The Plural Of Anecdote

“The plural of anecdote is not data” has become a ubiquitous catch-cry whenever a particular social, political or educational trend is being posited by means of I-just-heard or my-mate-told-me parables. Of course, the principle behind the phrase is a sound one. And yet I have profound doubts about its use in matters where proper data, for various reasons, is hard to gather. It can easily become simply a more scientific-sounding version of “nothing to see here, move along”.

Take, for instance, the issue of what is taught in initial teacher education courses.

There is a view, to which I largely subscribe, that most ITE courses do not train prospective teachers properly in the fundamentals of reading instruction. That they give them unhelpful and indeed absurd advice on classroom management and behaviour. And furthermore, that these courses offer prospective teachers a great deal of tendentious ideology instead of practical advice on effective teaching.

When such a view is expressed, on social media or elsewhere, it inevitably receives a backlash of the “anecdote is not data” variety. In some recent Twitter exchanges, the first point in particular has been denounced as “shaming” of academics (makes a change from certain academics shaming teachers and schools, I suppose).

And yet, as should be obvious on reflection, it is hard to establish just what is taught in ITE courses without questioning the students themselves. This is certainly the method that I have used over the last twenty years, ever since my own Dip.Ed., which largely formed my view as expressed above.

And every single prac student and first-year-out teacher that I have met since then has confirmed this view. Every single one.

Here is the latest, particularly damning, “anecdote” from among the hundreds if not thousands that I have accumulated over the years.

Yesterday, I caught up with a recent ex-student who, to my great delight, has decided to undertake a B.Ed. with a view to becoming a language teacher. After we exchanged various bits of news, I asked her how the education course was going. She is in her first semester, and so it is the plenary, introductory course that we were talking about. I will not name the tertiary institution involved.

“It all pretty much seems to be Henry Giroux,” she said.

Since most readers of this blog will probably be teachers or those with an interest in education, I will assume that this name needs no introduction.

A figure with, let us be honest, extreme and eccentric views is apparently the central figure in an introductory course for undergraduates who are training to be teachers, not revolutionaries (well, not necessarily, anyway).

The plural of anecdote may not be data. But how many such anecdotes are needed before we are able to draw the obvious conclusion that ideology trumps practicality every time in so many tertiary education faculties?

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You Don’t Have To Be Einstein

A really comically bad article recently appeared on the TES website, which currently appears to be on a precipitous descent into outright self-satire. Mr. Hammond’s drivel doesn’t deserve a proper analysis, but there is a small point arising which ought to be mentioned:

Einstein said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Well, actually, no, he didn’t.

A week earlier, one of education’s silliest memes got its monthly outing, producing the predictable barrage of likes from the usual suspects. Again, the Einstein quote in question is spurious.

What is it about poor old Albert that has everyone perpetually putting words into his mouth?

Einstein is the perfect icon for the progressivists, for a few good (or bad) reasons. Firstly, he was undoubtedly something of a rebel, both intellectually and morally. And of course, according to the magical thinking of the Sir Kennites, a rebel who was a scientific genius proves that if a child rebels, there must be a genius lurking inside that child somewhere.

Then there’s the ongoing myth that Einstein’s talents went unrecognised at school, or even that he “failed maths”, etc. We all know the usual tropes. Sadly, almost none of them are true, and those that are half-true had more to do with his unfamiliarity with certain languages than any lack of mathematical understanding. But again, the magical thinking has it that failing a subject simply means that a student’s uniquely creative take on it has been cruelly ignored. Every child is an Einstein, after all.

Finally, there are Einstein’s own views; he was apparently deeply opposed to rote learning. But he would hardly be the first or the last great scientist or creative artist to have decried their own hard-won learning late in life out of a sense of spite; Einstein’s great friend Emanuel Lasker (a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and chess champion) said similar things, as did the great poet and translator Robert Graves, whose masterwork The Greek Myths drew partly on what he had learned…at school.

And as anyone who has read his later work knows, Graves was capable of writing a good deal of utter nonsense when dealing with matters outside of his area of expertise. Such as, well, education.

Everyone loves a rebel outlier. But the mistake that so many people make is to assume, firstly, that such a person’s views are of value on every topic, rather than within their own area of specialized knowledge; and secondly, that their sorts of qualities lie dormant in every child, and even more so if the child happens to be a rebel, or “labelled a failure” at school.

