Choose your paradigm

paradigmPart three of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, discusses Thomas Kuhn and the relativism espoused by many modern educationalists

Parts two and three of my series are looking into why educationalists commonly use “logical positivism” as a “generalized term of abuse”, thereby justifying their widespread hostility to “evidence based practice” and demonstrating a sort of fuzzy relativism based on untestable, private intuition. After discussing what is often seen as the coup de grace for positivism, the work of Thomas Kuhn, I return to the central issue, which is the measurability of our educational objectives, with reference to the question I put at the end of part one to Professor Gert Biesta.

The conclusion most generally drawn from the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written by Thomas Kuhn in 1962, is that the empirical evidence on which the verification principle depends is itself value-laden. Scientists’ confidence in their own objectivity is misplaced because the justifications that they offer for their theories are circular. For example, the Open University’s course Engaging with education research states that:

The assumptions of positivism have been challenged within science as misrepresenting its nature and the way that scientific thinking and knowledge develops (Kuhn, 1970).

Kuhn argued that in practice, scientists depend on a set of interdependent assumptions called a “paradigm”, each paradigm being “incommensurable” with any other because it identifies different problems as being worth solving and accepts different standards of evidence for solving them. Only when a paradigm has become established can a start be made on “normal science”, in which the good scientist becomes whoever “proves himself an expert puzzle-solver” (p.36), as judged by the rules of the enabling paradigm.

It is a short jump to assert that the choice of paradigm is essentially a subjective, value-laden exercise. Such is the assumption made by Gert Biesta, who argues that educationalists should spend less time on “technical research”, trying to identify the “means, strategies and techniques to achieve different ends” (p.44) and more time on “cultural research…providing different interpretations, different ways of understanding and imagining social reality”. Instead of working within it, educationalists should be shifting the paradigm by influencing the subjective values on which it is founded.

This is not what was originally meant by Kuhn, for whom paradigms are always single, not multiple, and become established because “they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” (p.23) and not (as my colour-swatch illustration suggests) primarily because they fit our personal inclinations or values. Even if the selection of problems might may be driven by a sense of subjective value, the ability to solve those problems is based on objective, empirical evidence.

When the community eventually undergoes a “paradigm-shift”, it is because “the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice” (p.6). These anomalies originate in empirical observation, not in the subjective selection of new values. This point is expressed in a thoughtful comment on Amazon:

The sense in which one’s paradigm may influence one’s experience of the world cannot be so strong as to guarantee that one’s experience will always accord with one’s theories, else the need to revise theories would never arise

…adding that…

Kuhn is NOT arguing [for all] that silly socio-psychobabble that all science is colored by personal perspective, and therefore faulty.

Kuhn’s theory of paradigms does not refute the theories of verificationism and falsificationism that lie at the heart of logical positivism: it merely proposes that in practice, the progress of science does not proceed in such a linear, efficient manner as the purist theory might be taken to imply. Scientific assumptions herd together to create a position that is hard to overthrow in a single attack. Scientific progress is not smooth and gradual but lumpy and episodic. The basic mechanism by which paradigms are overthrown nevertheless remains the same as by which individual assertions are refuted: objective evidence, not subjective preference.

Without founding their views about the world in empirical evidence, it is difficult to distinguish the anti-positivist position from relativism, against which there are two powerful arguments, one a priori (i.e. logical) and one a posteriori (i.e. based on experience).

The a priori refutation of relativism is that it is self-contradictory, for reasons given by St Thomas Aquinas:

whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth. (Article 1, objection 3).

The a posteriori refutation is that we very commonly make statements that demonstrate strong predictive reliability, such as “e=mc2” or “the sun will rise tomorrow morning”. If there is no objective truth, then the accuracy of these predictions must be put down to chance. The accumulation of coincidences would be so improbable that you would be better to submit yourself to the Total Perspective Vortex than try to work out the odds that the apparent predictability of the world was just a fluke.

