Of flaws and flows

As long ago as 1958, J.K. Galbraith observed in The Affluent Society that some individuals in society are accorded the status of being allowed to pronounce knowingly on things that are inherently unknowable. These are the people who can specify the collective route ahead; I am emphatically not one of them.

I was called a rebel by a colleague this week. This is actually very disappointing, because I don’t perceive myself as anything of the sort: conscientiously, professionally sceptical, yes – but not a rebel. Insult was added to injury because it served as a blunt reminder that one’s professional persona is all too easily misinterpreted by recourse to lazy stereotypes. In fact, I believe that it is the professional duty of each and every one of us to subject professional discourse to scrutiny, as best we are able – and the fact that I tend to be somewhat more vocal than average is partly a reaction to the fact that so many seem disinclined to do anything other than what they are told.

The fact that something is officially sanctioned does not in itself mean that it lacks deep flaws.

Another long-standing senior colleague also told me this week how excited he is about the coming of evidence-based teaching. “It’s time for people to stop relying on hunches and start looking at what the evidence tells us”, he said. “Sounds familiar”, I thought. So I repeated my heartfelt concern that research is very dependent on which of it you believe, the epistemological problems caused by knowing which line of enquiry to pursue in the first place – and what you should do when research provides conflicting conclusions. His eyes glazed rapidly over, and he moved on. The word ‘rebel’ may have drifted through his mind…

My scepticism derives from a genuine struggle to reconcile my own experiences as both a teacher and a learner with what we are being told by the ‘authorities’. Too often, the two just don’t square – and this leaves the dilemma of either accepting what I’m told unconditionally, or seeking alternative understandings that appear to make more sense. To dismiss the latter as ‘ignoring the evidence’ is both unjust to the process and prejudiced of assumption.

For my many failings, I believe one of my strengths is a good degree of self-knowledge, and it from this that these conflicts arise. I really can’t work out whether it is me who is missing something that ‘they’ know – or whether it is the other way round. It feels like the latter – but then I suppose that thanks to confirmation bias, it probably would. That said, it only takes one exception to disprove the rule, and as such even my own dissent is in a sense sufficient to torpedo some of the ‘rules’ currently being proposed. What’s more, the fact that the coming age of evidence-based teaching already seems prepared to gloss over the inconvenient philosophical and practical objections is not an encouraging sign that it will become anything more than the latest bandwagon.

There is actually a lot of other work out there that reinforces my own experience much more closely; it just doesn’t get heard. Galbraith made a very valid point about contrived differences of legitimacy: the value of something really does seem to depend on whose voice is saying it. And yet, their motives may not always be what they claim.

In the past couple of days, the following appeared on the blog of a Finnish-American teacher/researcher:

“… all too often we are talking about learning goals when we actually mean teaching goals.  The objective and subjective realities of teaching and learning get mixed together.  Each student has a different subjective experience of the learning that happened in the class during the school year.  Teacher has her/his own experience, too.  So, which one is true?”

And

“In education a common misconception is to believe that significant learning only happens when students are taught.  In reality students are born learning machines, they learn all the time, everywhere. But teachers are needed to enhance those individual learning experiences and help students to dive deeper into the subject or the area of their interest. Documenting and testing should not be the primary focus of teaching.”

I can only add, “Amen to that”. In the final reckoning, both the existence and utility of ‘learning’ can only be user-defined. And yet we persist with profession-led evaluation of what we are doing. How convenient.

And that is the basis of my reservations regarding the whole edifice of professional educational discourse: whom does it really exist to serve? The entirety of my own ongoing learning tells me time and time again that it is an oblique, serendipitous and often unconscious process. Inconveniently, its relationship to any teaching experienced is indirect, and more often than not there is a significant time-lag. Much of what people try to teach me professionally simply does not work: for all that they model the latest effective methods, more often than not, the outcome is of very little use – so (methods notwithstanding), whither its ‘value’?