And it would help if people double-checked the quotes attributed to such people, too.

The Worst Of Both Worlds – update #5

Hardly a week goes by without another opinion piece which manages to combine the clichés of the individualist tendency in education with the tedious pseudo-leftist nostrums of the progressivists. The latest example of the genre comes from the patron saint of the whole worst-of-both-worlds movement, the egregious St. Ken.

Let us deal with sundry little matters arising from the article first. The very first sentence of the piece should detract from the credibility of anything that follows:

We are all born with fathomless capacities, but what we make of them has everything to do with education.

Straight away, then, we have an airy dismissal of any role for heredity (flat-out wrong), and a deeply Sir Kennish invitation to his readers to assign any lack of success on their part to the failure of teachers and schools to nurture their spectacular talents (misguided and dangerous).

Learning is acquiring new skills and understanding…

The refusal to use the word “knowledge” is very telling indeed.

Mustn’t forget the obligatory climate change virtue-signal:

The trouble is that, in the past 300 years, we have created civilisations that have dislocated our relationships with the natural environment and that now imperil our survival as a species.

Wouldn’t be particularly trendy to point out that during this time (and due to the developments he decries) untold millions have been dragged out of poverty, countless diseases have been eradicated, and individual lives have been enriched in innumerable ways. Sir Ken knows the gallery he’s playing to.

And now for the name-dropping:

Several years ago, I moderated an event with the Dalai Lama.

Did you really? Congratulations!

At one point he was asked a question. He paused for a long time and then said, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. What do you think?”

One of the world’s great teachers was perfectly happy to say, “I don’t know.” He knew that no one grasps more than a few tiny threads of the dense fabric of human knowledge.

This distinctly juvenile passage, which is pointedly reminiscent of a famous TED talk parody, carries the usual implication that there is no difference between wrestling with profound existential questions and knowing one’s times tables, or the second law of thermodynamics. An elision of the distinction between foundational knowledge on the one hand, and complex issues which stand at the intersection between knowledge, belief and individual experience on the other, in fact.

There are a dozen other things worth focusing on in the article, but let us get on to the main point. Throughout the article, Sir Ken harps on the idea of “collaboration” as a crucial skill of our time; there are no fewer than seven appearances of “collaboration/collaborative” in the piece. But then we come to the final paragraph:

The movement towards personalisation is already advancing in medicine. We must move quickly in that direction in education, too.

Wait…what?!

So we must move towards a more “collaborative” (and “organic”, if you please) conception of education, and this is to be achieved through…greater personalisation? Is he really not aware of the cognitive dissonance at play here?

Perhaps it is worth reflecting for a moment on what constitutes effective, respectful and lasting collaboration, in any context. I think it’s fair to include the following prerequisites: respect for others’ opinions and suggestions (which involves speaking in turn, and waiting one’s turn), respect for individuals’ expertise in a particular area, the capacity to concentrate on a particular task for a reasonable amount of time, and the capacity to temper one’s own ego in the interests of a shared purpose.

I would simply ask: what better way is there to inculcate these qualities than in a traditional classroom situation?

When the time comes for young people to collaborate in a genuinely fruitful way, as we all hope they will do, the ones who will do so to best effect are those who have both gained the requisite expertise and domain knowledge through study and effort, and can show the combination of confidence, politeness and due deference which every good teacher seeks to nurture.

The Worst of Both Worlds – update #4

The “soft skills” rhetoric of recent times, which has had so much influence on policy documents such as the lamentable Gonski review, had another brief airing in a recent article from the Forbes website. Very significantly, it features no input from anyone in the education world, apart from one of the new breed of college presidents who are CEOs first, accountants second and educational leaders a poor third.

Although the piece belongs firmly in the “I read it so you don’t have to” category, it does deserve (if that is the right word) a step-by-step analysis.

Soft skills—like awareness, curiosity and the ability to connect—refer to personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

Already here we have a problem, since the word attributes implies a personal disposition rather than the mastered procedural knowledge which constitutes a “skill” if anything does.

[The] name [soft skills] suggests these skills are a cinch to obtain and maintain.

No. The main point is that they are easy to fake, and this is at the heart of the current mania for them. Entrepreneurs who want to position themselves as caring, new-breed types far removed from red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism have the perfect means at their disposal these days: mouthing platitudes about “collaboration”, “empathy”, “creative thinking” and all the rest. Counterfeiting these qualities in public while operating as entrepreneurs have always operated behind closed doors is the easiest thing in the world, and a perfect marketing ploy.

