I take real pleasure in watching people engage in debate around meaty questions in education. Should we be promoting independent, child-led learning or should we be building the scaffolds of knowledge, passed down the generations from teacher to student? Should we prioritise structure and tradition or instead focus on compassion and equality?
Alongside my pleasure has been frustration. Having painstakingly reached a conclusion about an issue myself, it amazes me that people can look at the same evidence and the same arguments and yet come to a different conclusion. My default ‘excuse’ for this behaviour was that the tone of the argument was being made wrongly, that constant attack was putting people’s backs up and driving them in to a corner and not letting them back out again. In some cases I put it down to self-interest, closed-mindedness and selfishness. My solution was that we should all be a little more equivocal, to be kinder with words, to invite people to your point of view gently and kindly.
It has, therefore, been an eye-opener to realise that I have been horribly naive. I recently finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable book, The Righteous Mind, and found my jaw repeatedly dropping as he explored the link between moral psychology and evolution. In a nutshell, the exact same argument made to two different people can trigger a hugely different emotional reaction as we physically experience it differently.
An emotional reaction shouldn’t make much of a difference though really, should it? After all, we’ve evolved the new areas of our brains which act as rational, logical adjuncts to our flighty ‘animal brain’ core, right?
Among the most startling revelations of the book was the fact that this view of the brain is terribly misguided. Rather than your evolutionarily-modern, pre-frontal cortex acting as wise and benevolent sage, calming the wild, emotional animal of the ‘older’ brain beneath, it is rather more like a mix of a sly politician, slippery press officer and selfish lawyer.
In essence, we react much, much more intuitively than we’d like to admit. That is, our emotional, moral reaction kicks in first and then we gradually rationalise this to ‘make sense’. It is possible for our ‘rational tail’ to influence our ‘intuitive/emotional dog’ but it is rare. In general, the process works in the reverse and we find reasons to explain away what we are seeing in ways that are congruent with that initial intuitive and emotional response.
Haidt reported on a number of studies that showed that our intuition is strongly based on the varying strengths of seven ‘moral receptors’. We go through life experiencing all sorts of people, experiences and situations and, in the majority of cases, our inner lawyer/press-officer then selectively, and certainly not impartially, interprets and stores these to match our initial reactions. By doing this we reduce cognitive dissonance, that unpleasant mental anguish of attempting to hold two competing and incompatible concepts in our head at once. Through a process of evasion, self-talk, selective memory and association we then find a way to make the world look right through our own moral lens.
This same process, of course, makes it almost inevitable that you will reject another person’s view as illogical, misconceived and wilfully fallacious while seeing your own carefully smoothed and sculpted interpretation as the only logical standpoint.
The seven moral receptors, as described by Haidt, and as experienced differently by us all, are:
- Compassion (and aversion to cruelty)
- Fairness in proportionality, i.e. getting your fair share of benefit or punishment
- Fairness in equality, i.e. everyone working from an even playing field
- Loyalty (and aversion to betrayal) particularly related to a group to which you belong, such as a nation, tribe, race, religion, organisation, etc.
- Respect and deference (to leaders, traditions and social norms)
- Sanctity of virtue, body and mind, i.e. disgust of degredation of social taboos and reverence of purity, piety, cleanliness etc.
- Liberty, aversion to oppression.
These receptors helped us, in evolutionary terms, to survive in cohesive tribes with shared values. They prevented disintegration, fostered collaboration and fostered balanced hierarchies where leadership was tolerated as long as it was benevolent and not despotic. They helped us live healthier, safer lives and to pull together to protect our young and each other.
Although we all experience all of these in different ways, with different associations, and with varying intensities, there are broad patterns that can be seen on the typical ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the political spectrum.
On the left (usually the ‘progressive’ educational side), people tend to have particularly elevated emotional responses to compassion, quality and liberty and limited (or even negative) responses to authority/respect, proportionality and sanctity. This leads to a fear and mistrust of tradition (as it may lead to the exclusion of some), of leaders (who could treat people unfairly and oppress minorities) and of patriotism (which may exclude some and lead to harm for others).
On the right (usually associated the ‘traditional’ educational approach) , interestingly, Haidt’s studies found a very even response to all seven, with compassion and liberty still very much valued, but balanced against reverence of tradition, deference to authority, and reverence of history and beliefs of the ‘tribe’. A typical right winger feels everyone should have an equal chance in life (equality) but also be free to profit or suffer from their own choices (proportionality).
