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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

A Proper Distinction: Science opposed to Folk Psychology OR Education opposed to Edu-Nonsense

Teaching is applied brain science. We are confronted with two options: apply our intuitive understandings of learning in the classroom OR apply the scientific understanding in the classroom. Of the former there is a wealth of ‘research’. These range from an insurmountable range of products (such as books, Professional Development, university degrees) that fit nicely with our intuitive understanding of learning. The default position of most educators is to work from within this position. Of the latter there is new and exciting research still in its infancy – but there is also a lot of nonsense as a result.

At no point in pre-service teaching were we trained to question theories of teaching and learning. We have not been equipped with the skills necessary to even conceptualise a distinction between what the scientifically validated theories of learning elucidate and the edu-nonsensical ‘validate’. Most educators are probably not even interested in making a distinction – we are time poor, very few of us desire to do research and we trust the ‘experts’ to get it right. To make matters harder, we are often tricked into a false conflation that markets theories of teaching as logically developed and empirically conflated on theories of learning. This ‘based’ on is too often exploited – it’s time we end the conflation of theories of teaching based on theories of learning. If we are to take seriously the idea that theories of teaching must be based on how learners learn, we ought to begin with the science of learning and build our way up.

To begin with, we must interrogate our concepts of teaching and learning. Our ideas about learning are products of brain processes that lead us to oversimplify and or remain na├»ve – once again, the student feels frustrated, he/she does not feel nor have access to cells firing in their left ventro-medial amygdala. If you disagree with this point, just think that if we did have access to these phenomena there would be no need for research and these ideas would not be unintuitive to us. From this perspective we have to throw our whole understanding of learning into question in order to better equip us with understanding the fundamental nature of what is really going on.

Ask yourself – what are three words that describe each picture below?







The first picture might conjure up such notions of curiosity, excitement, happiness, learning, exploring etc. The second may conjure up ‘neural firing’ or ‘brain activity’ or ‘building neural pathways’. Despite an obvious distinction between concepts, we are effectively looking at the same picture. Folk psychology manifests as a distinctly overt biological drive to attribute thoughts/emotions/intentions to other people. This ability to attribute mental states has been conducive to the survival of the species (in line with our naturalistic framework); but in the comforts of modern society where the necessities for survival contrast our most primitive concerns, the determination to attribute mental states to others (making inferences based on our prior experiences) is still our default position and, as teachers are human beings, and humans are constrained by our biological limitations governed by the laws of physics, folk psychology remains rife in the classroom. When talking about the boys gardening, whilst it is sufficient to say they ‘feel’ curious, it is not accurate to say they are. What they are feeling is the innate drive to build on prior knowledge – their sense of ‘curiosity’ manifests as a result of indeterminate neural pathways and the necessity to make sense of what would otherwise remain a nonsensical activity. Whilst there is a wealth of knowledge related to intuitive theories of learning, only the scientific methodology can disclose the truth behind our intuitions.

In discussing education in the broader context of objective truth, we need to be equipped with being able to draw a distinction between sense and nonsense. I have 4 criteria that offer remarkably good ways of dealing with the problem. Firstly, is someone trying to sell you something? Chances are (despite what I see as honest and sincere educators) people are selling you something that appeals to your common sense but nonetheless has little to no credibility – and as pointed out in prior blogs, lead to wasted time, effort and money with little to no changes in classroom practice and student achievement. Which brings me to my second point – does it have predictive success and explanatory power that is measurable? Thirdly, whatever the theory of teaching or learning may be - is it falsifiable? That it so say, the strength of the scientific method lay not in the ability to prove an idea correct, but the inability to prove it wrong (herein lies the strength of the scientific method). Lastly, if the concept has predictive success and explanatory power but nonetheless has no objective existence, then what empirically verified processes can it be reduced to? Whether we are talking about folk psychological concepts such as referred to above, or intuitive based concepts around learning, we need to interrogate them and reduce them to scientifically validated principles in order to be able to talk about them in more accurate and pertinent ways.

Something such as ‘the Zone of Proximal Development’ has an entrenched existence in educational discourse. Firstly, are people selling us this concept? YES. Many people/programs/theories market themselves on this theory and make money validating their claims and products on this concept. Does it have predictive success and explanatory power? YES, it is instrumentally useful in analysing student’s prior knowledge and making informed judgements about where to take students next. Is it falsifiable? YES because the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ does not exist in itself; it only approximately refers to something more fundamental. Does it need reduction? YES, the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ needs reduction to more fundamental processes in order for us to understand it better. There is no doubt it approximates something and guides us in the right direction, but once again, the intuitive nature of the theory needs reducing to a naturalistic framework that is guided by the biological, chemical and physical processes that govern everything from the quantum to the cosmological.

Thought for the day.

Jesse Stephens


For research on understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience see:

Pigliucci, M, 2010 Nonsense of Stilts: How to tell Science from Bunk

Kuhn, T. The Nature of Scientific Revolutions (on paradigm shifts)

Popper, Karl, 1963. Conjectures and Refutations (on falsifiability and demarcation)

For Research on Reductionism and Folk Psychology see:

Any work by Patricia and Paul Churchland on Eliminativism and Folk Psychology

Any suggestions are welcome.