One should not forget humanity

The following is a guest post from an old friend. Whatever your pedagogical outlook, I think you will see the beauty of the prose and humanity of the argument: 

It was St Augustine who observed, “Wisdom and folly both are like meats that are wholesome and unwholesome, and courtly or simple words are like town-made or rustic vessels.” And lo, one will speak plainly with rustic vessels; vessels shaped to caress the simple mystery that has slipped down the back of the sofa of recent times.

Once, to be a educational traditionalist was a romantic kind of a thing. It was to be a maverick, a lonesome traveler with flowing locks, full of heart, wearisome and hungry who alights at an inn, drinks, eats and tells a fireside tale of the mystery at the heart of creation. It was a humanising call. It was poetry and drunkenness. It was beauty and art carousing with royalty and rascals. It was a screaming cry of disgruntlement at the Moon. And yet this traveler has changed. He is no longer content to be aloof and handsome, alone on the moors, staking a claim to independence like Braveheart or something. The new traveler has come to conquer and tell others what to do, and the orders are clear: One must be effective! One must teach well!

In other words, do what works well, be effective and teach children properly! No other outcomes can be countenanced. To waste time is to waste lives! Yea, this has a superficial, paper-thin appeal for a short time to those with simple minds but let us look at what is lost.

If education is about anything at all then, at heart, it is about meaningless platitudes. The new traveler seeks to take these away, demanding evidence and waving research papers like some geeky little despot with thick-rimmed glasses who probably isn’t very good at sport. The new traveler shrieks that we must not allow children to ever work together, that we must not engage them in conversation, that we must not interact in any way at all but simply lecture them robotically in a monotone for five hours a day. And he has a study to prove why!

Yet education is a really complicated kind of a thing. Let me say that again. Education is really complicated. Have these people never contemplated the nature of cause and effect? How can they have any certainty that one thing might cause another? There is no way to know this because life is intrinsically mysterious and people are complex. Really complex.

This miserly bean-counting, measuring-cylinder-waving, spreadsheet-toting philosophy allows no room for the expression of our own unique humanity on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Huddersfield. Will somebody please think of the teachers? And the children?

We need a broader, more nebulous and unspecific view of things.

Why I quit a bitter Twitter

I have always be fascinated by emergent networks of communication and their attendant new literacies. This is one of the reasons why I have focused on the literacies involved in digital and online communications in my important research into educational supraconnectivities. And so I welcomed the opportunity to engage with fellow educators on the Twitter social network.

It started well. Thoughtful, inspirational ‘tweachers’ would share motivational quotes, discuss elements of their praxis and drop me a line to tell me how influential I had been in building their pedagogies. As someone with expertise to share, I was delighted to be able to lay a marker or plant a sign to signify a pathway that an educator might wish to explore. Soon, however, I met another kind of Twitter being who didn’t seem to have a deep understanding of education like I do.

Much as I would try to redirect these people – who I can only refer to as ‘trolls’ – towards considering their ontologies or reflecting upon their own praxis, they kept returning to the same, sad polarisations that dominate the topography of their imaginaries. I know of nobody – nobody  – who in any way supports or justifies any aspect of learning styles theories. And even if I did then who is to say that it is all nonsense? Children certainly do express preferences for how they learn.

And I know of nobody – nobody – who in any way devalues the role of knowledge in education. But even if I did then I think we would all have to reflect upon the idea that, in an age where knowledge is available at the click of a mouse, the rote memorisation of facts is nowhere near as important as the ability to critically evaluate sources of information.

It is simplistic to dichotomise everything into phonics versus whole language or student-led learning versus direct instruction. Sensible people who contemplate these matters know that it is critical to have a balance. Teaching of literacy requires students to have authentic experiences with real, extant and tangible books but phonics also has an occasional role, perhaps when discussing the sound of the start of a word or when children are first exposed to rhyme. And of course, brief direct instruction has a function in a genuinely student-centered classroom, often after children have struggled with a concept for an extended time by themselves.

Above all, we cannot impose a standardised approach on teachers. What works in one school may not work in another. Teachers need to be trusted to exercise their professionalism and listen to experts like me.