It is certainly true that logical positivism has its flaws. The argument between Popper’s falsificationism and Ayer’s verificationism centred on the fact that synthetic statements cannot be verified with certainty, but only falsified. The fact that an experiment works once does not mean that it will necessarily work the next time, although science assumes that the process of repetition progressively increases the probability of it working next time, to the point at which it can be taken as certain for all practical purposes. This is why one should be very cautious about over-stating the weakness of positive verification, as do educationalists like Professor Biesta when they incorrectly assert that

research can only indicate what has worked, not…what will work. (p.44)

The case against strict positivism is stronger when it questions the position that only synthetic statements had any significant meaning and that statements based on a priori, logical justifications, were therefore not possible. This would mean that the principle of verificationism was itself meaningless.

These sorts of considerations led A J Ayer, who as a young man was the most influential advocate of positivism in the UK, to joke in a later interview that

I suppose the greatest defect [in logical positivism] is that nearly all of it was false

…quickly adding that …

perhaps that’s being too harsh on it…the attitude was right. But if one goes for the details…the verification principle never got itself properly formulated

…and finishing by demanding that we still…

asked for the cash value of statements. I think this is very important…The early positivists went wrong in thinking that we could still maintain the gold standard…there isn’t enough gold and too many notes. But nevertheless, there must be some backing to the currency. If someone makes an assertion…its important to ask, how you would set about testing it, what observations are relevant. This, I think, still holds good.

Such a position explains how a sophisticated positivism is more tightly aligned to Kuhn than might at first appear: certainly, more tightly aligned than the relativism that is asserted today by so many educationalists. It may not be possible to cash in each individual statement for evidential gold but the overall system, the currency, the paradigm, still needs to be founded in empirical evidence. When I suggest to Gert Biesta that his proposal for the purpose of education, that “every pupil should fulfil his or her potential”, was an objective whose attainment it is impossible to ascertain, I am suggesting that he is advocating an educational paradigm founded on sand, a currency which lacks any cash value.

The technical problems that Ayer admits explain why the philosophy of science has moved on from positivism to scientific realism. But this essay is not about philosophy: it is about education, which still clings to positivism as its favourite bogeyman, using it to justify its rejection of what still remain the basic premises of modern science.

It is precisely because values are an important part of education and because those values are expressed in the way that we frame our descriptions of purpose, that the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation into the purpose of education could play such an important part in questioning these assumptions. Maybe it could even help driving forwards what we now need in education theory, which is nothing short of our own paradigm shift—one that would enable us to start taking a more scientific and technological approach to specifying and attaining our educational objectives.

That brings us back to the purpose of education, the subject of the UK House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation, and Professor Biesta’s answer to my question, which I shall discuss in part four of this essay, Professor Biesta and the chicken.

2 thoughts on “Choose your paradigm

  1. Hi Crispin, Have you ever read Rittel & Webber’s 1973 article entitled “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”? According to the two authors, there are two kinds of problems: one the one hand there are engineering problems, which are rather straight forward to solve, and on the other hand there are the problems of social planning, which they also refer to as “wicked problems”. This dichotomy, if you will, brings forth other dichotomies. For example, to solve engineering problems, one needs to be intelligent and clever; to “re-solve” (over and over again) problems of social planning, one has to rely on wisdom. Technically speaking, engineering problems can be solved by a single person, whereas problems of social planning require, among many other things, intense negotiations and arguments with stakeholders. And so on.

    Donald Schön (1995) describes the problem in the following way: “In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solutions through the use of research­ based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe”.

    Now, education is clearly a problem of social planning, but it is constantly being treated as an engineering problem that needs the right scientifically-proven, technical approach. Not only that, but children, young adults, and even adults in continuing education are viewed as engineering problems. In your words, Crispin (in your article “Should education socialize?”): how will they be socialized? Can you see that with such concepts you are subscribing to the machine model of human intelligence, which basically claims that the right input, delivered in the right way, will give you the right output? You have chosen your paradigm for understanding how humans work. But judging by the subtle barbs in your articles, you know (perhaps subconsciously) that there is something wrong with the way you have been “socialized”; you just can’t see beyond the event horizon because your socialization is holding you back.

