The Great Exception.

There is, as I have remarked previously, one major difference between teaching and all other professions: the work that we do is largely speculative. In other words, education is about preparing people for an unknown situation – the future. It could, therefore, be described as a solution in search of a problem.

Contrast this to other professions: medicine/nursing, the law, journalism, accountancy, even social work – all mainly deal with responses to pre-existing situations. It is true that preventative medicine exists, though still relatively low-profile in the U.K. – and there are times when anticipatory social-work intervention is required, but other than that, all these activities largely concern themselves with known quantities.

Given that fact, it is a lot easier for these other occupations to identify both the desired outcomes – and perhaps the procedures required to reach them. In matters legal, medical and financial, there is usually a quantifiable outcome which can be evaluated in its own right, and thereby also the procedures that were employed to achieve it.

This makes it a great deal easier to define the scope of those professions, and the body of accepted practice they encompass. This in turn makes it a simpler procedure to define malpractice, not least because the outcomes can largely be identified. The one exception is perhaps social work – which, when it comes to accepted practice, has a history of getting itself into at least as much deep water as education.

As teachers, we are by definition dealing with people at the start of their lives; much of what fate holds in store specifically for them cannot but remain unknown. The eventualities and opportunities for which we attempt to prepare them are so numerous that we can only hope to identify them in terms of broad categories. And the tool of choice we employ – the developed brain – remains such an unknown quantity that steering its development in any particular direction is a matter of intelligent guesswork and adaptive application of anecdote than anything else.

But as economic principles have been applied to education, society has increasingly sought certainty from the process, in defiance of the existential dilemma outlined above. The only way this can even be approached is through the application of collective utility, inasmuch as this can reduce the unpredictable outcomes of individual cases to the status of anomalies and attempt to identify the aggregate good that the process generates.

There is one fundamental flaw with this: intellectual development is as intensely, uniquely personal an experience as the personality that comes with it. Even though aggregate trends are identifiable (as in the way teachers informally come to know behaviour-patterns of certain types of pupil-personality), the effect of the unique remains such a significant factor as seriously to weaken any attempt at generalisation. All the more so since social sensibilities still recoil from the problems of stereotyping and insist on the sovereignty of the individual, even as it is being eroded. I’m certainly not implying that this is wrong: a fundamental principle for me is that education needs to be a matter of individuality more than unquestioning conformity; it is primarily a liberating process, not a constraining one. It is only by individual adaptation and interpretation that the process can engage with the unique experience of every human life in a way that might give it some relevance.

This is why I think it is wrong to formulate educational practice on the basis of aggregate research of any kind. It is of course inevitable that enquiring minds will seek to analyse the impact that education can have; the problem comes when the results of such enquiries start to be used formatively. So long as we have two uncontrollable variables to deal with: the uniqueness of individual life and the unknowability of the future, there is only one level at which meaningful education can be delivered – that of humdrum but unique iterative interactions between individual teachers and their pupils.

While wider experience can of course inform individual practice, the only way to respond to human diversity is on an individual basis – which is of course the reality of what teachers do every day. The ideal for this could be argued to be one-to-one teaching, (though this does remove the benefits of collaboration) – and the further one is forced to depart from this reference point the more of a compromise the process will be, as the teacher attempts to cater for increasingly diverse needs with his or her inevitably limited resources. It is therefore a serious mistake to formulate educational good practice from a starting-point of cumulative effect – yet this is what educational theory and research by definition does. The fact that much of it still maintains the pretence of an interest in individual outcomes only makes it more difficult. We constantly attempt to impose on teachers procedural limits on how they may deal with their pupils; some are of course ethically necessary, but a lot are simply matters of unproven theory or ideology.

The final element in this perfect storm is the unknowability of the outcomes. Rarely, if ever, does an educational orthodoxy ever have to answer for itself in known, quantifiable terms. Even today, the supposed failures of sixties and seventies education is only accepted as a weak kind of folk-myth; hard evidence is impossible to deliver, because it depends on a supposition of what might have happened under an alternative scenario. It is impossible to say that an educational intervention resolved a problem in the sense that one can about a court case or medical treatment. Not only is evaluative time-scale more of a problem for education, there remains that problem of never being able to know what would or would not have happened in the opportunity-cost situation, possibly decades earlier.

