Style v. Substance – or, How Would We Know?

Having just spent a few weeks in lectures, workshop sessions, and all other manner of professional development, I’m left with a lot of epistemological questions. I imagine the organizers of the events – two separate conferences, one on Vancouver Island and one in London, UK – might be disappointed that I’ve taken their very practical programs and been obsessed with their philosophical implications, but that’s what’s happened. And I think there should be more of the kinds of philosophical tearing-down my own obsessive nature is prone to.

While it’s easy to grouse at the coffee breaks found in any of these events that our days are measured out in teaspoons, the truth is, of course, that any profession of any merit has a sustained effort, though often ridiculed, at ensuring its practitioners are exposed to evolving ideas and – perhaps obviously – other practitioners themselves. And aside from the explicit lessons of these conferences – which were very interesting, and certainly provided helpful inspiration – I was most intrigued by the reactions of my peers, both the positive and the negative, to the speakers. There was the general critique of too much sitting and listening (how else it could be efficiently done, I don’t know, so I don’t share the complaint), but more telling was the adoration of some speakers and the disdain for others. Some speakers, according to my fellow participants, were “amazing,” “so powerful,” “inspirational,” and so on, implying that they had a truth first among unequals. But I think any careful listener would be left with, among others, at least one question: how would we know?

By that I mean, “how would we know” that any particular claim promoted by any speaker or authority is correct? When an educational consultant advances a claim, even a reasonable one, it should be our job, if we are to make it part of our practice beyond mere curious experiment, if we are to endorse it and spread it across the land staff room by staff room, to at least give it a thorough shake in our own minds. For me, that begins with the question of criteria – again, how would we know? For any claim we might make, even one as simple and resonant (and probably-true) as the claim that “boys need good role models,” we’d need to establish: why? We’d need to establish (at least) that A) boys actually model their behaviour on people in the media (a claim I’m not convinced of, given the popularity of violence in film and tv compared with the relative lack of violence in most boys’ lives) and that B) our current role models are lacking in quality (again, if we consider the entire range of men in the media, not conclusive), and that C) we even know who boys decide their role models are. A simple claim like that, one that would have nearly universal agreement in a room of teachers, is hardly certain. And if such a claim isn’t certain, we should be a lot less vigorous when we nod our heads in agreement every time a speaker shows a PowerPoint slide of a disaffected young man, and accept the idea on a solely provisional basis.

It is hardly contestable that much – if not most – of what we have been previously absolutely certain has been modified, deemphasized, or thrown out altogether. Which isn’t to say speakers shouldn’t make any claims, but that both the speakers and (especially) their audiences, should be a little less absolute in their claims – or, at least provide compelling evidence.

To take another claim, let’s turn to neuroscience. I can’t think of a more powerful force in the reformation of pedagogy in the past decade, and its influence shows no sign of wavering. The general idea is this: since our brains are central to cognition (obviously), the best teaching practice will be informed by the science of the brain. And so far as that goes, I wholeheartedly agree. I am a fairly repetitive advocate of something of a medical model of understanding schools. And it would be preposterous to have doctor say, “I’m not interested in learning about the biology of the human body. It’s not helpful to my practice.”

Yet, the claims of neuroscience are so very immature, when we ask “how would we know (the truth of any claim)?” our answer is, “right now, it would be hard to know much at all.” The complexity of the brain, and its plasticity (the tendency of the physical structures of the brain to change, often by the object of our fascination itself, our consciousness), mean that we’re unlikely to see usable advice from neuroscience for some time. Thoughts in brains might not be as reducible to biological processes as kidneys are – a fact that psychiatrists confront all too often. (And in fact, acknowledging a dynamic and complicated, non-reductionistic practice, perhaps teachers are more akin to these latter kinds of practitioners.)

Think about some of the other claims in our field – how many would stand up to the simple question, “how would we know?” I heard very little of that kind of inquiry at these conferences, a possible explanation for the fairly constant cycle in education: a theory or practice emerges, many followers sign on enthusiastically, those who do not are labeled as backwards, until an even newer theory or practice comes along with equal (read: little) reason for certainty to replace the old one, whereupon we all laugh at how silly we were at subscribing to the old theory or practice, yet subscribing to the new one with even greater vigor and certainty. Until an even newer theory or practice comes along…

So, if the relative merits of the individual speakers were not weighed on the basis of their evidence, what criteria did the audience use? My dour conclusion: the popularity of any given presenter was related directly, and disproportionately, to his or her dynamism and sense of humor. Some of them were exceptionally funny; indeed, one got the laughs and rapt attention usually reserved to the best stand-up comics. Some speakers were loved, and therefore spoke the gospel truth; others were perceived as “boring,” so their words were doubted.

And perhaps that’s just our nature. But, if we’re to be a profession, not just a collection of people who succumb to our whims, we should probably insist that claims we accept and live by are scrutinized and well-supported. And we shouldn’t just listen to the funniest voice in the crowd.

Leave a Reply