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.