A Martin Robinson noted in his excellent book, Trivium 21c, the history of education is a long tale of the battle between these two ideals. One side wishes to use education to endow an understanding of culture, respect, social norms and received wisdom. The other wishes to use it to free from oppressive tradition, to question everything and foster change, and to ensure that the level playing field is maintained. Robinson makes a valiant effort at showing that both aims can be accommodated within a contemporary approach to education that mirrors the classical Trivium. Indeed, he quotes Haidt’s work and acknowledges the challenges that it suggests. I personally found his thesis fascinating and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in education.
Ultimately, however, the progressive educator will always view any attempt to bring a traditional canon of knowledge as highly suspicious and undesirable, while the traditionalist will be intrinsically uncomfortably with any attempt to ‘build on nothing and question everything’. This is all as a result of the way their moral receptors react to the ideas in question and also due to the resulting post-hoc rationalisation and explanation that takes place. The progressive will feel the seductive pull of research on the engagement and enjoyment that a discovery/project-based approach can bring while the tradtionally-minded educator will be drawn inextricably to studies showing greater exam attainment of a knowledge-first approach.
Of course, this is gross simplification. Apart from anything else, there are plenty of progressive educators who would think of themselves as more right wing while at the same time there are dozens of traditional educators who see themselves more associated with left-wing politics. For some, the rational brain may successfully exert enough influence to shift opinion while other people will react to strong emotional and moral shocks by their inner lawyer rationalising their educational standpoint to a new position as it is less painful than giving up a competing moral position elsewhere in their character. A typical example may be along the lines: “I know I’m a compassionate person who wants to help children and so this challenging new evidence that suggests my previous practices were wrong can be reconciled by me constructing a story of previous well-meaning ignorance and newfound wisdom that allows me to abandon my old view and embrace the new one”.
I really don’t have a problem with people who change their viewpoints – in fact I think that if you try very hard to act rationally then it is inevitable that evidence should change opinions, no matter what your values – anyone who clings stubbornly to a view in the face of overwhelming evidence must surely have a massively over-active internal ‘rationaliser’! However, it’s important to realise that your confidence in you view (or new-found confidence in your new view) is as a result of endless, selective interpretation and rationalisation that is anything but impartial.
We are, as Dan Ariely might put it, Predictably Irrational (another great book!)
If we want to shift opinion then it will be an emotional job and one that must acknowledge that different people experience and feel the world differently. We are massively overconfident in our views by default and this is something that needs to be acknowledged as these important arguments rage.
Thanks. Great post analysing some of the subconscious factors inherent in our thinking. However, in the example you choose, there is another perspective which I would argue is important – the philosophical/ideological. You consider the evidence around the process of learning (and by extension, curriculum), but the evidence is only useful if we assume particular aims. Is learning better driven by teacher directed scaffolding of knowledge or independent learning? This is actually at source a value judgement concerning what you want an education system to achieve. If you value the building of a known body of knowledge then directed scaffolding has much evidence to support it. If, however, your aim is to build a system which values alternative approaches and holistic experiences then a different set of evidence will support that. Different evidence exists to support different views. The aims of education are value driven and philosophical/ideological, not evidence-based. On reflecting on what I have read over the past couple of years, this is where the actual debate appears to reside, and in a sense it is not possible to create a single, evidenced and compelling answer – the evidence will not provide a water-tight answer to a philosophical/ideological issue.
Good analysis, thanks. So evidence is never going to be conclusive enough to universally cope with all the variables leaving plenty of scope for disagreement often based on the education that the debaters have had themselves. That includes their formal schooling and the informal stuff. Which do you think has had the biggest impact on your views? Remember, what you think is probably an illusion 🙂 Personally one of the reasons I like argument is to see if the argument stands up and if it doesn’t modify what is inevitably a balance of a lot of different factors. It’s useful sometimes to try arguing the opposite of what you believe.
A fascinating analysis, David. I wonder how members of the TDT would describe Michael Gove’s emotional response and its relationship to the decisions he is making, in particular with reference to GCSE English?
