Electronic Babel?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.       Aristotle

Establishing this blog has proved to be an excellent professional experience. Over the past eighteen months, I feel that I have plugged into a network the like of which had hitherto been sorely lacking from my life as an autonomous professional. It is already quite difficult to remember how life was when the only regular source of information available was what my school chose to provide. The opportunities that this provides for teachers over the long term are great: online provision can help equip us as individual practitioners with professional information and discourse like never before.

However, I also wonder whether the proliferation of online discussion may also make life more difficult. There is a vast mass of information – far more than is practically possible to sift through given the demands of the day-job. And while looking outside ourselves is an essential process, it may also divert our attention from what, in my opinion, is the ultimate source of our professionalism – our inner selves. I will return to this in my next post.

So I find myself wondering what this online Tower of Babel can actually achieve. Is it yet another virtual experience that promises much but delivers much less? The world of edu-blogging is overflowing with people expounding their own diverse theories and opinions on what makes education tick. And yet, is it really moving us any further forward?

I have a stronger sense, now, that there is a subset of the educational world that is busy looking for ‘The Answer’ – and probably putting a lot of faith in the fact that the online world will form the means of, if not its discovery, then at least its dissemination. They seem to see teaching principally as a technical activity, one discoverable through the methods of science; it’s useful to know they are there – but difficult to see how they will ever convince one like me whose conception of the teaching and learning process starts from a fundamentally different place.

For all that I genuinely sympathise with the concerns of some that ‘evidence’ will inoculate us against future outbreaks of cargo-cult education, I think it is a false hope. For evidence of any type to have currency, it needs to be universalisable – and I just don’t think that is possible in education. To begin with, this needs there to exist a consensus over what we are seeking to achieve, that simply doesn’t – and can’t – exist.

While many have sought to define educational outcomes in terms of exams, the reality is that exams are not the purpose of Life – and nor therefore, of education. They are nothing other than a proxy measure for a process undergone – and some would say a pretty poor one at that. However much one argues otherwise, the inescapable truth is that exams are a human construct, while the cognitive effects of real education are not. Yet alternative definitions inevitably end up so ill-defined as to be useless except in the most philosophical of senses.

Secondly, the effect of evidence needs to be both demonstrable and repeatedly replicable – neither of which is remotely easy in the educational arena. Finally, ‘success’ depends on being able to define both the criteria and the time-frame with which it supposedly works. Not only are such criteria not universally accepted, but neither is the time frame. Education is a process with a life-long duration and effect – and therefore it is arguably pointless trying to ascertain its full effect except after the end of someone’s life. This is why obituaries are so instructive! Furthermore, the complexity and interaction of circumstance that contributes to the trajectory of an individual life is so vast, that it is probably impossible to isolate the specific impact of any one factor within it. Thus, while it may therefore be understandable that some have tried to reduce educational outcomes to smaller, more tangible criteria, this does not in itself lend that decision any existential validity.

Over the eighteen months that I have been following the blogosphere (admittedly a short period in the greater scheme of things), my impression is that we have moved  forward not one iota. Yet I don’t see this as a failure – merely evidence of the true nature of education – that despite the best public efforts of so many, we have not increased the overall consensus one jot.

Using the online community to try to pin down what works in education is doomed to failure; not one of the posts, documents or websites that I have seen has done anything whatsoever to shift my own take on education away from where it was already heading. This is not to say that they have not been informative or persuasive, or that I have not made certain changes as a result – my mind is not that closed! – but all of those things were inevitably mediated through my own pre-existing understanding of what education is. And that is without considering the significant impact of confirmation bias. Even where changes were implemented, the effects were imponderable to say the least – let alone universalisable in the way ‘proof’ needs to be.

None of the in-depth studies discussed on the more technical blogs has succeeded in doing any more than reinforcing  its own internal logic – but this is a very different matter from producing universal educational truths. One only has to disagree with their initial premises, assumptions and controls for the whole house of cards to collapse.

The point is, I don’t think it can ever be any otherwise. Education simply does not have the same levels of objective ‘truth’ as found in, for example curative medicine, let alone the concrete product-definition of the commercial world. Education is fundamentally a speculative and abstract undertaking – and one that is so diverse as to be impossible to generalise about, beyond the already-obvious matters of technical good practice that are widely known.  Unlike, say, the process of healing an illness, selling a product or perhaps resolving a legal dispute, in education there is not – and cannot be – an independent, universal definition of ‘success’.

