Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Reality Conundrum in Education

I ran a short session yesterday on "Uses of Critical Realism in Education" with some Education Masters students. To be honest, I should have changed the title - whilst I think pursuing ontology is  urgently needed in education research, "Critical Realism" has become just another topic on the curriculum rather than a process or a movement. Those kinds of things are best avoided.

The other problem with Critical Realism is the invitation it provides for "teachers of Critical Realism" to talk endlessly about it, bore their students to death, sound pretentious with long words, and so on. I provided a short printed summary of "Why Ontology in Education", and said "I'm not really going to talk about this. But what I want to do is some activities with you which hopefully will disturb your equilibrium sufficiently to make you curious about what's in the leaflet."
So this is what we did. The value of ontology in anything is that it should put you in direct contact with the perceived phenomena, and a shed-load of questions. Behind all the questions is the fundamental question that Bhaskar asks: "Given that such-and-such occurs, what must the world be like?"

So the class is an opportunity to explore phenomena: we did some singing and explored the multiple frequencies in a single sound, we watched David Bohm explain his thoughts on multiple description and perception, and we watched a short series of videos of social dynamics which might be called "learning" from mother-baby relations, very boring university teaching (boredom is really interesting isn't it?!), crows playing with cats, children picking up worms and a string quartet playing Beethoven. I asked "What's going on? Is it different things in each case, or is there a common principle at work?"

I said that the value of Critical Realism for me was not the explanations it provides, or the methods it provides for investigation, but the discussion with those who disagree with it (like some social constructivists). The value of Critical Realism for me was that it took me into a contested place.

My biggest problem in CR is the dogmatism: it appears that Critical Realism is only critical up to a point. One academic put it elegantly a few years ago: "Critical Realism isn't sufficiently critical of the assumed facticity of its own categories". Yes. More simply, I would say "it has an observer problem".

Bohm's message is that there is no single description of any mechanism. There is instead a kind of harmonic coordination between multiple descriptions which is revealed in dialogue. If I say "now, I think this is right", what I am saying is that Bohm's description resonates with a series of other multiple descriptions which are both generated by it, and co-exist with it.

There is no single thing.

I had a quick chat with Tony Lawson at the Realist Workshop in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago. Much of the discussion in Geoff Hodgson's talk was about consensus. I said to Tony "I think we all see things in different ways". His face lit up, and quick as a flash he pointed at me and said "I absolutely agree with you!". We laughed. Although it's a joke possibly at the expense of the "multiplicity view" of someone like Bohm, I suspect this was precisely what Bohm was getting at!

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