of these boundaries drives intellectual excitement and curiosity: in the case of theories of physics or chemistry which successfully predict natural events, the intellectual excitement is the pursuit of the boundaries within which given explanations hold good, and beyond which they break down. So often, it is this intellectual excitement which appears to be missing from education: curiosity gives way to dogma.

The constraints bearing on education (and theory about education) cover every discipline: physics, chemistry, biology, art and aesthetics, sociology, etc. The pathology of stuckness seems to set in when obvious constraints are ignored. For example, positivistic attitudes to education which argue for the measureability of learning through continuous monitoring and testing not only overlooks the psychological, sociological and biological constraints constraints which bear upon educational development, but also overlooks the many new constraints which its own approach (and the agents who uphold it) impose upon educational practice and change the nature of education. But the positivists will defend their position as 'scientific' whose interventions are causally defensible. Do they defend it more strongly because they know (deep down) it ignores so much? Is there a connection between the deficiencies of a model and the vehemence with which it is defended?

There is something odd about the social mechanisms which reward sticking to an established educational theory even in the light of it not being entirely effective. Here we are asking something about the different kinds of constraint that are at work and the ways they interfere with each other. There are plenty of examples of deficient explanatory ideas which are vehemently maintained in the absence of any justification. Religions, for example, are much more 'sticky' than educational theories!

In cybernetics, this interference between different constraints at different levels was studied by Gregory Bateson. Bateson based his theories on Ashby's identification of levels of coordination, in conjunction with Russell and Whitehead's idea of 'logical levels'. In Bateson's language, the 'stuckness' of educational theory is the result of a kind of 'knot' between different logical levels of constraint. A particular variety of this dynamic he called the 'double bind'. For example, we might imagine the constraints of a discourse, with its journals, reviewers, and a host of codified expectations about education. Then we can imagine the constraints within an institution which bear upon individual academics who wish to maintain their careers - which they can do by publishing. And we can imagine the constraints that bear upon individual teachers and learners. To identify a deficiency in a theory which perhaps spoke of the realities of classroom experience, would be be very difficult to get published if the reviewers had a stake in maintaining a particular theoretical pitch which was blind to particular issues. Given that the institution rewards publication, and the individual academic wants to progress in their career, the natural solution to the tension is to maintain existing theory. By doing so, the conditions are created where the tensions produced in the dissonance between theory and practice make it increasingly likely that the existing theory is safely maintained.

Knots like these are borne out of fear. The academic ego which resists evaluating their theory is borne of fear, and since fear is a bigger part of the university culture today than ever before, the state of knowledge within universities is a matter of serious concern.

Bateson was interested in how knots can be untied. The challenge, he argued, was to help people step outside the 'double-bind' situation they are in and understand its dynamic. This involves invoking a 'higher power' in the hierarchy which can observe the situation as a whole. Sometimes a "higher power" simply emerges by virtue of growing older. An interesting example of this is the concept of 'Santa Claus'. For very young children, Santa serves as an explanation for where their presents come from at Christmas, and some children can be genuinely anxious whether they have been 'good enough'. As children grow older, the concept of "Santa" cannot explain the obvious evidence that presents under the Christmas tree appear to be bought by mum and dad. 'Santa' persists as a concept, not only as an explanatory principle for the very young about presents, but also as an explanation for the older children about child psychology - that telling silly stories to young children is a playful and loving thing to do. This is knowledge emerging through the revelation of constraint, where the constraint revealed by the concept of Santa is the cognitive difference between the very young and the not so very young. Understanding this constraint is an important stage in the process of growing up.

Education, by contrast, doesn't have the luxury of simply being able to 'grow up'. The higher power which could address its double-binds will have to come in the form of a new way in which education thinks about itself.


Dr Vivien Rolfe said...

I can't believe I'm just getting my head around education theories and found your post. It sums up so many questions that I have - why are so many theories founded on a handful of experiments yet then become such a foundation to our work? Most are conducted in education/psychology departments - naturally - so how transferable are they to diverse learners? Where is learning technology in all of this theory? So thank you for your great post which makes me feel not so terribly alone.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Viv,

Glad you like it... I'm always a bit unsure of what I write so it's nice for me that you found it useful.

This is a problem in the social sciences generally, not just education.It's interesting to reflect that the word "theory" has very different meanings between sociology and mathematics: "group theory" in maths is a different kind of thing from "queer theory" (and that's not at all to disparage queer theory, which I've got a lot of time for) - it's simply to say they have a different class of referent.

What about "quantum theory"? Different again I think. I think sociological theory wants to see itself like quantum theory (indeed the sociomaterialists have stolen quantum language like "entanglement"!) but it ends up becoming ideology.

Big problem I think!