Wishing it otherwise will not change that. Even in the somewhat more definable matter of psychological cause-and-effect, the factors are too complex ever to possess useable certainty. The human mind is just too cussed to submit to such a degree of predictability, and even the most carefully set up classroom procedure can be instantly wrecked by a power failure or the appearance of a wasp in the classroom. Try devising a theory to deal with that!

I am not, however, suggesting that the edu-blogosphere is useless – far from it. But its function is more that of a democratic professional clearing house, something that was very much needed, where all shades of outlook and experience are admissible. We should accept that the resultant discourse will inevitably be untidy, contradictory and of varying usefulness: that is the unalterable nature of educational debate. It is a truly great resource – but one that if anything amplifies the need of the individual to reflect on their own practice rather than replaces it, that increases the need to filter information, to adopt those things that make sense or seem to work and ignore the rest. And incidentally, it also places increased responsibility on the rest to accept that this will happen, rather than degenerating into factions, something that mercifully has yet to happen.

The blogosphere will never replace the main source of good practice – which is found within each and every individual teacher – with some universal theory of education. I think, therefore, that the tendency of the internet to homogenise opinion needs to be treated with caution: only a small fraction of what we encounter online will be directly applicable to our own situation. In my own case, my aim is simply to advance what I believe to be a credible argument, and hopefully to leave a small legacy of this one professional’s accumulated experience by the time I retire. It is for others to decide what, if anything, they take from it.

To return to my opening quote from Aristotle, the blogosphere makes the scope for individual thought much greater – but the decision to accept or reject a particular proposal still needs to come from our own unique insight. It also requires an acceptance of the diversity of the teaching profession and a high level of professional respect and conduct; regrettably, this is not yet to be found in all schools.

It is this that the blogosphere has real potential to enrich – by giving people access to a much wider spectrum of thought – rather than by hoping to find ‘external’ solutions. If we are expecting it to provide watertight answers, then I would suggest that we ourselves have yet fully to comprehend the true nature and complexity of the undertaking in which we are engaged.

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5 thoughts on “Electronic Babel?

  1. Rather than a tower of babel, I think it’s more like the invention of the printing press. It has been a fascinating experience, and it has certainly made me think! But, like you, I’m not sure if I’ve actually changed my mind about anything significant. However, I feel that I am now confused on a much higher level…

  2. SP – I sometimes wonder whether if you chopped-up these posts, stuck a picture on top and put them on Staffrm.com you would make a killing! It’s something I’m thinking about for my own blogs at present…they are definitely a bit fibre-rich and perhaps need diluting a little (mine – not yours).

    Anyway, I think you are so right in many ways… so much of the social media is people presenting a position they want to defend, then either retreating into hostile defense mode or incredibly politely ‘entertaining’ other opinions as they slipperly force their way back to their own opinion.

    I have no doubt that I try the same as the last point – (am I doing it now..?) but I do think that there IS potential for some changes of opinion and evolution of the intellectual perspective. I’ve noticed that over 95% of views of my posts don’t result in any response of any sort. Now, this is probably largely because they want a good quote to support what they already believe, but I also believe that there are a significant number of people looking for evidence to sway their opinion one way or another (I do that myself). I like to think that I’ve played an invisible role in that respect. (I’m desperate to believe that – don’t dispel my fantasies!)

    Additionally though, people like David Didau are examples of people quite publicly changing their mind – and I might well do that myself. I’ve already been an ardant ‘ed-tech – 21st C skills’ person who now is fairly more orientated to the traditional mindset. But in my heart I feel there is something more nuanced which people are missing.

    My big concern isn’t that people won’t change where they are – the constant influx of new people into the profession always allows for a change of general opinion – it is that there is clearly a historical pendulum swing which could just be repeated if we don’t learn to see things from a more embracing perspective.

    Perhaps though, the new problems we’re facing with the blogosphere are that:
    a) there is just too much noise for us to wisely sift through the evidence (although evolution has a way of allowing the cream to the top)
    b) once every one of us has had a chance to PUBLICLY express their opinions, it makes it that bit harder for people to change them minds. We’re funny that way…

    • Ok – it should have started ‘TP’ instead of ‘SP’ (I had you as ‘Speaking Personally’ in my head). Also as ‘their’ minds on the last line.

      Also… I could probably easily contradict all the opinions a week or two down the line… Ho hum…

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