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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Education is a Science and not a Social Science

The Paradigm Shift in education is to now take the science seriously. Not surprisingly each and every one of us holds an understanding of learning occurs. After all, learning is so familiar to us. Each and every one of us has benefited from learning. Our confidence in the educative process learning have given us the confidence to traverse the plains, build political systems, develop quantum mechanics and form social relationships. We are, without question, ‘learners’.

So confident are we in our understanding of learning that very few of us have ever questioned it. I suspect our confidence has been conducive for the survival of the species – after all, efficacy has pushed us far beyond the animal kingdom. But we are still, in spite of our intuitions, animals; we are still bound by our biology, which can be reduced to well-understood chemical processes governed by the laws of physics. We are, after all, carbon based processing systems. Such is the Naturalistic worldview. Education and the concepts inherent are not exempt from this. Of course, our intuition that our intellect and rational capacities have somehow transcended our biological constraints is misguided. I would even go as far as to say it only appears to us in this manner insofar as it enhances our efficacy. But that’s a story for another day.

What John Hatties Visible Learning (2009) starts is a confrontation between our intuitions about learning and the evidence from research. This research is a great starting point to begin with the paradigmatic shift in educational research, but the implications are more pragmatic than theoretical. From this starting point, the most important question is – why are the results like this? Of course, if our intuitions have been deeply shattered by the results, then we need not let our intuitions give us the answer to this very important question. From this point is where the pragmatic becomes the theoretical – the why is answered in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Hattie & Yates, 2014).

This book is indicative of the revolution in education and the paradigm shift in educational methodological research. Before I explore this point, I want to make clear that ‘intuitions’ are not necessarily wrong. We are, especially as teachers, incredibly good at predicting student success and understanding the motivations and perceptions of students. Intuitions can often tell us what is happening – rarely can it ever answer why. My contention is that the why better informs the ‘what’ and refines it insofar as it deepens our conceptions and improves our accuracy. As we are carbon based processing systems, quite often we revert to intuitive measures in order to conserve energy – a quick fix. We are, after all, bound by the principles of conservation of energy.

There is so much to be written on this point, and I suspect I will write on it at another point in time. For now, my focus is methodology and the paradigm shift as necessitated by Hattie’s Visible Learning research. Henceforth I suspect some views of mine will offend – our inherent humanistic tendencies (once again, biologically driven) shy us away from the naturalistic perspective; quite often I have heard the sentiments that science de-humanises students. Once again, we have to ask ourselves what is true and what we are willing to compromise in order to achieve an understanding of it.

Education has been so prevalent in the tradition of social science and inseparable from the post-modern and humanistic movements in philosophy that it has become sceptical of claims to truth. In this post-modern slumber, where truths are relativised to context and claims of truth are deemed oppressive, no progress has been made in understanding learning in any fundamental way. Of course, it has informed the ‘what’, but it has never (and can never) answer the ‘why’. This is for methodological reasons, and whilst the philosophers can divide amongst themselves which categories of thought they belong to, real work can be made (and has already been made) using the methodology that is epistemologically concerned with truth: science.

Much of what we contemplate in education is inseparable from the philosophy of mind. All movements in education have, in some way, been built on the predominant theories of mind. Only recently have we made considerable progress in understanding learning using the scientific methodology – thus only since recently have we begun to dismantle much of the prevailing wisdom contemplated and disseminated through the social sciences. Teaching too has not been exempt from this. Consequently, teaching too is not exempt from the dismantling – such is the counter-intuitive nature of Hattie’s effect sizes from evidence based research.

If we start from intuition, we start from what is most familiar to us. Learning in this way can be as elucidatory as it can be vague – we can understand learning as gaining a mental grasp of information; making sense of a subject; using skills or knowledge to enhance what we were already capable of doing; taking ownership of knowledge or skills etc. Of course there are many more, but the point is this: any quick Google search will generally only tell you what learning feels like intuitively. Even these ideas use the language of our intuition – mind not brain; knowledge not neural pathways; skills not automaticity; ownership not efficacy. For the most part, these understandings are how we operate as teachers. It is these vague definitions by which may motivate pedagogical beliefs and influence day to day interactions with students and those involved in the educative process. But are these true? What I mean is… do our intuitions grasp reality in any deep sense? I believe not – they are a product of a process which only science can disclose. Before I stated that we are all carbon based processing systems; if we are to take Hattie’s research seriously we must also take naturalism seriously and think through the implications for the profession and our beliefs about education. It is time to start seeing learners and learning as science reveals: brains not minds; neural pathways not knowledge; automaticity not skill; efficacy not ownership.  Once again, our intuitions do not grasp reality but are a product of it. Only a naturalistic framework can provide us with this starting point. If this has not been enough to convince, let me use an example from Hattie’s research.

Counter to our intuitions about student learning, students don’t want to actually think. This provocative research not only pulls the rug from under our feet but (intuitively) feels at odds with our perceptions of learners. After all – we are so confident in our understanding of thinking and its association with learning that why at all would we begin to even question it? Unfortunantely for our intuitions, this argument fits in with a tremendous amount of research. I implore you to visit Willinghams blog to check out the research for yourself. But why stop there?

As carbon based processing systems, human beings are resistant to effort and using squandering resources. We are resource-limited animals, and ‘thinking’ uses up resources exponentially more than other ‘thought processes’. Instead, most learning relies on memory. Extending knowledge converts memories through retrieval, refinement and re-storage – this is why prior knowledge has such a profound effect at an intuitive level. Neuroscience has a lot to say about learning, and my point is not to elaborate these details today. I have used this example to show how our intuitions are wrong about how learners learn, even if it appears to be right to both teacher and student. There are deeper processes at work, and these processes can only be understood through scientific research.

My last point I wish to touch on is the importance of both intuitive and naturalistic frameworks in education. Firstly, we cannot disregard the student’s perception of his/her learning. Whilst we know their perceptions can be reduced to physically understood processes, it nevertheless trivialises or subordinates the experiential aspect of learning to the science of learning. Indeed the science gives us a better understanding of what is really going on, but intuitively understood concepts such as learning are just as valid as the physical processes that give rise to them. I believe this idea is also reflective of the current paradigm shift taking place in educational research, though are yet to find any research in this field. Theories of learning and theories of teaching need to be analysed both from the intuitive perspective as well as the naturalistic framework in order to design effective teaching strategies and learning programs that utilise both to enhance learning. I.e. it is no use to the student to know he/she has cells firing in their left ventro-medial amygdala; for them, all they need to know is that they are experiencing frustration. For the teacher, it is of use to understand these deeper concepts. I will keep reiterating this: teaching is applied brain science.

That’s my thoughts for the day.

In future I will explore:

  1. Folk psychology and its effect on education
  2. What science has to say about learning
  3. Eliminativism or reductionism in education?

Jesse Stephens