And the “soft skills” tropes are marketing ploys. Neither more nor less.

And those who find a way to combine their hard skills with soft skills create environments that empower and ignite their teams, delight their customers and fuel sustainable growth.

Allow me to translate:

And those who find a way to exploit others’ hard skills while flaunting their own supposed soft skills are able to make themselves a lot of money while ensuring they remain heroes of the trendy press and social media.

On we go:

Each of these leaders openly touts soft skills as crucial to their success.

Exactly. Touts (a perfectly-chosen word there, by the way), not uses. Again: it is a marketing ploy.

Not surprisingly, they also search for evidence of these powerful traits when hiring new team members.

Shades of the tiresomely common argument that such phrases are starting to occur more frequently in job advertisements, for tech firms in particular, and therefore teachers and schools should pay more attention to them. How do we know these qualities are actually sought after, particularly for the more menial roles in such companies?

Again: it is a marketing ploy. Anyone who doubts this should consider the truly emetic final paragraph, and ask themselves whether it sounds suspiciously like the latest advertisement they have heard for some bottom-line insurance company or exploitative supermarket chain:

And by regularly practicing these interpersonal skills, they inject humanity back into business and put people first.

The “soft skills” talk is a marketing ploy. Those in the education world who are seduced by it when dealing with serious curriculum matters should be ashamed of themselves.

The Hidden Meaning of ‘Hidden Curriculum’

Bang on time. Following my recent post dealing partly with the distinction between educational philosophy and pedagogical methods, an associate professor of education (who else?) has managed to confuse the two spectacularly.

In comments appended to an excellent article on the Conversation website dealing with the principles of explicit instruction, a certain Scott Webster can be seen droning on about explicit instruction as a form of “indoctrination”, as promoting “apathy, conformity and docility”, and sundry other predictable dribble.

That such an obvious category error is being made, at length, by an associate professor is another sorry reflection of the state of education as an academic discipline these days. But let us focus for a moment on this still enormously trendy notion of the “hidden curriculum” (or “hidden ideological purpose” as Ass. Prof. Webster describes it), the idea that education is still rife with implicit ideological messages to students.

There was a time, certainly, when this notion had a certain explanatory power. An essay which all prospective teachers would do well to read is George Orwell’s Such, Such Were The Joys, which describes the ways in which the scions of British imperialism were imbued with the values of Empire and the countless petty snobberies of pre-war Britain. (Although it is worth nothing that Orwell was referring chiefly to the overall school culture and the choice of teaching material, not its method of delivery.) No-one of sense would want to return to such an educational system. The hilarious first few chapters of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall offer another good illustration of it.

And yet so many in the world of education academia these days cultivate the absurd fiction that nothing has really changed, that we are still somehow grooming innocent children to be slaves of whatever “neoliberalism” happens to mean this month. Fittingly, the go-to man for justifications of this juvenile argument is the venerable Professor Chomsky. I say “fittingly” because it’s very much a colourless green idea, but it certainly isn’t sleeping, furiously or otherwise.

During my own Dip.Ed., even my callow 21-year-old self could tell pretty quickly that the few examples adduced to support the idea that this “hidden curriculum” was still rampant in contemporary education were either trivial, decontextualized, misrepresented, or related to tiny and insignificant pockets of the curriculum. The concept had zero continuing relevance and zero explanatory power.

It took me rather longer, many years, in fact, to realise why the idea of a hidden curriculum still commands so much traction. This doesn’t say much for my perspicacity, because it is actually fairly obvious: implying that all forms of education, and even all pedagogical methods, are ideological provides a perfect pretext for overt, explicit politicization of the curriculum. And that is exactly what a large number of Ed academics, and quite a few teachers as well, would like to see.

Philosophy vs. Practice

In a recent Twitter exchange, the British education academic Rupert Higham made the important point that there is a distinction between a professed educational philosophy and a preferred pedagogical method. Despite this, I believe the two are closely related in the case of most overarching educational philosophies; in my own experience, however, there is one important and instructive exception.

I’m still happy enough with my four basic approaches to the teleology of education, even if they exist on a spectrum rather than a straight line. An educational humanist, in most cases, will be inclined towards direct instruction and the investment of authority in the teacher. The reason for this is simple enough; the transmission of the finest fruits of human intellectual achievement demands genuine expertise on the part of the teacher, which in turn invests teachers with merited authority, a crucial prerequisite.