    What’s funny is that you are almost surprised (or let’s say disappointed) that the Commons Education Select Committee didn’t really manage to come up with anything. You wrote in your first installment, “As is the way with all conferences, people have their say, drink their coffee, head for the door, and leave a pile of unsorted opinions and unresolved disagreements all over the carpet.” Conferences are a typical academic exercise that do not demand an outcome, where it is perfectly acceptable to leave stuff all over the carpet. University seminars and lectures have exactly the same characteristic! So it’s funny because the committee comprises highly educated citizens who find themselves in a visioning process, who find themselves discussing sense and purpose, when that is something they have never, ever had to consider as academics. Donald Schön (1995) has noted that academics don’t typically muck around in the “swampy lowlands”. (Also check out: Glanzer, Perry L. / Hill, Jonathan P. 2013. Why most American universities have given up on human purpose and meaning: a critical exploration of the historical story. Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education, 34: 3, 289–299.)

    I once tried to formulate a vision for education to the Faculty of Education at my university (only as the basis for further discussion), but the flak cannons came out pretty quickly: “We all saw what happened when people started formulating visions in the years leading up to WWII!” A colleague of mine, sweet as she is, said, “But we all have our own way of doing things, so it doesn’t make any sense to have a vision!” Once, in one university seminar I felt we were talking around in circles, with everyone throwing their 2 cents onto the carpet for the participation aspect of their final grade. To help move things forward, I suggested to all my classmates that we first formulate an educational vision, against which we could check the value of any ideas or concepts brought forward, just so that things wouldn’t be so arbitrary. I was immediately accused by an outspoken classmate of trying to start an evil sect with my visioning exercise.

    Now, Crispin, before you go any further, there is one thing you should be aware of: there is absolutely nothing visionary about being socialized (I read your article “Should education socialize”). That was some really dry, solemn stuff you were doing in London. Peter Senge has already done a lot of groundwork on why a vision needs to inspire. Can you maybe start with your inspiring vision for education? Don’t start with the purpose, because the purpose is subsidiary to the vision. Give us your (very rough, first-draft) vision so we can check your thinking against it!

    My (very rough, first-draft) vision for a brave, new world of education would be: And institution where students, in collaboration with other stakeholders, are encouraged to recognize and embrace wicked problems, and use them as a springboard for changing the world around them with the help of empowering research.

    So, Crispin, I’ll be looking forward to your REAL paradigm shift (not a pseudo-shift) as you try to escape from the black hole of academe and develop a more human approach to great education!

    • Hi Flattened,

      Thanks very much for your interesting (and entertaining) comment.

      No, I had not read Rittel & Webber, but have now.

      To my mind, they seem to conflate the perception of a problem (which is very often inchoate and without clear purpose) with clearly defined objectives. They presume that diagnosing the problem, clarifying the objective and proposing the solution should be one, continuous process managed by the expertise (or maybe the wisdom) of a single person. They attack the assumption that:

      “we could rely upon the efficiency expert to diagnose a problem and then solve it”.

      This is tilting at windmills. Of course the diagnosis of a problem and the articulation of definite objectives in a political arena is not a matter in which one can be efficient. It is only when looking at the *means* by which one seeks to attain those objectives that one can talk of efficiency.

      So I agree with Rittel & Webber that “Wicked problems…include …the modification of school curricula” (i.e. what we should teach). That does not mean that wicked problems include the methodology by which we should teach that curriculum, once it has been determined.

      Indeed, when you look through Rittel & Webber’s distinction between “wicked” and “tame” problems, it seems to me quite clear that the problems of pedagogy (which I define in the tradition of Herbart and Bain as the science or technology of education, the means by which it is provided) are “tame” and not “wicked”. It may be difficult to decide *what* to teach but once decided, it is a relatively straightforward matter to discover the means of providing that service. There is no reason why an educational objective should not have a “definitive formulation”, a “stopping rule”, why it should not have a pretty good (maybe not “ultimate”) “test of a solution”; it does mean that the attainment of educational objectives “generate waves of consequences” of uncertain ethical value; nor is every solution “a one-shot operation” but is on the contrary, endlessly repeated as hundreds of thousands of individual students are taught the same curriculum.

