Which disciplines offer most to education knowledge-building?

For those who choose to spend time thinking about education, not just doing it, they will immediately stumble across a question: what should I spend time thinking about?

This question is taxing me of late for a number of reasons. I have recently finished writing a book. The process of writing requires that you think about the subject of the book for quite some time. Once released from this task, there is once again the freedom to direct your thoughts towards anything you wish. This is both liberating and unnerving as you wonder where to direct your inquisitiveness.

On a personal level, the question has little significance. It doesn’t really matter to the rest of the world what I spend time thinking about. However, if we raise this question to the level of the schooling system the answer does matter because it relates to the task of knowledge-building. If we are to become collectively more knowledgeable about our profession then we must first ask what it is we should be building knowledge about, and how? This assumes we want to improve schools and the school system (which many of us do). It is possible to do this without more knowledge (by using the knowledge we already have more wisely), but building our collective understanding and insight seems like a good bet. After all, what we know now is fairly limited and flimsy.

Disciplined thinking

In the aforementioned book, we spend a little time considering the various academic disciplines through which we tend to view education and how schools look when you view them this way. Whether we employ cognitive science, organisational theory, sociology, or economics, we define the ‘problem’ of schooling in a different way. This matters because the way a problem is defined will begin to suggest a solution. What we end up thinking is a ‘good idea’ will partly depend on what disciplinary perspective we draw upon.

But what is a discipline?

At its simplest, a discipline is a defined body of knowledge and a way of building this knowledge. We might also think of an academic discipline as a ‘community of enquiry’ i.e. there are a like-minded group of people in society who spend time thinking and researching in a particular field. Various taxonomies exist. For the purposes of this piece, I will reference this one. It divides the disciplines into four domains: formal sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

I am going to adopt a different definition of a discipline to those above, which is ‘the means by which we can answer questions’. After all, what is knowledge-building if not getting answers to questions?

If we are to build our collective knowledge in education, we should consider:

  1. What questions do we most want answers to?
  2. Which disciplines are most likely to answer these questions?

Employing the language of ‘best bets’ (as my fellow educationalist Stuart Lock likes to do) is appropriate here because the whole endeavour is uncertain. For example, we do not know just how difficult it will be to answer some questions, or whether they will yield any answer at all. We don’t necessarily know which disciplines will provide the most useful insights. We do not know which new disciplines may develop that may prove helpful. All we can do is make a bet and crack on.

At this point, you are probably wanting to know what the best bets might be. I have my hunches and biases, and you will have yours. I suspect many of you believe that cognitive science is one of the disciplinary best bets. Perhaps it is. Or you may be drawn to the discipline you teach – I cannot escape the belief that economics has a great deal to offer us, but that is because I know more about this subject than most others, so I will naturally see the possibilities of applying this discipline to education more clearly. Your values and beliefs will also influence your best bets, as will your personality. Perhaps you have a bent towards social justice and equality; in which case the questions you ask may be about how education can reduce inequality and promote social mobility.

And this is the problem: we are swayed by ideology, ethics, and our personal interests. Philosophy (globally or individually) has a role to play in this debate, but we cannot allow our knowledge-building efforts to be steered by subjectivity. Some degree of rational method is required.

Placing our bets

I would like to focus for the remainder of this post on question 2 above i.e. on the disciplines which may prove useful rather than the questions we should ask. This may seem topsy-turvy as to some extent the choice of discipline may be determined by what question we are asking. However, this is only partly true. For example, if we take a big question like ‘how should we teach?’, we may find answers in a range of disciplines, each of which may add something different to our understanding.

I suggest that, regardless of the precise questions asked, some disciplines are more intrinsically useful to us than others. This may be because they are more applicable to the field of education (they get at the kind of questions we ask), they have generated knowledge which has been useful to the field, or because they have proven reliable (the knowledge gained is ‘solid’).

We can get a sense of what disciplines are in the running by casting our eyes over a disciplinary taxonomy (like this one) and spotting those which have already, to some extent, been applied.

