Mere anecdote?

I must admit, I find the idea of Edu-blog of the Year rather depressing. It’s a (vaguely) free world of course, but for me, blogging is not about reinforcing one’s credentials – let alone those of the educational establishment – but simply a chance to air and share a few thoughts on my years of experience. Isn’t that enough?

I think the most second-most dispiriting aspect is the degree to which the debate in the edu-blogosphere revolves around ‘The Answer’ to education, people arguing the toss over the ideas of this or that educationalist, management strategy or political policy. Even the redoubtable Andrew Old gets himself embroiled in debates on the veracity or otherwise of theoretical claims, as his latest post shows. This has of course been going on for decades, well before the birth of blogs, but I think it has got worse the more accountable education has supposedly become. The ever-more frantic clutching at the straws of so-called educational ‘success’ (which normally just means good exam results) seems to be reinforcing the belief that there is, somewhere, a Holy Grail. It borders on the obsessive and one might hope that educated individuals would realise just how unlikely this actually is.

The most dispiriting thing of all is the bloggers who earnestly cite their personal interests as variants on “reading and writing about education”. Dear me! Please get this in proportion! I know that education is important (and I know that I spend good time blogging too) but this most definitely is not my spare-time interest, more an extension of professional development. What kind of a life-example would this be setting to young people, if they could see?

Anyway, now I have that off my chest, here’s why I think a lot of it is more a symptom of O.H.T. syndrome (obsessive hobby-teacher) than anything more significant.

Last week, I delivered a CPD session that was, for the second year running very well-received by the (admittedly small) audience. The title was “Systems – and why they let us down”. The root of the session was precisely the one that underpins this blog:

There is no point in looking for The Answer.

There simply isn’t one. Or to be more precise, the answer is so complex that we have no chance whatsoever with our puny human minds in understanding it in any useful way.

This is not as defeatist as it may seem. Cause-and-Effect no doubt exists in social constructs such as education, as it does in other aspects of Existence. But as Duncan Watts wrote in Everything is Obvious (when you know the answer), human behavioural systems are simply so complex as to be unfathomable. He should know, having taken a physics and engineering doctorate before switching to social sciences – which he admits he found infinitely more complicated.

I began my CPD with a clip from this video:

The thing to note here is that the seemingly-repeating cycle of bottles passing through the machinery is actually nothing of the sort – each pass represents a unique new event, albeit cosmetically identical to the one that went before it. Humans have learned to control cycles that involve the mechanical processing of inanimate items very closely (though they still break down – just look at photocopiers). The mistake we make, however, is to think we can treat sentient beings in the same way. If you were to put say, cats on that production line, the consequences would be catastrophic… Animate objects simply do not behave to order in the same way as inanimate ones. That isn’t to say there is no causality behind their (re)actions, but simply that it is too complex ever to know in a useable sense. The same cat might react differently on two consecutive passes thought the machine, and the reasons why are too many accurately ever to know.

The same is true of humans. Even in the average classroom, we have between 25 and 30 individuals. While appearing superficially knowable from the outward behaviours, the processes going on in those brains at any one time are again, simply too complicated really to know; they also don’t loop over time. Give them an identical stimulus on a Monday morning and a Friday afternoon and there is certainly no guarantee that the response will be the same, for all that certain crude patterns might be identifiable. Even in one lesson, the permutations of motives, intentions and preferences, let alone the interactions between them, are simply too many to count, let alone explain or predict. Admittedly, one might eventually start to identify crude patterns (a.k.a. getting to know your pupils) but even that is hardly a reliable predictor of what will make them learn on any particular day.

This is why it is impossible to derive accurate paradigms to explain what works in education. I struggle to think of even one from my three decades in education that has materially advanced the process of education more than slightly, in a way that has not later been discredited by people claiming the opposite. The supposed lack of rigour that so many people bust their guts trying to overcome is inherent in this activity.

For a start, there are too many variables we don’t normally consider – here is a list taken from reading for my CPD session:

  • Framing dilemma (the response depends on the parameters with which the action is defined)
  • Historical fallacy (the past is not a good predictor of the future, as time doesn’t loop)
  • Reliance on ‘common sense’ (which may be neither common nor sense) to predict behaviours
  • The general difficulty of predicting the behaviour of others
  • Difficulty of identifying the motives of others
  • Default assumptions that reinforce undesired behaviours
  • The choking effect of targets and rewards on motivation
  • The weakness of  remote decision-making

Andrew Old is right to level the greatest criticism at those who claim the greatest rigour for their findings, and who should know much better – but many of us lesser souls are just as guilty of under-estimating the complexity of that in which we are seeking simplistic order. We do it even in a task such as devising a lesson plan – and we overcome it in the way people do all of the time – heuristically. Teaching a lesson is a bit like driving home afterwards: you know to tool you are going to use (which you assume, being inanimate, will work), you know your destination and you have an idea of the route. However, the actual act of travelling can at any moment be subverted by any one of many factors that are almost impossible to predict accurately, ranging from a breakdown to bad weather, to unexpected queues to simple crazy driving. In each case the only way making progress is to respond to each event iteratively, in real time. Teaching is pretty much the same. It’s more like playing chess than doing Sudoku.

