The appeal of folk theory in education

What shape is the Earth? Assuming there aren’t any flat-earthers reading this, most of you would probably say ‘spherical’. Perhaps we may add that the Earth isn’t perfectly spherical. If pushed, I could probably have a go at saying why.

Take a moment to think about how confident you are in your assertion that the Earth is ‘broadly’ spherical. Give your confidence a score out of 10.

Now think about why you believe this to be true. You may think of a variety of reasons: I was taught it at school; everyone knows it is that shape; we can observe other planets that are that shape. I am sure that some of you will provide reasons more grounded in scientific reasoning and evidence. However, I suspect that few of us could articulate a fully reasoned argument, supported by appropriate evidence, off the top of our heads. Our confidence in backing this assertion really comes down to the fact that it is accepted fact that we have no strong reason to dispute.

Of course, the shape of the Earth was a contested idea until quite recently. Intuitively, it made sense to believe that the Earth was flat. It doesn’t look rounded in any way (unless we have a very high vantage point). And if no-one has ever returned from across the ocean, then who is to say that they aren’t just falling off the edge? It wasn’t until we developed the tools to step outside of our subjective experience that we seriously questioned the evidence of our own senses.

In a fascinating paper published in 1992, the naive theories of very young children about the Earth’s shape are explored. The research found six theories that children might hold about the Earth’s shape, including the classic flat-Earth theories (rectangular or round) and stranger theories whereby humans live within a spherical Earth, and even more bizarrely the two-world model in which humans live on the ‘ground’ and a spherical Earth floats high above. (The paper is here, but I would also suggest listening to this podcast on the subject which brought my attention to it).

This research is an insight into the human mind’s tendency to theorise based on what information is available to it. These initially naive models are refined as we learn more about the world. Having these working models of the world is evolutionarily advantageous (those berries are poisonous but those ones are not), but human knowledge has advanced at an incredible rate in recent centuries and our minds have been forced to outsource the process. We cannot hold in mind the evidence and reasoning for each commonly accepted belief, so we must trust the assertions made by others. We cannot personally prove that the Earth isn’t flat, but we know people who can and we trust that they know what they are talking about.

All of this leaves us vulnerable as a species. Belief increasingly depends on whom you trust, not what you can personally evidence and reason. Knowledge resides in the minds of ‘experts’, but these experts are increasingly specialist and their knowledge is largely inaccessible to us. Why should we trust them when there are charismatic generalists appealing to common sense?

All of this ran through my mind when Tony Blair was setting out his educational vision this week. Others have critiqued his assertions more effectively than I can, so I won’t attempt to do so. What interests me is why ideas such as many of those he espouses gain so much traction.

Folk theories abound in education, by which I mean intuitively appealing assertions which rely on vague and unproven ideas about educational purposes and technologies. They often are of the form ‘Schools should…’, followed by superficially attractive notions about where schools and teachers should focus their efforts. For example, schools should teach creativity, schools should close attainment gaps, schools should instil good manners in pupils, schools should stop excluding pupils, schools should teach (insert your own social problem).

Now, I want to state clearly at this point that I am NOT saying the assertions are necessarily wrong (they aren’t all flat-earth theories). It may well be that schools should do some of these things, and it may be possible to develop an informed argument for why they should do so. What marks out a folk theory of education is that the case is not fully reasoned and evidenced, but it is intuitively appealing to those who would be unable to do so even if they tried. It is a populist contention which taps into a widely-held worldview and is not contradicted by one’s personal experience.

How do folk theories arise and gain credence?

First, such theories accord with first hand experience. As everyone has first hand experience of schooling, it is not difficult to tap into common experiences. We all experienced children misbehaving at school (and may have done so ourselves), we were all bored in some lessons, we all had a teacher who seemed unnecessarily strict, we probably know someone who was kicked out of school and went on to become a drug dealer or somesuch. These experiences prime us to buy into certain folk theories.