I enjoyed your post, David! It confronts many questions that I have pondered for years. I suppose I am one of those “traditional educators who see themselves more associated with left-wing politics”, and the apparent discordance between my politics and my pedagogical outlook has always been intriguing. Here are a few points and questions that I’d like to add to the discussion:
1. What happens if there is no conclusive evidence? Or, what happens if there are substantial studies that support both progressive AND traditional pedagogy? Indeed, what if the majority of education “research” is based on philosophical assumptions – assumptions that are so deeply rooted in value that these educational world views are ultimately incommensurable? For what it’s worth, I’ve collected a variety of papers that support a more traditional, teacher-centered pedagogy here: http://lexiconic.net/pedagogy/index.html
2. You argue that progressive pedagogy wants education to free learners “from oppressive tradition, to question everything and foster change, and to ensure that the level playing field is maintained”. Okay, but does a progressive social agenda such as this necessarily entail progressive teaching methods? I’ve never really seen research that convincingly makes this connection. Indeed, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark argue that there is no connection (http://lexiconic.net/pedagogy/direct_instruction_kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf).
3. Have you read Robert Burton’s “On Being Certain”? It seems to echo many of the same themes and conclusions that you summarized in Haidt’s book. You’ll enjoy it if you haven’t read it yet.
Thanks for this Martin. The work of Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking fast and slow’ seems to support this view that our intuition/prejudices rule and that we struggle to overcome confirmation bias.
Reading Dan Ariely should quash any notion of ourselves as rational beings.
In my subject area , physics, I don’t see the need for this polarisation between traditional and progressive. If you take the starting point that if you are going to build a boat, it is helpful to realise that you need a boat. Start by making your students realise that their model of the world cannot explain what they see before them. Then they are ripe to gain knowledge that can be taught in a traditional way if that is the most appropriate. If we don’t start by challenging their understanding then they will react in exactly the way that we as teachers do that you describe above and they will not learn anything . See the video by Veritasium on the Khan Academy. http://youtu.be/eVtCO84MDj8
Very interesting read. Surely the desire for ‘certainty’ in the form of ‘evidence’ is an emotional response to an uncertain world. I’m not quite as wary of the role of intuition and emotion as others seem to be. Human beings are incredibly complex, as are the interactions between a teacher and a child, I don’t honestly understand why we seek to simplify them by being able to ‘prove’ that one approach is ‘right’.
I think it is fairly clear that people are fallible. No matter how hard we try we still make errors of reason. We can certainly also be blind to complications and fail to recognise assumptions, particularly assumptions based on values. What is less clear is where we go from here, other than pointing out this obvious fact.
Psychology has been useful for identifying some of those biases, but we should be very cautious about how it is applied. Psychological experiments are overwhelmingly conducted on unrepresentative samples. This may not be a problem when investigating those properties of mind that might plausibly be universal, but makes any attempt to investigate moral intuitions or political beliefs highly unreliable. Certainly, Haidt’s theories seem to make sense from the position of the middle class liberals of the American left, but seem utterly unable to explain much beyond that. There are traditions on the British left that are based on community and solidarity, even on religious and cultural identity, where do these fit in? Other shortcomings of the theory are identified here: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism
As far as I’m concerned, it is useful to attempt to identify one’s own biases, and psychology may help with this. It is not so helpful in debate to identify other people’s biases. An ad hominem is not a valid argument and being told “you’re biased” rarely moves debate on. Nor is it helpful to conclude that, because we are fallible, then rational debate is irrelevant. People may not fall into line when faced with a watertight logical argument, and may be more susceptible to irrational but emotive rhetoric. But we don’t engage in debate simply to get others to fall into line. We engage in debate in order to pursue, and establish, the truth. Those who wish to debate in a way that is not based on reason, are demonstrating an indifference to truth, something which Harry Frankfurt labelled as the defining quality of bullshit. To say that people are often persuaded more by the emotive than the logical in arguments is simply to say we are often manipulated by bullshit which, while undeniable, should not make it any more desirable to be a bullshitter.
I think you are right about this. It’s why I keep saying context is important. One psychological experiment in a particular context might not be valid in another even if the two seem similar. Striving to understand not only what works, but what you believe is important and the inter-relationship of these things can be very complicated which means it takes a long time to form a view – probably a life-time. Breadth of experience across many contexts will probably provide a better basis for this and by that I don’t mean just more classes from particular ages or socio-economic groups but experience outside the scope of schools altogether.
“We engage in debate in order to pursue, and establish, the truth.”
If only it were true. This axiom seems to drive much of your debate.
