The lie of the land.

For some time, I’ve been struggling with perplexing issues surrounding what I suppose could be called determinism in education. In other words, the relationship between what we as teachers do, the effects that we know – or think – we have, and the ways in which such things can (or perhaps can’t) be assessed.

This has come increasingly to the fore in my mind as teaching has become more and more technocratic. The more people stand in front of us promoting ‘teaching strategies’ that, it is implied, deliver cast-iron outcomes, the more I want to stand up and shout, “Just prove it!”  The very word ‘strategies’ implies levels of control that simply may not be achievable. What’s more, the group-think on this has become so pervasive, the simple determinism so enticing, that it is very difficult publicly to question weak assumptions and reach rigorous assessments of such claims.

One premise I work from is that the nature of cause and effect is a lot more complex that people in general like to think. Much of my reading in the last few years has yielded persuasive information on this; my previous post on Obliquity presented one angle on it. There is a great deal that happens in this world that is not as directly deterministic as people like to think, and that goes as much in the field of education as anywhere else. Even the mere awareness and acceptance of this fact has fundamentally changed my approach to my own practice. It has, for instance, made me much more hesitant in jumping to conclusions about things I encounter. I would have thought that is a good thing.

As education has been held increasingly to account, a natural response has been to embrace approaches that supposedly deliver certainty. No professional body is going to feel comfortable responding to such a demand with the answer, “Actually we can’t control many of our outcomes”, let alone an admission that it can’t even identify some of them. So teaching has been instrumentalised in a way that appears to deliver what is being demanded, even if the truth is more questionable. Changing the packaging may be easy, but it does not necessarily alter the product, and may even sweep uncomfortable incongruities under the table, actually making things worse.

This focus on concrete outcomes is not unique to education, though it has perhaps had a more detrimental effect than in an enterprise whose focus is inherently something more tangible. Focusing on the technical landscape we inhabit has caused us to neglect the psychological landscape which is the real zone in which the dynamics of organisations succeed or fail.

It is going to take a while to work though the many ideas contained in this, but it will become one of the themes of this blog. When people neglect the ‘personally’ in their lives, no amount of lever-pulling will make much difference – or even much sense.


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