Second, folk theories build on generally known information, not the more arkane specialist knowledge of experts. For example, we know that the structure of industry is changing, with fewer manufacturing and more service industry jobs. This general knowledge leads onto elementary reasoning. If the type of jobs people do are changing, schools need to teach pupils different things. The assumption that the main purpose of schools is to prepare children for the workplace is implicit, but remains unquestioned in popular discourse because it is intuitively correct. When children leave education they start work, ergo schools are part of the supply chain of human resources.

Third, the assertions made are intuitively appealing, often eliciting a warm feeling. A call for schools to teach creativity is appealing as being creative is a ‘good thing’. We need more creative people as human advancement relies upon it. Who would argue for less creativity? That we probably can’t agree on what creativity actually is is not considered.

Next, folk theorists (and those that buy into their theories) have a vague understanding of mechanisms. Again, creativity folk theories illustrate this well (or indeed any other ’21st century skill’). Creativity is conceived of as a general capability and something you can get better at – a metaphorical muscle that is strengthened through exercise. We know people who are obviously creative, therefore we identify it is a quality which is possessed by them, but less so by others. Unless we believe that creative people were born creative, there must be a means by which they become so. School is our means of educating people, so we look to schools to do something to increase levels of creativity in the population. Perhaps we could promote ‘creative subjects’ or introduce creativity as a curricular theme? This all seems very plausible and appealing as we have identified something useful schools can do for society and some simple steps we can take to discharge this responsibility.

Lastly, folk theories (and those that advocate them) are not exposed to contradictory information. This may be because the arguments are so abstract and ambiguous that they are untestable, or because those making these arguments have no exposure (either direct or indirect) to data which would enable them to refine their thinking. It is easy to say that pupils should never be excluded from school until you observe the effects on victims if they are not.

I will say again at this point that the assertions made in folk theories are not necessarily incorrect. The goals in particular may be desirable. For example, schools may indeed have a role to play in educating children to be more creative, it may be desirable and possible to reduce exclusions, and improving outcomes for those in lower income households is worthy and achievable to some extent. The problem is that they are at greater risk of wrongness as they are not grounded in either evidence or reality. They are fuzzy theories to which we have a positive emotional response.

Educational folk theories may be becoming more popular. The internet has become easier for them to spread and has also eroded public exposure to long-form media which requires ideas to be justified and set out more fully. In the face of an onslaught of information, we must increasingly choose which sources we trust. The proponents of ideas become more important than the ideas they propose. It is tempting to dismiss ‘experts’ as their arguments are too complex and nuanced. Attractive narratives by charismatic generalists win out.

What do we do about this? It is tempting to tackle folk theory head on and present rational, well-evidenced arguments as a ‘take down’ of populist ideas. However, this is unlikely to work. We know this because there is a fairly well established evidence base around how to change people’s’ minds, particularly when they are entrenched in their beliefs.

Let’s go back to your spherical earth beliefs. It is likely that you are quite confident that you are right about this (and that you are even more confident that the earth is not flat). However, it is also likely that your ability to evidence and explain the basis for this belief is at least a little shaky. Although we might be dismissive about a flat-earther’s beliefs, if we were to speak with one we would probably find that they rely on the same thing we rely on – trusted sources. It is just that their trusted sources are different to ours. When we try to convince them that their beliefs are wrong and ours are right, it feels like we are questioning this trust and criticising their judgement about whom to trust. Instead, we might be more successful if we gently explore the basis for their beliefs. People just don’t switch from one polarity to another when it comes to strongly held beliefs as a result of your superior argument. However, they might shift their position marginally if encouraged to thoughtfully question the basis for their beliefs. We would all benefit from doing so, but are rarely encouraged to do so as we are often confronted with opposition to our beliefs, not enquiry into them. If you want to read more about changing people’s minds, I would suggest listening to one of a number of David McRaney’s podcasts or reading his recent book on the subject.

Folk theories are here to stay. They will continue to inform government policy, parental expectations and media commentary. We should not allow these theories to go uncontested, but we must be considered in how we respond to the well-meaning, if naive, assertions of some commentators. After all, what they call for is probably more intuitively appealing and accessible than a well-crafted and evidenced argument by a dismissive expert. Nobody likes a know-it-all and no-one has ever changed their mind by being told they are stupid and wrong.

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