Beyond ideology: Can education move beyond the traditionalist vs progressive ‘debate’?

Education is now in crisis (and in one sense that’s a good thing)

Thomas Kuhn proposed that science periodically evolved through dramatic paradigm shifts. All scientific theories are open to refinement / revolution but the process isn’t continuous. When anomalies (e.g. from empirical evidence) are small enough to comfortably ignore the ‘ruling theory’ survives more-or-less unchallenged. However, where anomalies accrue sufficiently, ignoring them ceases to be the comfortable option. This prompts a ‘crisis’, where affiliations to the accepted world-view are over-thrown and replaced with a new theory (which eventually forms a new consensus).

This appears to describe some of what is happening in education currently – a welcome crisis. The constructivist approach to learning was (more-or-less) the accepted paradigm – certainly accepted sufficiently that the regulator insisted on seeing in in lessons. However, the evidence supporting the efficacy of the constructivist approach has come under significant scrutiny – as empirical studies suggesting that minimally guided instruction can be ineffective have gained more attention. However, teachers appear to have responded to this crisis by lining upon ideological lines and the debate has become more divisive than it needs to be.

Geary, DC (2007) Educating the Evolved Mind: Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology. Psychological Perspectives on Contemporary Educational Issues

In a long, but interesting paper, David Geary recognises that the division in the education debate has formed up along ideological lines. Of progressives he says:

“At one extreme is a child-centered approach, whereby adults should come to understand how children learn and then construct educational goals and instructional methods around children’s learning biases.”

Of traditionalists:

“At the other extreme is the assumption that adults should decide the content to be taught in schools, and an accompanying assumption that the methods by which this content is taught should be based on experimental studies of learning, often without much consideration of children’s preferences.”

Like all labels, most people who consider themselves progressives or traditionalists will likely reject the description – but more important is the nature of the division, Geary says;

“In fact, the history of education in the United States might be viewed as being more strongly driven by ideology and untested assumptions about children’s learning than by concerns about the efficacy of schooling vis-à-vis the long-term social and employment interests of children. …
“These ideological debates and the attendant opportunity costs to children’s educational outcomes and later employment opportunities will continue well into the 21st century, if current attempts to move the field of education to a more solid scientific footing are not successful.”

So … a plague upon both your houses! The question is; can we move beyond tired ideological labels in the debate about ‘what works’ in education?

Primary and Secondary Biological Learning
Geary proposes that we need to talk about education in a different way if we are to move on. He suggests an evolutionary approach might serve as common ground.
As part of an exploration of this approach he proposes we consider the sheer complexity involved in teaching.

“To fully appreciate the enormity of the task of educating millions of children, it is helpful to contrast the abilities and forms of knowledge the human brain is biologically primed to learn and those abilities and forms of knowledge without this advantage but that are needed for successful living in the modern world. The former are termed biologically primary and the culture-specific skills that can be built from these are termed biologically secondary.”

Biologically primary forms of learning are things like ‘folk knowledge’ (e.g. inferential biases, e.g. attribution bias or confirmation bias) and ‘primary abilities’ (e.g. language acquisition, development of spatial awareness and basic motor skills). These tend to be arise innately, are learnt rapidly and don’t need to be taught, as these capabilities have adaptive value (i.e. they help with survival and reproduction). They develop because ‘mental modules’ – areas of the brain somewhat specialised to a function – have evolved to support these abilities.

Biological secondary learning involves culture-specific learning, which modifies these primary abilities. Mathematics is one example he develops in detail – though we possess a fairly simple ‘sense of number’ through primary cognitive abilities, there is an enormous amount of secondary learning required to become functionally numerate (let alone a decent mathematician).

“The development of base-10 knowledge thus requires the extension of primary number knowledge to very large numbers; the organization of these number representations in ways that differ conceptually from primary knowledge; and, the learning of procedural rules for applying this new knowledge to the secondary domain of complex, mathematical arithmetic (e.g., to solve 234+697).”

His proposal for a ‘evolutionary educational psychology’ calls for a study of how the tools of the mind that have evolved over millions of years to help survival influence the learning of culturally-relevant knowledge in the modern age.

It’s a long article – and roams through theories of knowledge construction and transmission (Geary sees a role for both in different contexts), motivation and occupational interests, the evolution of intelligence, neuroplasticity, the acquisition of reading and writing, and lots more! To summarise (very simplistically) we are born with much the same basic cognitive abilities as Neolithic man, but culture has built enormously upon those foundations. The question is, how do those foundations affect the way we learn culturally relevant knowledge and skills?

I think his framework has merit. As someone with a psychology background, I often say that when it comes to teaching, psychology provides few clear answers – but it does provide a good framework for asking better questions. Geary suggests that by understanding the primary systems available to support learning and mapping the routes from primary to secondary learning, we might have a foundation for education based not on anecdote and ideology, but a genuine evidence-based discipline.

Evaluating Geary’s framework
Kuhn suggested that psychology was not yet a scientific discipline – he thought it was a ‘pre-science’. He pointed to the variety of competing psychological perspectives within the discipline and argued that psychology had not yet settled upon a paradigm in the way the natural sciences have done. Whether or not that label is accurate for modern psychology is worthy of debate – (I think we’re no worse off than physics for having to operate between multiple explanatory frameworks, c.f. quantum vs relativistic theories) – but for education, I think it is true. Pedagogy is a pre-science – when it’s not being a pseudoscience – there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to hold a singular and consistent view on ‘how children learn’ (across all age groups, across all subjects, across all situations). Therefore, a general framework within which to assemble empirical findings about learning – free of ideological labels – might hold some genuine utility for the profession.

My main concern is that evolutionary approaches are especially prone to inviting pseudoscientific analysis. It’s easy to speculate how this-or-that ability might have served an adaptive function in our evolutionary past – it’s another to come up with strong empirical evidence to support that function. Geary’s article doesn’t overstep that mark, in my view. However, it’s easy to imagine how evolutionary theories might fall into the hands of the unscrupulous or the over-eager (I’m thinking of NLP and neuroscience research).

I suppose the second criticism is that Geary wants education to move on from ideological positions – to examine the evidence for what it says, not whether it supports a progressive or traditional viewpoint. I sympathise – and would prefer it if teachers could reject the bogus certainty of ideology and embrace the authentic doubt offered by science. However, I suspect that whilst education remains a political debate, ideology will always have a foothold. It is hard to see how a resolution of the ‘purpose’ of education can be resolved by science – and as such, what we do in the classroom will always be vulnerable to the Marxist and the libertarian, the sociologist and the philosopher, the progressive and the traditionalist. I guess we’ll see whether teachers are able to move beyond ideological labels and adopt more scientific ways of reasoning about teaching and learning as the ‘dust settles’ from this current crisis.

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3 Responses to Beyond ideology: Can education move beyond the traditionalist vs progressive ‘debate’?

  1. Pingback: What can we learn from the failure of minimally guided instruction? | Evidence into practice @ Turnford

  2. Pingback: What skills are worth teaching? |

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