Much debate enables us to understand the implications of taken the emotional path rather than the rational one. Exclusively logical debate is undertaken by those schooled at the Mr Spock school of argumentation. He was however Vulcan.
For many human beings however the decision that would result in the optimised use of resources (for example) is not necessarily the preferred option. Happiness and the effective domain are just as important if not more important as truth.
I think a “truth” based axiom leads us to a situation where we consider students having fun while learning as not tenable, where any passing of autonomy to the student is irrational and any form of learning where students talk to each other instead of listening to “teacher talk” are considered “wrong” when considering the truth.
A big part of learning is about motivation and motivation is often in the affective domain.
I’m sorry, but what does any of that have to do with anything? I’m not suggesting we ignore emotions, simply that we should not give up on reason as a means of ascertaining the truth just because people are often swayed by emotions.
Even in physics there is no such thing as certainty. A lot comes down to purpose. Your intuition will be geared to what you think is important in the purpose of education. That might well be different for different people. For those pressured into producing league table points from traditional subjects the perspective is going to be different from those that think traditional subjects are rather arbitrary subsets of learning. There are probably as many educational perspectives as there are teachers.
Demonstrating an emotional reaction to logic/evidence I actually have a problem accepting one of the initial statements here.
Specifically “Haidt’s studies found a very even response to all seven”. I see so little evidence of prominent right-wingers having any regard for either compassion or fairness. Am I mistaken? Are disabled people not being stripped of their income? And it’s not the “bringing a traditional canon of knowledge that troubles me in the current debate, it’s the total rubbishing of anything that doesn’t fit with this fashionable orthodoxy that I find upsetting. Attempts to discuss this seem to be met with a blanket assertion that theirs is the only way. This, as much as anything seems to be what is preventing the discussion from moving forward.
I see so little evidence of prominent right-wingers having any regard for either compassion or fairness. Am I mistaken? Are disabled people not being stripped of their income?
I think this is the point Haidt makes.I read the book as a way to explain another person’s viewpoint. If you think the key to improving someone else’s life chances is by making them responsible for themselves you may not have a problem with reducing their income. You may think that giving people support leads to dependence for example. Someone with right wing views could be scratching their head as much at your viewpoint, or that having faith in religion is the best route to success.
I still think evidence is the only game in town. Personal experience is evidence – it’s just not very valid. If the evidence points to no one way being particularly better than any other, so be it. I know that represents problems for making objective judgements, but it doesn’t make it less true.
Firstly David can I thank you for writing about my book Trivium 21c in this blog alongside such eminent names! This is indeed an honour.
Rather than go into a detailed response as I have written extensively about some of the issues you raise here I would like to make the following contributions to the debate:
I like Haidt’s description of us as riders of reason steering elephants of emotion. This means he thinks we do have a certain amount of control over where our elephant goes. I think his work might usefully point us in the direction that arguments in the educational sphere are emotional as well as the result of reason.
Haidt’s work echoes that of the great conservative philosopher David Hume (Hume’s fork is a useful description of the difference between relations of ideas and matters of fact) who suggested that because of ‘the black swan’ theory we have a problem with empiricism. This meant that either we verge on Pyrrhonism where we hold that nothing is true or we learn to deal with things through a ‘mitigated scepticism’, where common sense tempers excessive scepticism. This would also point us towards having a certain mitigated scepticism towards Haidt’s work and I think this would help here. Yes we act intuitively but we also have reason and the sense we make in common.
It is important to mention that Haidt thinks there are three main ‘tribes’ which come together in an American context, the liberal, the conservative and the libertarian. In a European context I would be interested in how Haidt’s theories contend with the patrician Socialists, the Centralised Polit bureaux command and control of Communism as well as social democracy and anarchism of both left leaning and right leaning (libertarian?) varieties.
In my book I have taken a historical view to debates within education and have tried to show that there is a way of bringing them together in schooling. Much as representative democracy doesn’t ‘solve’ the battle it gives a greater truth, that of a liberal state with free speech, the rule of law, the vote and numerous other ways of attempting to deal with differences. For although there are fundamental differences, the fact that we allow these differences to exist side by side in the Houses of Parliament etc rather than purge one side or the other in a one party state is far healthier. This is a very simplistic way of explaining the role of rhetoric in being able to reconcile the battle between grammarians and dialecticians…
Of course it is far more complex than I have made out here…
One of my favourite quotes about the relationship between conservatives and progressives is the following from GK Chesterton:
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”