      In forthcoming parts of my essay, I shall make a clear separation between the definition of objectives (which is a messy, subjective & political process) and the determination of how those objectives should be attained (which is a predominantly technical, engineering problem). I shall explain that the only way that we will ever address the most important problem in education in the developed world, which is the problem of scale, is precisely by taming the wicked problems so that they become subject to technical and procedural solutions. I suspect that you and Professor Biesta and Rittel & Webber will all say that means and ends cannot be separated in this way. I disagree – but that is an argument that will have to wait for a future post in the series.

      You say that “problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern”. When the issue is seen, not as a matter of addressing different *sorts* of problem, but in terms of different *stages* of the process: 1. defining the problem and 2. seeking to attain the well-defined objective, which then do you think is of greatest concern in education? Is it the case that we all have such different ideas of what education should be about, or that we are faced with chronic problems in delivering at scale what we all agree to be pretty similar (if relatively poorly defined) aims of education? I put my money on number 2.

      You object to this division between ends and means on the grounds that separating out the means of education supposes “a machine model of human intelligence, which basically claims that the right input, delivered in the right way, will give you the right output”. No, it does not assume machine-like deterministic certainty, but only “given certain sorts of precondition, what are *likely* to be the most effective sorts of action in order to attain a certain sort of objective” (see my part two, The elephant in the room” at

      Another fallacy is to assume that educational objectives are singular, as is implied by talking about “the problem” of defining the curriculum. The messiness of this process is represented to some extent in the multiplicity of objectives – you can study mathematics *and* dance and these objectives can be set by different people (central government or local provider) and by different means (regulation or a market).

      This affects your argument about vision, which also tends to be singular and intolerant of other people’s visions. My argument is wrong, you say, probably because “there is something wrong with the way you (I) have been ‘socialized’”. Maybe it is because I don’t fit in with your vision – and you say these things only half in jest. These are not assumptions that are appropriate to a pluralist society or to evidence-based technical processes.

      I have some sympathy with your colleagues who are somewhat horrified by your focus on “vision” – but not mainly on the basis of intolerance and zeal of vision-led systems, but its inefficiency. To pick up your oblique reference to the Nazis, and ignoring the wickedness of that regime, it is also germane to point out that it was enormously inefficient. Hitler felt, on account of his “vision” that he was entitled to intervene constantly in the military decisions of his expert generals; the injunction to ideological purity instigated a cycle of ever-increasing extremism, which ends up by tipping over the abyss in any political system; and finally, the lack of any control over process leads to endless factional disputes and turf wars between different branches of the administration. Are you really suggesting that we need more rhetoric, more spin, more online gurus? As I disagree, so I will decline your invitation to make such a contribution myself or to fit my purposes in with anyone’s over-arching vision, except in respect of a vision that describes a pluralist, technically competent society.

      This does not mean that I don’t recognise the importance of charisma and vision in leadership positions, whether of a classroom teacher or at the top of an organisation. But that is ultimately part of the technology of delivery, and so this sort of leadership vision must be subordinate to and aligned with the purposes of the organisation, emphatically not the other way around.

      And I also recognise the importance of a variety of qualities for those involved in curriculum planning, including imagination, empathy and perception. But this is a process that I shall address in a future post. But at the moment, I am writing in the role of a philosopher and technician, and in those roles what is required is precision, not rhetoric.

      Nor was I attempting to be original or visionary in talking about the need for socialization in education – I was just pointing out that the need for socialization was incompatible with the theory of child-centred education that proposed that education is or ought to be driven by some sort of internal developmental roadmap.

      If you want to compare the importance of vision as opposed to systematic process, I would recommend Atul Gawande’s excellent 2014 BBC Reith lectures – in particular episode 2, the Century of the System. Among other excellent points, he emphasizes the error of trusting too much to the wisdom of human workers.

      I shall also address the argument about “wisdom”, which has been made by many in the educational world with reference to Aristotle’s account of phronesis.

      Finally, while we are both agreed that conferences do not tend to produce tidy outcomes, that is exactly what reports do aspire to do. Now that the UK Education Select Committee has held its conference, it is to its report that we must look. Now is therefore the time that the untidy evidence produced by the conference needs to be processed, organised and developed to produce the Committee’s final report.

      As I say, there is some way for my own essay to develop, so I look forward to our further exchanges! I published the next episode at yesterday.

      Thanks again. I enjoyed reading Rittel & Webber and responding to your comment.


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