But the Twitter trolls keep banging the same old drum. Even after publicly blocking and muting a number of the worst offenders, it appears that they were still composing Tweets and writing blogs, seemingly oblivious. It’s almost as if they were happy to shut me out of their discourses. I find such exclusionary, in-crowd practices to be deeply troubling.

I have discussed this issue with other experts who tend to share my views and they agree with me. Which I think is significant. Perhaps I just care so much about the future for our children. This would certainly explain why I have sometimes been provoked into Tweeting comments that have then been literally jumped upon in order to fire more accusations in my direction.

And so I have quit Twitter. For a while. At least until I’ve made my point.

There’s no such thing as a teaching method

One of the curious things about the new neoliberal neotraditionalist educational discourse is the need to find a bogeyman to scapegoat and hang out to dry. A popular straw man is constructivist teaching which, of course, doesn’t exist.

Yes, there might be a Wikipedia page and various resources that appear to describe it at some length (e.g. here) but constructivism is not a theory of teaching, it is a theory of learning. I’ve read Vygotsky and I’ve read Piaget. I know.

And of course, the supposed alternative to constructivist teaching approaches, direct instruction, doesn’t exist either. When you read research that is supposedly about direct instruction, you find that the instructors invariably interact with the students in some way. We all know that direct instruction is meant to be a long-winded, authoritarian, monotonous one-way transmission. 

Even if such a form of instruction could be reproduced in a classroom, we would still find students relating what they hear to what they know already rather than being simply filled like empty bottles.

What does this all mean in an ontological, epistemic sense? It means that all of the evidence that clearly demonstrates the superiority of direct instruction over constructivist teaching must be dismissed because neither such thing exists.

Instead, we must focus on pedagogies that honour the learner and the learner’s role in the learning process. Set aside the neoliberal neoauthoritarian rhetoric; learners must be seen as co-constructors of knowledge; as honoured and respected partners in the learning journey.

I encourage teachers to get students to dress-up as great historical figures. If your resources don’t stretch that far in these straightened times then perhaps you could make them wear hats.

A critique of educational discourse

I have been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to my first post. It seems that the time is ripe for an alternative, radical view to agitate against the behemothic establishment of reductive educational discourse. It has made an old campaigner from the critical journals review his ideas on intercourse with the masses through the new media (something about which I understand that the great Tache has had a recent change of heart).


The question less addressed in the current discourse is that of ontology. As Alfred Blaireau-Morts suggested – when developing his perspectivist stance on critical relativism – ontology is the question and epistemology is only one way of answering it (there are others). Even now, and even in the physical sciences, we see that causation has come into question; in a mirror of social theory, physical scientists have discovered that causes cannot exist from outside the “light cone”, a (obviously phallic) notion with allegorical significance.

As social theorists, we make no claim on the physical sciences and their apparent objectivity – save for a briefly amusing foray into the social construct of bias about which there is much hand-wringing. However, if only it were mutual! Inherently objectivist perspectives keep thrusting themselves into the social discourse as if they haven’t been previously evaluated, found inadequate and dismissed.

Denise Petant argued in her recent inaugural lecture at the Institut Gazeux that Ontology has been overlooked in current educational discourse, even by those taking a socially progressive stance such as in the praxis of Freireian pedagogy. This has allowed an ‘effectivist’ discourse to dominate the field where cause and effect are inherently and intrinsically assumed – despite being socially constructed. Petant asks: Effectiveness for what? Effectiveness for whom? Perhaps this effectiveness relates to the reproduction of the bonded masses, unable to question authority and economically exploitable by hegemonic tendencies?

Effectivist Discourse is Socially Constructed

This effectivist discourse has colonised dialectic pertaining to and concerning pedagogy. Where once such discourse pivoted, turned and rotated about the values and ideals that are embodied in the quest to become more human, such ideals and values are dismissed as incongruent with the ill-defined effect that is supposed to be conjured (cause and effect again constraining relations).