In the formal sciences, both statistics and game theory are candidates for our shortlist. I would suggest also that complexity science may also be on this list as it is beginning to generate insights into complex, social systems, albeit in predominantly metaphorical terms so far.

The natural sciences offer us neuroscience.

In the humanities, both history and philosophy provide disciplinary insights, although the latter generates debate rather than practical guidance.

And of course the most fertile disciplinary field is social science, which gives us sociology, economics, psychology, organisational theory, political science, and education itself (although I am yet to be convinced that education is a discipline!).

How should we begin to whittle down our shortlist? How do we determine where the value lies?

The utility of disciplines

I will propose a number of ‘tests’ which could be applied in determining which disciplines we should bet on.

First, does the discipline lend itself to testable hypotheses?

To be useful, a discipline should be able to tell us (with some degree of certainty) if something is true. To do this, concepts within the discipline must be well defined so that we can construct a theory to be tested. We can determine whether a field of interest may properly be defined as a discipline in this way. For example, the study of leadership is not a discipline because it fails this test. People think that because I have written a book on leadership, I am interested in it. In fact, I find it irritating because knowledge building in this field is almost impossible. It is much more useful to spend our time thinking about what so-called ‘leaders’ can learn from real disciplines.

Education also suffers from a theory-problem. Consider ‘pedagogy’, a branch of the education tree. We may set up a research project to find out what the effects are of a particular teaching practice, but without a theoretical underpinning, what use is the learning which results? Knowledge-building requires generalising from the specific to the universal, and this is only possible if research has a theoretical underpinning. Pedagogical research, where it bothers at all, resorts to borrowing from other disciplines such as psychology. For this reason, I question whether education can be defined as anything more than a field of enquiry, forever riffing off proper disciplines.

Neuroscience suffers from the same malady. It attempts to observe what happens in the nervous system when it is stimulated in some way. When applied to education, the intention is to find out how ‘learning’ is optimised via the mechanism of brain stimulation. For example, we may set up a controlled study to determine whether verbal repetition of French verbs improves later recall. We may find it does. However, without a theory for why it does, how should we take this finding and apply it beyond this moment and specific context? Theorising about the brain is so difficult because it is too complex for us to understand (presently, or perhaps forever). Knowledge of what without knowledge of why has limited use.

The problem of weak (or fake) disciplines is that they provide false confidence, misdirect our efforts, and promote faddish beliefs. Leadership is flooded with harmful, pop-literature. In education: thinking hats, three-part lessons, dialogic marking, discovery learning. In neuroscience: brain gym, multiple intelligences, learning styles. Fads dominate and persist because they are superficially appealing or hard to refute as there is no sound theoretical basis on which to test a hypothesis.

Second, does the discipline generate ideas with longevity?

The essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that longevity is a sure sign of an idea’s validity and utility. This is because for something to exist intact for a long period of time it must be able to survive exposure to repeated stress. He calls this property ‘anti-fragility’. Furthermore, the ‘best’ ideas will grow through being placed under stress – they will flex under the duress of time.

Which disciplines produce the most anti-fragile ideas? Of course, some disciplines haven’t been around long enough for us to assess their anti-fragility.

Some argue that Psychology comes out poorly in this respect. Many theories do not stand up to the ravages of time, from grand theories like Freudianism and eugenics, to specific claims such as ego depletion, social priming and the ‘backfire effect’.

Others point to the replication crisis whereby studies that were thought to be robust and informative have failed to be confirmed by repeated research. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory is one of the latest victims of this.

Stanislaw Pstrokonski (one of the speakers at the recent researchED conference in London) points to the weakness of even well-established psychological constructs (such as the Big 5 personality traits, attachment theory, attribution error, self-serving bias, intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, and the endowment effect) when applied to cultures beyond America and Western Europeans. There is good evidence to suggest that much of what we ‘know’ about psychology only truly applies to (as he puts it) ‘rich Americans’, as those were the people who took part in the studies.

On the other hand, Pstrokonski argues, the basic assumption of economics – rational agent theory – is often criticised as a theory of human behaviour, but the findings of the discipline have proven more anti-fragile than the seemingly more plausible explanations offered by the science that claims to further our knowledge of human behaviour.