To begin with, it conflicts with my own inner sense of purpose: I am not interested in being told how to know things in an externally-defined technocratic sense. That is not for one moment to say that I am uninterested in learning from others, just that how I use it must be defined internally, in accordance with my own sense of purpose. In other words, the interpretation and significance of what is taught can only be down to me. (How it becomes that is altogether another matter, and too involved to discuss here).

I know that people (supposedly) learn in different ways, and for different purposes – but in my case at least, learning simply is not the linear, knowable, technical process that we are told it is – and which much research assumes. And for me, there is only one purpose to it: a sense of personal meaning. That isn’t as selfish as it sounds – because it can easily be derived altruistically. For example, my greatest reward as a teacher comes from an authentic experience of helping someone else to move towards their own fulfillment, insofar as I can judge that. But without my own fulfillment, the job would risk becoming fruitless.

Again, it’s not as though there is nobody else expressing these sentiments. Alexander McCall Smith, writing in this month’s Prospect Magazine  says,

“ …there are plenty of people in the world who view education as a form of technical training designed to fit you for a job. It is so much more than that; the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is an end in itself. It enriches our lives. And it should be within the reach of everybody.”

Again, this makes eminent sense to me, for all that most of those earnestly discussing teaching as though they were talking about car-maintenance seem oblivious to it. In fact, it seems so close to being a self-evident truth that I am left wondering what education does mean to those who seem not to see this. And by ‘enriches’, McCall Smith clearly doesn’t mean £££. The problem is that such insights are almost impossible to ‘prove’ in the sense that the research-faithful demand.

This present sceptic (not rebel, note) accepts that some research can indeed be helpful – so it is not as though I have an ideological objection. For example, another very recent blog discusses the neuroscience of teenage minds in a way that both makes empirical sense to me, and provides useful working knowledge. But what it (wisely) does not attempt to do is to extend its conclusions to stipulating specific teaching approaches or objectives. At least implicitly, it respects the fact that scientific explanations cannot inform the moral and subjective ways in which people actually experience education. Why has psychology all but disappeared from teacher training?

And finally, we come to some research that really does have the potential to explain something of use and great enlightenment to teachers: the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book Flow I have just finished. Therein lies a humane and wide-ranging explanation (backed up by considerable amounts of research) into the things that motivate and fulfill people – and yet it would seem to remain largely unknown to teachers. Much of what I have written above is (retrospectively) confirmed by what Csikszentmihalyi describes.

He comes to the conclusion that optimal experiences need to be autotelic (self-defined) and to lead to a life that becomes increasingly ‘complex’ (by which he means advanced in terms of competency), that provides demanding but not excessive challenges and that allows people to find meaning through the pursuit of whatsoever happens to interest them, rather than what others impose. Csikszentmihalyi is at pains to point out that such experiences cannot be taught, only learned – and that when learned, the experience of Flow can be derived from something as apparently inconsequential as lying on one’s back watching the clouds pass overhead. He also points out that many of the material rewards of contemporary society, the acquisition of which seems to be a major objective for much present-day ‘education’, do not deliver such experiences. And from this, one might then conclude that mainstream education is either intentionally or otherwise directing young people towards sub-optimal aspirations for their lives.

For all its lack of apparent technicality or direct ‘evidence’, this is a finding that corroborates so much of my other understanding – let alone personal experience – that it would seem to offer a highly-important insight into how one should approach education; to ignore it would be irresponsible. It also reinforces much of what I have read about economization and Affluenza – and can be used to interpret a great deal of what is happening for better or worse in contemporary education. I would argue that this represents a coherent and well-founded reading of education – and yet, I suspect to adhere to it would be (conveniently) dismissed as a mere hunch on my part.

Yet the opposite, as proposed by the advocates of ‘evidence’, seems to constitute some form of centralised, pre-planned mind-control, with as far as I can see, little yet to demonstrate how it is of much practical use in the classroom, let alone in offering people the hope of fulfilled lives.

Confirmation bias must of course be borne in mind – but when faced with the seemingly-nonsensical outpourings of the technical ‘evidence’ camp – or something that at least to me makes both logical and intuitive sense, why is it rebellious to go with the more helpful option?

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