Stargazing in the Australian Outback: the limitations of science in education

13th May 2017

There have been a number of arguments in the online world recently around the role of scientific research in education. One has been particularly close to home. My colleague Ellie Mulcahy wrote a fascinating blog on a new piece of research that questioned our current models for the mechanisms behind memory. The blog prompted some equally fascinating responses, including a detailed breakdown of Ellie’s arguments by Nick Rose and a look at the wider issues by David Didau.

Ellie’s view was that we should exercise caution when applying neuroscientific theories to the classroom because we don’t yet have a stable model of how the brain works. Nick and David both argued that neuroscience isn’t what we should be interested in. They pointed to much more secure findings in the world of cognitive psychology. In their view, only the latter findings have a robust enough evidence base to have implications for classroom practice.

Where Ellie, Nick and David seem to agree is that if we have enough evidence from scientific research, then it’s safe to use those findings in the classroom. I’d like to argue instead that it’s the limitations of science itself that should make us cautious. While I’m supportive of an evidence-based approach, I believe it’s important to be aware of the assumptions behind such thinking.

Challenging assumptions requires a philosophical approach. Some will baulk at this idea. The point I wish to make however is not that philosophy and other subjects are superior to science, or vice versa, but that they are looking at the same picture from different angles.

Arguments against science

What I’m about to say isn’t new. It was rebutted in a recent blog by Greg Ashman. He argued against those who claim that ‘science is no good for analysing educational practices,’ which admittedly is a stronger claim than mine. As someone who studied Astrophysics at university it would be strange for me to dismiss science out of hand.

Ashman cites two main arguments commonly used against him:

  1. Truth cannot be known.
  2. Philosophical or qualitative studies are superior to science.

I agree with Ashman that the first argument gets us nowhere. If we refuse to accept that there are any truths we can agree upon then we might as well end the discussion now. The second argument is more complex. The fact that Ashman wishes to classify and rank different fields of study relative to each other betrays his scientific worldview.

Different worlds

British philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that reality and truth are defined by concrete experience. To be human is to live in a complex web of interconnected ideas, each one gleaned from someone’s own interaction with the world around them. In this view, our knowledge looks something like a map of the Earth with all our online connections highlighted. Oakeshott believed that the more coherent, connected and unified this world of ideas, the closer we are to discovering the truth.

In Oakeshott’s view, the claims made by different academic subjects offer us views of this world of ideas from a particular standpoint. He describes each as a ‘mode’ of experience, an abstraction based on a specific assumption. For example, he describes science as: ‘the world conceived under the category of quantity.’ This world of ‘statistical generalisations’ takes the form of hypotheses – the more the x, the more the y – which, when tested, yield logical statements – if x happens, then y should happen. The world of science is therefore made up of a stable, interconnected web of these abstract ‘if’ statements. So far, I think Ashman would agree.

Abstract worlds

To illustrate Oakeshott’s point about abstractions, it’s worth mentioning Michaela school, which embodies more than any other school the scientific view of education. Everything the school does is based on quantitative evidence: the drills, the repetition, the mnemonics. It offers a conception of education as an ‘if’ statement: If we do x, then y should happen.

Much of the debate around Michaela centres on whether the different x’s work, or whether the y should be so focused on knowledge. For me, this misses the point. The problem I see with this view is the abstract ‘if’ itself. It asserts the scientific world as the whole world, ignoring its blindness to large parts of human experience. Nick Rose’s quotation of Daniel Willingham offers a case in point:

Consider that in schools, the outcomes we care about are behavioral; reading, analyzing, calculating, remembering. These are the ways we know the child is getting something from schooling.

This view encapsulates the scientific position. The emphasis is on measurement, predictability, stability. There’s no room for the distinctly human considerations that underpin our relationships, communities and societies. Many of these are present in a typical classroom, at least to some extent. Examples might include love, responsibility, and a mutually agreed sense of what’s right and wrong.

Ashman is aware of this problem. He dismisses it in a short sentence: ‘I accept the limitations of science – we cannot use it to decide what is moral,’ yet goes on to suggest that we should ‘stick with science’ when it comes to informing educational practice. This seems strange. If how we treat our children is not a moral decision, then what is?

An incomplete view

Imagine an astronomer, returning faithfully night after night to her cabin in the Australian Outback. Through years of patient observation, she’s built a coherent picture of the universe from her observations and notes. Finally, she thinks she’s cracked it. She knows everything there is to know about space. And she’s right, insofar as an astronomer from Australia can be. The problem is that she’s never seen the Plough, or any of the other constellations that can only be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. She has a complete view of a limited picture.

Likewise, the problem with neuroscience and cognitive psychology is not that they’re short of evidence. It’s that they’re abstract. No matter how much quantitative evidence is built up by those pursuits, we should be cautious about using their findings in practice. Every teacher has a unique relationship with their students. It would be a tragedy if this were lost in the scramble for scientific certainty. An ‘if’ statement can never take into account the complex web of human experience that exists inside a classroom.