How to argue with a genericist

Most people won’t be the slightest bit interested in the debate about generic skills in school leadership which has played out (mostly on social media) in recent years. And why should they? I’m not sure their daily lives will be enhanced by wading into a sometimes murky, often polarised, debate about how leaders become better at what they do.

However, for those whose job it is to help develop better leaders, and for those who make a living out of consultancy, and for those who have invested a great deal of time and energy into a particular perspective on what leaders are and do, the debate is enticing and charged, for these people have skin in the game.

It is encouraging to see respectful disagreement between some parties. I enjoy watching this play out to an extent, and on occasion join in. However, for the most part I like to be on the periphery of the debate because there are too many vested interests. I also believe that whilst some will shift their position, they won’t change their mind. There is a degree of fundamentalism which exists in the orthodox leadership perspective and you don’t persuade a fundamentalist by arguing with them.

According to the podcaster Stanislaw Pstrokonski, there are four reasons why arguing with anyone who is strongly attached to an idea is a fruitless task:

  1. Confirmation bias: they will interpret new data through the lense of their existing beliefs.
  2. Reputation defence: they have cultivated a reputation based on a particular set of beliefs.
  3. Sunk costs: they have invested too much in the idea to contemplate abandoning it.
  4. In-group loyalty: they fear the social rejection which comes with fundamentally disagreeing with their peers.

When someone’s inner and outer life becomes too bound up with a particular conception of how things are, they will respond to these ideas being challenged by either digging in (entrenchment), diverting the argument (misdirection aka straw man arguments), attacking the perceived aggressor (ad hominem), or if they are moderate and reasonable people, by conceding ground on periphery matters (appeasement).

What rarely happens is genuine and constructive debate over the core idea.

There is a further problem, which is that the debate plays out in a field (leadership) with poor knowledge structures. We don’t know much about leadership, or even agree on what it is, therefore it is almost impossible to construct testable theories without resorting to a more solid disciplinary domain (say psychology or economics). As a result, debate is mired in ideology rather than the ‘sides’ on the argument getting at the matter of how things actually are.

The educational philosopher Basil Bernstein put it like this:

“And this takes us to the heart of the matter. In a subject where theories and methods are weak, intellectual shifts are likely to arise out of conflict between approaches rather than conflict between explanations, for, by definition, most explanations will be weak and often non-comparable, because they are approach-specific. The weakness of the explanation is likely to be attributed to the approach, which is analysed in terms of its ideological stance.”

We see these ‘conflicts between approaches’ play out often in polarised discourse, where either camp refuses to engage in specific debate and instead throw around general claims of the ‘of course it isn’t like that…’ variety.

Bernstein goes on to say that in weak domains we should set aside our allegiance to an approach and dedicate ourselves to the problem. I interpret this to mean that in order to further the debate around any leadership matter, we should draw on disciplines with more robust knowledge to explain what we see, and engage in informed debate about these theories and their explanatory power. In other words, we need to state more clearly what is going on by drawing upon what is confidently known.

But what is the core idea in the debate about generic skills? I think it is this: those arguing for the orthodox view of generic skills believe that high level knowledge structures are ‘adoptable’ and enable someone to think and act in an expert way. Or to state it another way, cognitive strategies sit separate to more substantive knowledge within a domain.

These statements probably need a little unpacking. But before I do, let me acknowledge that I am stating the core argument on my terms; that is, I am using concepts and language drawn from a disciplinary perspective to which I subscribe. This itself is problematic as those I disagree with may not even recognise this conception of their beliefs and ideas. However, if this is unsatisfactory, I would invite those people to state their definition of the core assumptions of their beliefs equally explicitly and with reference to their chosen disciplinary perspective. This can only help the debate.

So, what does the above mean in plain English? I will begin with a few definitions.

By ‘cognitive strategies’ I mean how we know what to do in various situations. When we visit the supermarket, we know to get a basket or trolley, go up and down the aisles, choose what we want, and pay for it at the end. This strategy works fairly well whichever supermarket you visit.

‘Substantive knowledge’ is typically used to describe the knowledge produced by/in an academic subject. I use it here more broadly to mean knowledge pertinent to a domain, field of practice, or significant task. It is not just any bits of knowledge that are important. ‘Substantive’ refers to knowledge about the underlying structure of the domain. Substantive knowledge is foundational and enabling. It is the material for building expert understanding and allows us to act in expert ways.

Those who argue for ‘developing generic skills’ in the abstract (and the words in italics are important) appear to believe that the relationship between cognitive strategies and substantive knowledge is loose or not that relevant. This assumption leads us to believe that the cognitive strategy can be developed quite separately from the acquisition of substantive knowledge.

It is quite plausible that it is possible to acquire abstract cognitive strategies for relatively simple procedures, like our supermarket example. In a management context, we might learn some ‘rules’ for holding meetings e.g. prepare an agenda, keep to time, make sure everyone has a say. These are quite low-level strategies. However, even in this example, we might argue that it is one thing to know that you must keep to time, quite another to know when it is wise to curtail a discussion. The latter ‘skill’ begins to suggest that knowledge, not just the strategy frame, is important.

Generic skill fundamentalists extend their belief about our ability to acquire abstract cognitive strategies into more complex domains, problems and tasks. For example, they might argue that ‘problem solving’ or ‘critical thinking’ can be taught and learnt generically by acquiring the high level strategies themselves and without paying attention to what the problem or the object of the criticism is. This is what I mean when I say they contend that ‘high level strategies are adoptable‘ – the suggestion is that the focus should be the development of the generic ‘skill’ itself, as if that skill is separate from the substantive knowledge of the domain. A shortcut!

This is how I see the core argument of generic skill fundamentalism. I am quite confident it is wrong. My goal here is not to convince you of that, so I will spare the references to evidence or the construction of an argument to this end (and besides, you can read about it here). However, what I will say is that if you want to argue this point you’ll have to come at me with some robust evidence. In my view, cognitive science has quite conclusively debunked the generic notion of expert performance, particularly in relation to complex domains. And cognitive science is surely a strong contender for answering questions about how experts think. If you wish to adopt a different disciplinary perspective and evidence base then go ahead, but you should make a case for its suitability to address matters of the mind.

Having made this call for evidence, I suspect the response to be anything other than an engagement with the core assumptions upon which generic skill fundamentalists make their claims.

I expect misdirection. Someone will claim that I have said that generic skills don’t exist (of course they do), that they aren’t important (they are), that there aren’t simple frames which leaders can adopt in certain situations (there are), that I am reducing it all to knowledge (I’m not), that I am saying that nothing other than knowledge – like emotions or values – are important (don’t be ridiculous).

I expect more reasonable people to make concessions on periphery issues. Some will concede that perhaps knowledge is more important than we previously thought. Some will agree that knowledge is important, but you also need to develop generic skills as a separate thing.

What I would prefer is that those making the case for abstract generic skill development as a basis for expert performance in complex domains:

  1. State clearly their definitions and core assumptions.
  2. Point me towards the evidence for their claims about how generic skills are developed.

But I don’t think they will, because I don’t think the evidence exists. Until that clarity and evidence is forthcoming, I would avoid arguing with genericists.

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