In the effectivist discourse, Instruments such as tests and exams are valued over human intercourse; taken to be reality rather than a socially constructed representation of a particularly situated perspective. Mechanistic methods are constructed to define what it means to read rather than anchoring this in the subjective and natural experience of human interaction and understanding. And there are also maths test.

This reductivist stance takes no heed of encounters that are argued to create a higher level of critical humanity, grounded as they are in only discrete and measurable socially constructed outcomes.

There is no pedagogy

Once seen for what it is, the effectivist attempt to colonise the discourse and impose a regressive pedagogy is merely another manifestation of authoritarianism. If there is no absolute social reality, if all is socially constructed, then we as social agents may create our own manifest social reality that reflects the true values and ideals that we really ought to construct. There is no teaching method that can be measured and replicated with predictable outcomes. There are, instead, possibilities.

If there is no such thing as one effectivist pedagogy to be imposed above all others like some form of state religion then we must instead pay attention to questions. We surely must engage our students in their own nascent states of agency in order for them to ask and answer their own questions. With our role as facilitators to this uncovering.

To use an mythological allegory; the Gods of Olympus were all-knowing but they didn’t just tell Jason where the fleece was, did they? No, he had to fight monsters and animated skeletons.

What the “new cognitivists” are missing

One of the issues that prompted me to start writing a blog is that I could no longer sit back and allow an emerging and narrow ‘new cognitivist’ discourse of education to take over in social media. This tendency reduces a rich and complex area to nothing more than a thin set of parameters about the brain in isolation, before extrapolating outwards to the social mission of education as a whole. I feel the need to redress the balance. 

The mind in community 

Firstly, education is concerned with the mind. The brain is a part of the mind but the two are not identical because the mind is a socially situated and, to an extent, socially constructed entity. The mind exists in a place and a space and – critically – within a community of minds. The mind deploys tools borrowed from other minds and rich interactions between minds nourish individual minds. 

Reductivist, positivistic research on individual brains does not take this into account. In fact, it is not possible to investigate the mind in situ and therefore the interactions of collaborating minds, and so the positivistic interpretation determines to measure and quantify the brain in isolation. It is through this narrow lens that conceptualisations such as ‘working memory’ and a vogue for ‘worked examples’ come to the fore, claiming a part of the discourse out of all proportion to their true significance. 

Education as a critical act

Furthermore, a narrow focus on the brain is one that eschews the notion of education as a critical act; as a struggle for meaning and a struggle to become more human. It neglects the powerful discourse around education as a tool for oppression or education as a tool for emancipation and leads us into pedagogies that have been firmly rejected due to their non-critical nature. 

Humans are not brains in isolation and so we cannot fulfil our manifest destiny to become more human by focusing solely on a medicalised, positivistic view of individual brains.

The brain in all its complexity

However, even if we acknowledge and respect the terms of the ‘new cognitivist’ discourse then it seems that within these terms the discussion narrows further. 

I never cease to be amazed at just how little the ‘new cognitivists’  know of the brain, focusing as they do on ‘working memory’.

I have not once, for instance, seen a full discussion of the sensory aspects of learning. Brains not only think; they hear, see, listen, perceive and smell. The ‘new cognitivists’ are silent on these matters, preferring to discuss easily measured yet essentially trivial points such as how many numbers a person may remember for half an hour. 

And what about the role of the glymphatic system? A crucial feature of the mammalian brain, the glymphatic system is strangely absent from ‘new cognitivists’ considerations. How can they claim to know the impact of the brain on learning – itself, a narrow consideration – when they do not even take into account the processes by which the brain clears soluble proteins, waste products and excess extracellular fluid? Indeed, the regeneration of the brain during sleep and the clearance of these waste products is considered a key issue in the laying down of memories. Why is this not considered important, given that memory is critical to learning?

And what of the perception of time; an absolutely vital influence on how we learn? An absence of any discussion of Shatner’s Bassoon – the area of the brain that has been shown to be active in time perception – is notable in the ‘new cognitivist’ discourse.

It is clear that the ‘new cognitivists’ narrow the field and yet do not understand the full complement of what remains. They simply do not have a grasp of their own chosen discourse.  

Not like I do.