Some ideas in organisational theory and political science also have proven the test of time. The concepts of hierarchy and power, for example, continue to offer explanatory perspectives which inform how real people influence real things. There are anti-fragile ideas out there which are unlikely to be debunked or dethroned any time soon.

Third, does the discipline have reach?

To some extent, this is about generalisability, therefore relates to the point above about theoretical underpinning. To be useful at scale, knowledge must be transferable. Or to put it another way, it must work in more than one place.

In our upcoming book, we have a chapter about the challenge of building transferable knowledge in a system which is characterised by high levels of diversity and complexity. I won’t give too many spoilers here, but suffice to say that we conclude that it isn’t easy. We argue throughout the book that the application of many disciplinary perspectives is thwarted by complexity. Complexity science has thus far only been applied to the field of education in a limited way and therefore we should be cautious in making claims about its efficacy in answering educational questions. However, we may find that it is most useful in informing our understanding of the limits of our understanding.

‘Reach’ also refers to the breadth of application for a discipline. Whilst we may draw value from the niche application of a discipline not normally associated with the field of education, those that reach into various aspects of education are likely to be better bets. Humanities such as history and philosophy score high on this criteria. There is arguably little we haven’t tried before in the school system and history is full of educational policy failures which we might usefully reflect on. Our ability to learn from failure must improve if we are to build knowledge of what not to do, as well as what to do. To achieve this, research should not just focus on the novel but on the ‘tried’ but not yet ‘tested’.

The most promising disciplines will yield answers to a range of questions. However, ‘reach’ also means getting to the places that haven’t been explored before. It may be that the disciplines that have dominated our thinking and research up to this point may be unable to provide some answers. New disciplines, or those which have not previously been applied to education, may not only be able to penetrate unexplored regions, but also may help us frame questions that we haven’t thought about asking before. The adoption of new and niche disciplines alongside more holistic and traditional ones may be a good hedge against our knowledge-building becoming stale and self-serving.

Fourth, do the disciplines provoke insight in combination?

The academic world is not set up well for inter-disciplinary work. Academics tend to work on their specialisms in silos. Yet there are insights to be gained when disciplines offer confirmatory or contradictory findings.

Generalists and practitioners have a role to play in forming multi-disciplinary perspectives. Those on the front line in education are all too aware of the paucity of singular disciplinary perspectives in explaining the reality of learning and school life. It is only when we view education from multiple perspectives that we can begin to describe the richness, diversity and unpredictability inherent in the educational process.

But sometimes teachers and school leaders don’t maintain a generalist perspective. The recent enthusiasm for cognitive science in English schools exemplifies this.

Cognitive psychology (unlike many branches of psychology) is arguably a strong contender for our shortlist of promising disciplines. It asks testable questions, appears to replicate sufficiently to generate (at least a few) firm conclusions, and directly addresses the core business of schools – how to get children to learn stuff. However, it is too new for us to estimate its anti-fragility and we do not yet know whether fledgling ideas will shape up to be well-supported technologies like ‘retrieval practice’.

But cognitive psychology has a fundamental weakness, which is that it only attempts to explain how an individual learns and may best be instructed. As my co-author Becky and I point out in this post, teachers are rarely teaching one student at a time. Therefore, cognitive psychology alone is limited in generating insights into how to teach a class of children. If teachers, leaders, schools, or the whole system, becomes too faddish about one disciplinary perspective, however solid its findings may be, we surrender our power as generalists.

Thinking about what to think about

As I said earlier, it doesn’t really matter that much what I spend my time thinking about. My mind can idly wander and I can read anything that appeals. But it does matter what we spend time thinking about collectively. The questions we ask and the way we go about answering them determine whether we become wiser or more deceived.

Who in our system gets to define the questions that are worth answering? Are we leaving knowledge-building to chance? How aware are we of the limitations of the various approaches to building knowledge? Is education too complex and ill-defined to ever say much with confidence?

These are big questions that a mature profession should be asking. They are hard questions. Fortunately, I can decide to think about something else.

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