The educational instrumentalists tend to favour direct instruction as well, but for a different reason: it is usually the most effective means of developing knowledge and skills (or procedural knowledge, if you like) quickly.

The libertarians, naturally enough, ordinarily advocate constructivist methods of teaching, without much teacher talk or hierarchical arrangement of knowledge except as determined by the student. Although some professed humanists will also favour such an approach, I would argue that it is doubtful that the aims of humanism are best served by an approach which often entails a quite cavalier approach to the acquisition of knowledge.

It is with the social justice/activist philosophy that I have often seen cognitive dissonances arise. One of the central contentions of the Paulo Freire/Henri Giroux disciples is that arbitrary forms of authority, and societal power relations in general, should be critically examined and challenged. Reasonable enough. But this must logically include (up to a point) teacher authority, which suggests that a constructivist approach would be the best fit.

There is a problem, though: in practice, if perhaps not in theory, most of the education-as-activism adherents are looking to guide their students towards a particular political point of view. Since a genuinely constructivist approach could see students coming to many different conclusions on important issues, most such teachers that I have encountered actually adopt quite an authoritarian, rather than authoritative, stance in the classroom.

But, for the reasons mentioned above, they often seem to feel guilty about it.

I have come to believe that for such teachers, the best way to resolve the dilemma is to broaden their definition of “social justice”, which is a rather woolly term at the best of times. Providing any of society’s children who happen to be in one’s care with the requisite expertise, patience, consideration and pedagogical skill is still the best, and most just (in the full sense of that word) thing that teachers can do.

Education Is Not Medicine – update

There has been quite a bit of talk on Australian edutwitter in the last few days about an article on the AARE website which sought to downplay the value of “gold-standard” RCT research.

In the initial few paragraphs of the article, I found myself broadly in agreement with it:

In education, though, students are very different from each other. Unlike those administering placebos and real drugs in a medical trial, teachers know if they are delivering an intervention. Students know they are getting one thing or another. The person assessing the situation knows an intervention has taken place. Constructing a reliable educational randomised controlled trial is highly problematic and open to bias.

Indeed. I have thought so for some time. Sadly, below the metaphorical fold, the piece descends into utter self-satire, with talk of “phallic teachers” and calls for all forms of evidence to be treated equally. Professor Pamela Snow has produced a typically thorough dissection of all the problems with the article, and Greg Ashman has had his say as well.

There is a strange cognitive dissonance at work in this and similar recent complaints from the Ed establishment. Are there any other teachers out there who remember a time not so long ago when many of these very same academics, far from celebrating “teacher agency”, were aggressively pushing the idea of ongoing professional development, the need to stay abreast of research (or at least their research), etc.? Hands up. Do I see a dozen? A few dozen? Thought so.

And now, are there any other teachers who have noticed a gradual but quite perceptible decline, over the past ten years, in the appearances of academics-pushing-new-fads at staff development days? It may just be my own experience, but other teachers of my acquaintance have commented on this.

My suspicion – and it is only that – is that teachers and even senior executive are finally getting fed up with being told things which are so at odds with their everyday experiences.

Perhaps in the wake of this, John Hattie has become something of a pin-cushion figure for the progressivists. But if they were opposed to “gurus” per se, I do wonder where they were in the days of learning styles, multiple intelligences, Brain Gym and all the rest of the junk being trumpeted as “evidence-based” in recent decades.

But let us return, for a moment, to the analogy with medicine.

Imagine that doctors were forced to sit regularly through sessions in which someone not in practice as a doctor regaled them with wonderful new panacea theories like patient mindset (“the research has demonstrated…”), multiple wellness (“studies have shown…”) and Stomach Gym (“evidence-based…”). This person would, I hope, be laughed off the podium. And if such people were considered representative of research in the area of medicine, doctors would look elsewhere for professional development.

And this, I think, is what is at long last in the process of happening in education. With education researchers (I use the term broadly) so frequently peddling drivel, those teachers who are genuinely interested in deepening their understanding of the process of teaching and learning have turned to fields such as cognitive psychology, applied linguistics and statistical analysis instead. And they have found that these fields have plenty to offer them.

All of which should give researchers in the still somewhat loosely-bounded field of education cause to re-assess the state of their discipline a little.