Recent educational policy has tried to divest itself of such imponderables by refocusing heavily on things that are quantifiable, notably exam results. However, playing the ostrich does not necessarily make the problem vanish. As is being increasingly acknowledged, exam results are merely a (poor) proxy for genuine long-term learning, and there is no guarantee that any one holder of a dozen A-star grades will be any more immune from life’s uncertainties than anyone else – or necessarily be better-able to cope with them. Neither, in fact, do they even seem to be a very good predictor of those who will make more constructive, life-enriching use of their intellect. There are too many intervening factors at work to explain any given individual’s experience.

So far, so philosophical.

Back in February, I was invited to a meeting of educational bloggers in London. It proved to be an epic evening, full of intense discussion and the opportunity to meet in the flesh some people whose views I read regularly. Even the curry was adequate. They all seemed highly intelligent, and humblingly, awe-inspiringly motivated by educational matters. In many cases I found myself in strong agreement with them.

But one eminent participant made the claim that perhaps the current period is the point when education “finally becomes a science”. I replied that I thought that was the last thing it should become.

Education cannot become a science because its interventions are not predicated on the application of knowable natural laws, but basically on guesswork about what might happen to an individual at some indeterminate point in the future. It cannot become ‘evidence-based’ because the evidence only happens after the intervention (it’s what the OFT recently described as a post-consumption good) and past experience is not a good predictor of the future when it comes to cognitive behaviour. Even if we do eventually figure out exactly how the brain works, there will still be no knowing all of the events it might encounter, at what stage, in what combination or in what order – let alone all of the social and environmental factors that could affect its response at a given point in time. Basing assumptions about these things on aggregate behaviour does not help either, because the scope for individual variation within any mean is almost infinite.

The problem is not which orthodoxy is right or wrong. The problem is trying to run a fundamentally grass-roots activity like teaching in a policy-based approach of any kind. We wouldn’t dream of running our other human relationships in that way. The notion that education has to be run thus derives again from a view of the world that says it is somehow about deriving maximum tangible utility from the process, and ideally as efficiently as possible. That is nothing more than another self-referential economic assumption.

What worried me a little about those discussions over curry is that (unknowingly) they were perhaps not actually about individual educational outcomes at all. They were more about a largely-new generation of teachers seeking a paradigm by which they personally can function in a very challenging job. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as such, we all did it; the problem comes when we then try to apply that paradigm universally. I suspect that many of those present will be the influential thinkers and school leaders of the future. I think it is good that they are questioning the current official ‘wisdom’; what I hope they don’t do in due course is simply impose a new strait-jacket on education in place of the existing one that they increasingly seem to be rejecting. In the final reckoning, I think that any attempt to impose universal solutions on the education process – even ones that are personally agreeable – can only impair the ability of that process to respond to the infinite number of situations it is faced with.

This instinct is all the stronger because of past perceived failures of the education system. Quite apart from the problem of how we define those failures except in terms of ideals missed (no matter how unrealistic they may have been), even if we accept there were failures in the past, I would argue that they too were more the product of too much (misguided) theory than too little. For decades, theorists have attempted to pre- and proscribe how teacher could or should act. The result has been less effective education, not more.

For as long as education remains multi-variate and multi-purpose, and while those vectors themselves remain indeterminate as they can only do, the chances of defining ‘good practice’ will be as low as ever. This has deep implications for how we practice education, and the individuals who do so. Trying to proscribe certain approaches can only restrict our armoury of techniques; artificially trying to narrow its objectives will only limit its potential usefulness. We should learn that the only effective response to the (understandable) instinct to generalise about the unique and unknowable is not to do it.

Then we could get on with the really skilled job of optimising every unique situation we as teachers encounter.


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