This is why so much educational theory and research is simply a waste of time. It’s not that we shouldn’t seek to understand processes that might improve teaching, but simply that many people seem to be looking in completely the wrong place.

We need not fear anecdote – but let’s rename it ‘Experience’. A teaching leader of my former acquaintance was adept at dismissing anything he disagreed with as “mere anecdote” – which he then went on (in his own eyes) to trump with his own ideas, most of which were also drawn from – yes – anecdote. The reason is this: successful teaching is mostly founded on anecdote – the lessons learned from real experiences that went before. Indeed, the truly-valid corpus of collective knowledge in teaching is also based on accumulated anecdote. That many people attempt to pass it off as more than that does not change the fact. And it need not be otherwise: in the field of human interaction, prior experience (a.k.a. anecdote) is our best guide, a perfectly legitimate methodology – not so that we can mindlessly ape what we did before, but so that our understanding and judgement can be slowly refined. This in turn will better-attune our instincts in future situations.

What’s more, if we are trying to establish education as a science in order to legitimise its professional status, it is worth bearing in mind that this is also a false idol. What defines other professions is not really their rigorous scientific frameworks, but the iterative and artful skill of the individuals who operate within them, be they barristers mounting a defence or doctors diagnosing a disease (medicine notoriously remains as much an art as a science).

Anecdote is also the best torpedo for the latest annoyingly-fashionable idea. This is not wantonly destructive, but simply the realisation that the nature of social reality is so complicated that all one has to do is select from an alternative, apparently contradictory (but equally valid) experience in order to sink it, using different objectives or priorities. Fundamentally who knows which is correct? That applies universally, so it is not a partisan point.

All this wouldn’t be so serious if it wasn’t actually heavily influencing how people teach, and what they expect it to achieve. From what I can see, virtually all the ‘research’ – and much of the theory – starts from one or other implicit value-judgements about what education is and what it should seek to achieve. They build on this by imposing partisan and subjective views of what, for instance, constitutes ‘success’. But they rarely define them, and all one has to do to demolish them is to disagree with the initial premise (on whatever grounds, well-based or otherwise); there really is no simple universal objectivity about education there to start from.

Worryingly, such a theory-heavy approach seems increasingly to be dictating how teachers respond to their pupils, and indeed how they plan and deliver their lessons. I will repeat: the reason this doesn’t work is that people are too complicated to systematise. Consequently it may even be that this over-reliance on dogma is actually hampering our abilities to respond closely to our pupils’ real moment-by-moment needs: it is no good fitting the person to the theory – it doesn’t work.

This may again sound like a very defeatist viewpoint; indeed I have even been accused of educational anarchism in the past, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that we can’t understand or predict these phenomena doesn’t mean we can’t deal with them. In fact, we would do a better job without the all the ideology. We would be left with the simple need to respond to each and every moment as it arises, in whatever seems the best way possible at the time. That should keep us busy for now. Experience and empathy would be critical, as would a degree of opportunism, honed with experience. The real skill would be in reading the currents and learning to capitalise on the helpful ones.

The irony is, I suspect this is actually what happens the majority of the time in classrooms anyway. It’s just that the theorists (and increasingly the profession) can’t see it. Or they feel that in some way such an apparently unstructured approach isn’t professional enough. But good teaching is still more of an art than a science, rightly so for an activity whose major domain is the realm of the psyche, and thank goodness for that – any general scientific law would remove much of what’s rewarding about it.

All that you really need to be a successful teacher is a liking for young people, the ability to empathise and communicate with them, and the knowledge of what you’re covering and where you’re heading. Any abstracts we might need would be much more helpful for being descriptive rather than trying to be prescriptive. Anything else is pseudo-scientific hogwash.

That is why my blog lays claim to be nothing more than the gathered reflections of a reasonably experienced teacher. In my dreams, people might find a little to use in them. If anything it is anti-theoretical: laying down any kind of Law (as opposed to anecdotal guidelines) is doomed to failure. As with driving home, the best we might reasonably expect from theory is a rough idea of the tools to use and the route you might consider taking. You might learn that it’s better to change route than sit in a jam – and never to lose sight of your destination (which is, of course different for each of us). More than that and it simply becomes an unhelpful attempt to second-guess the unknowable.

And it’s also why all those Saturday morning edu-bloggers busy looking for the General Law of Successful Education really would, in my humble opinion, be better off spending their time doing something else. Like learning to surf the human-present, in the company of their partners, families or friends – and taking the lessons of real human interaction into the classroom.

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